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

But at the Center's support-group meeting, at the end of June, Julie betrayed none of those qualms. In a sleeveless blouse, and with her hair in a ponytail, she looked like a camp counselor, and sounded every bit as exuberant.

"Have you heard?" she asked the group as a whole. "We're moving!" Gayle Stout -- the Center's educational audiology coordinator, and the leader of the support group -- led a round of applause. Now, when Ashley turned three, she could join the Center's daycare; and now, Gayle told Julie, if Ashley turned out to be a good candidate for a cochlear implant, she'd have the right kind of educational system to support her.

Gayle is an elegant, middle-aged woman, a careful dresser with artful silver streaks in her dark hair. She radiates empathy and enthusiasm -- qualities useful in her job.

A trained audiologist, Gayle started volunteering at the Center in 1975; a year later, she went on staff. Somewhat to her surprise, not only has the Center given her a career, she's found herself at the forefront of her tiny field. Along with the Center's Jill Windle, a speech pathologist, Gayle developed a program called the Developmental Approach to Successful Listening -- DASL, pronounced "dazzle." Its improvement over other oral-education programs was to break the steps of learning to hear and speak into extremely small components; the program describes a journey of a thousand small but well-defined steps.

DASL teaches a child to deploy whatever residual hearing he has. "Every little bit of hearing helps" is Gayle's mantra; over a matter of years, her program aims to teach children not just the vowels and consonants of speech, but also the differences in pitch and volume that hearing people take for granted.

Sometimes, though, there were failures: children who, for whatever reason, stopped progressing. The Center videotapes its children at various stages in their learning. Gayle, who glows when one of her successes appears on the TV screen, grows sad at a tape from the '80s showing Garuv -- a bright, profoundly deaf boy, with a deeply committed mother. He learned to notice sounds, and then to distinguish among sounds, and to put the sounds together into words and phrases. He could even match phrases in verbal multiple-choice tests. But he stalled at the very last phase of the program: He was never able to understand phrases that he didn't know were coming. In the end, Gayle was forced to recommend that his mother transfer him to a signing program.

Now, Gayle says, cheering a little, a Garuv would be an excellent candidate for a cochlear implant -- a device that has changed her life, and the Center's chance of success. In 1985, Gayle received a call from her husband's partner, Dr. Edward Maddox III. He was one of the doctors who planned to test the single-channel cochlear implant, but as he told Gayle, he knew nothing about teaching the deaf. After watching the Center, he realized how important it was that kids be trained to use their new hearing. He began to refer his new patients to the Center.

Twelve years later, the Cochlear Corporation -- the company that makes the Nucleus-22, the only implant the FDA has approved for children -- is publishing Gayle and Jill Windle's book on DASL. Gayle has literally written the book on educating children with cochlear implants.

"My feeling is that children should have implants, and should have them at an early age," Gayle says without a shred of doubt. She believes that if a good candidate for an implant receives one early enough, the odds that he or she will learn to talk are quite high: 80 or 90 percent. "Of course," says Gayle, "I'm an optimist."

When Ashley showed no progress with her hearing aid, Gayle believed she might be a good candidate. There were lots of ifs: If a CAT scan showed that her cochlea -- the snail-shaped organ that translates sound waves into nerve impulses -- was in good shape. If Ashley's hearing loss was almost complete, because the implant would destroy any natural hearing she had left in that ear. If Julie and Greg were willing to commit themselves to an oral program, and give up signing.

The next step would be to test Ashley. Julie scheduled appointment after appointment -- only to have the tests canceled because of Ashley's repeated ear infections. For months, she and Greg waited, wondering whether the most extreme option to bring Ashley into the hearing world was even possible for them.

At the Houston store, for the first time, Greg found himself supervising a deaf employee: Dana Mallory, a signer. Dana is a service technician; he cleans VCRs, unjams CD players and tests other devices.

Communication between the deaf and the hearing can be frustrating, even when both parties have the best of intentions. For staff meetings, Greg hires a sign-language interpreter; it's a measure required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. More difficult are Dana's interactions with customers: His job requires him to teach people to use the electronic gizmos the store sells -- a difficult task even when both parties can speak and hear perfectly. Usually, Dana has customers write their questions, and he responds, likewise, in writing. Some customers are impressed by the store's commitment to hiring the deaf; others are irritated, even frightened, and ask for a hearing person to help them.

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