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

Nan Thompson, the therapist from the Center for Hearing and Speech, told Julie to talk, talk, talk to Ashley, and Julie did. The oral method demands that a parent -- almost always, the mother -- work nearly full-time to immerse the child in spoken language. Julie borrowed an FM unit from the Center; she'd speak into a microphone, which broadcast to a receiver that Ashley carried. They went on "listening walks," in which Julie tried to make Ashley recognize the very concept of sound: the low rumble of a nearby jet, the sharp bark of a dog, even the roar of the lawnmower as Julie mowed the grass. Sometimes Ashley seemed to hear them.

Twice a week, Julie and Ashley visited Nan; often, Blake came along and watched as Nan played games with Ashley, rewarding her with praise and candy. Ashley sparkled under Nan's attention -- so much so that Blake sometimes felt left out, even jealous.

Bryce was born in June 1995. Julie and Greg had his hearing tested, and were nervous when preliminary tests indicated he too might have a loss. But an ABR -- the same sleeping test that had shown Ashley to be deaf -- showed that Bryce's hearing was fine. Julie and Greg were immensely relieved.

Carol Rouly continued to visit, and one day, she left a card showing a few words in Signed English: "mom," "dad" and "brother."

The signs tantalized Julie. As Ashley approached her second birthday, she clearly wanted to communicate. She couldn't specify something as simple as what she felt like eating; Julie would carry her from cabinet to cabinet, waiting for her to point to something on a shelf. At other times, Ashley would babble, apparently trying to make herself understood. After that failed, she grew angry and threw herself on the floor, tossing her head, screaming and crying. When Julie picked her up, she'd go limp.

Julie told Carol that Ashley knew the household rules and violated them anyway, but Carol didn't accept that explanation. How, she asked Julie, could Ashley know that another child was allowed to play with her toy if she put it down? Had anyone ever told her in a way that she could understand? Ashley needed language so that she could understand discipline.

Besides, Carol argued, Ashley needed language -- her developing brain was hungry for input, and children deprived of any kind of language, during critical periods of development, risked being retarded. Teach her sign now, Carol urged, then let her learn English as a second language.

Finally, in October '95, Julie told Greg that Ashley needed to learn a few signs; they'd still try the oral method, but at the same time, she could try a different strategy. Ashley took to signing quickly, and soon used the signs for Mom, Dad, eat, drink and cookie. She learned to sign her own name by putting her fist to her cheek -- the letter A, for Ashley. Bryce's name she signed by making the letter B against her cheek; Blake's was also a letter B, only this time higher, against her temple.

Almost immediately, Ashley seemed happier -- even more affectionate and readier to cuddle. She soon picked up abstract concepts, like "where" -- one that many non-signing deaf kids don't learn until they're six or seven. Ashley could sign, "Where is Daddy?" and Julie could reply "work" or "sleeping"-- a level of communication she couldn't imagine using only pictures and pointing.

Julie told herself that signing was only temporary, a stopgap measure to help Ashley until the oral method caught fire. Julie liked being able to explain things to Ashley; but when Ashley began to string signs together, six or seven in a sentence, Julie began to worry that perhaps Ashley was learning sign too well.

Ashley, Julie promised herself, would someday speak. But in the meantime, Carol's signs had earned an important place in Ashley's life.

Greg, a beefy, all-guy kind of guy, manages electronics stores for a large chain. In general, his assignments last about two years. In eight years, he's been posted around Texas and the Midwest, and Julie has grown very practiced at packing and unpacking.

For years, Greg's bosses had tried to send him to Houston, but he'd resisted: He and Julie preferred small towns, quiet little places near woods for hunting and water for fishing. On Greg's days off, they liked to go camping, or biking, or boating. Houston is big, and expensive, and hardly an outdoorsman's dream. At first, the only thing in the city's favor was that both of Greg's parents, and their new spouses, lived in Houston; but the Center for Hearing and Speech began to weigh heavily in the Younts' calculations.

In June of last year, the chain once again asked Greg to transfer -- this time, to a store in the Galleria area. He accepted.

Julie had mixed feelings about the move. She loved their house in Beaumont, and when she'd lived in Houston before, she hadn't liked the city. Too, she'd finally grown convinced that Ashley should learn some sign, if only until she mastered spoken English. And Houston, she found, didn't have any ready equivalent to Carol and the Co-op.

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