Ashley Yount Can't Hear You

When their daughter was ten months old, Julie and Greg Yount learned that she was profoundly deaf -- a diagnosis that forced them to confront profound questions of culture and identity

Sometimes, Carol told Julie about Tracy. She'd been a baby when her deafness was diagnosed, and the family had been stationed at an Air Force base in Germany. They moved back to Texas, where Carol enrolled Tracy in an oral program. Slowly, Tracy began to lose ground. She stopped pointing to objects that she wanted, and was left with no way to communicate with her mother except the sounds she'd learned in school: b-b-b and p-p-p, the explosive consonants deaf kids can feel most easily on their lips. Nor did she pick up lip reading, a skill that Deaf advocates say is as rare as musical talent.

Frustrated, Tracy threw tantrums. One day, as she lay on the floor screaming, Carol lost her patience. She was about to kick the child, she says, but luckily, her husband came home.

Something had to be done. Carol transferred three-year-old Tracy to a new school, one that taught Total Communication -- a kind of signing/speaking hybrid in which the teacher signs as she speaks. Tracy learned Signed English, a sign language that uses English grammar, and whose signs correspond directly to English words. Words for which no sign exists are finger-spelled, using signs for English letters. The Deaf community overwhelmingly prefers ASL, which is faster, more versatile and easier for deaf children to learn. But Signed English is much easier for hearing people, like the Roulys, to learn; proponents also say it makes it easier for deaf children to learn to read and write English.

Carol resisted signing, but her husband learned, and Tracy responded beautifully. When Tracy was five, her father was sent to Korea. Carol still refused to sign, and forced Tracy to communicate by speaking and lip-reading. One day, after Carol couldn't understand yet another of Tracy's verbal requests, the girl lost her temper. This time, Carol understood what Tracy said: "You're stupid. Daddy signs. You don't sign."

Carol was stung, and she began to change. By the time Tracy was ten, Carol had embraced signing completely. At Lamar, she racked up hundreds of class hours, studying sign language and Deaf culture; eventually, she'd work as a classroom translator.

After high school, Tracy enrolled in Gallaudet University, the nation's premier school for the Deaf and the undisputed center of Deaf culture. Tracy loved the school, and graduated with a B.A.; back home at Lamar, she earned a master's in Deaf Ed. While there, she fought to become Lamar's first deaf cheerleader; since eighth grade, the small, perky blond had won spots on squads at other schools. Cheerleading, she told her mom, was her way of being normal: "When I'm up in the air doing a flip, I don't need communication."

Tracy planned to teach ASL (she now disdained Signed English) and to marry her fiance, a young deaf man from Houston. Carol worried, because although Tracy's boyfriend signs in ASL, he had been raised to speak and read lips, and his family didn't know how to sign. When Tracy met his parents, he translated for her -- and only then, because he kept having to ask people to repeat themselves, did his family realize how many words he missed as a lip reader. Carol worried about Tracy, about her potentially lonely Thanksgivings and Christmases, about the language gap that separated her boyfriend from his own parents.

In Julie, Carol saw a chance to convert a hearing parent to sign from the very start -- and to avoid the mistakes that she, and other hearing parents, had made.

In October, Julie found out the cause of Ashley's deafness. While pregnant, Julie had worked as a dental hygienist. During her second trimester, she'd had severe vomiting, nausea and dizziness -- all of which she wrote off to morning sickness. It wasn't: it was cytomegalovirus, or CMV. The disease is carried through blood and saliva -- bodily fluids a hygienist sometimes can't avoid, even with gloves. In adults the virus causes nothing worse than flulike symptoms. But in a developing fetus, it can wreak havoc, causing neurological and developmental problems, and even blindness.

Also in October, Julie found out that she was pregnant again. She hadn't planned to be, and she panicked: What if something were wrong with this child? She worried: CMV can reactivate, and what if lightning struck twice? What if this child, too, were deaf? Or worse?

When the family had moved to Beaumont, she'd asked their new church to pray for them; she asked again when Ashley's deafness was diagnosed. And now, here she was for the third time in two months, asking for more support in their prayers.

At least Ashley seemed to respond to her hearing aids. Once, while Julie was cooking in the kitchen, she dropped a pot -- and Greg saw Ashley look around for the source of the clang. Another time, while Ashley was playing in her bedroom, Julie called her name from outdoors. Ashley instantly scanned the room and looked at her mom through the window. "Ashley heard," Julie wrote in her notebook. "Ashley heard."

Ashley was beginning to show a definite personality: spunky, willful and stubborn. Blake, Julie and Greg's first child, had been a cuddly baby; Ashley wasn't. Julie liked Ashley's stubborn streak; she figured Ashley would need every ounce of it.

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