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

Dana's literacy is notable, since many of the Deaf never conquer written English. ASL has no written form, and to most signers, English is a foreign language, with a difficult grammar, bizarre idioms and incomprehensible spelling. (One study found that 70 percent of incoming Gallaudet students were unable to comprehend a college-level textbook.)

Obviously, English literacy is a boon to a Deaf person who wants to work in the larger world. Because he can read and write, Dana can follow captioned TV programs, and is able to place and receive phone calls using a TTY -- basically, a computer keyboard, screen and modem. To place a call to Dana, a hearing person dials an 800 number for a relay operator, who in turn calls Dana's number. The operator types in the caller's words, which appear on Dana's screen. Then as he types, she reads aloud his response.

Dana's English has the deep strangeness of a foreigner's. For instance, to the question, "How has being deaf affected your life?" he replied, "Is really happy. We have my future wife -- fiancee -- she is deaf. That is why we're excited. Wedding -- Jan. 18, 1997 -- had helpful. Prefer easy communication."

Everyone prefers easy communication, especially with the people closest to them. If Dana someday has children, hearing or deaf, he plans to teach them to sign; he wants them to be comfortable among the Deaf. Just as naturally, Greg wants Ashley to speak -- and to live comfortably in his world.

From a friend, Julie heard of Woodhaven Baptist, a mission church established by First Baptist to minister to the deaf and their families. Woodhaven, with its 350 members, is the only deaf church in Houston. It's an unabashed bastion of Deaf culture, a place where ASL reigns. Services are conducted in sign; a voice interpreter translates for the hearing.

Julie thought it would be a good place for Ashley to learn sign. A few months after moving to Houston, Julie trundled Greg and the kids to a Sunday morning service. Julie knew more sign language than Greg -- for nearly a year, she'd tried to master five new signs a day -- but she was still a long way from fluency. When she dropped the kids off at the church nursery, the woman in charge shook her head no when Julie tried to speak to her. Instead, Julie communicated, uncomfortably, in sign.

Later, a church acquaintance told Julie that the woman in the nursery could understand speech; she just didn't want to use it. Julie felt rejected. For once, the tables were turned: The Deaf, who so often felt like unwelcome outsiders in the hearing world, made the hearing feel unwelcome in the Deaf world.

The Younts never went back to Woodhaven.

Around Ashley's third birthday, audiologists were finally able to test her hearing more precisely. The results weren't good. Her hearing loss was profound, meaning that even with high-powered hearing aids, she'd barely notice a jet engine blasting at close range. The sounds of normal speech were out of the question. The times when Julie and Greg thought Ashley had heard were flukes, or perhaps showed Ashley's acute awareness of vibrations and shadows.

Gayle Stout told Julie that, pending a few more tests, Ashley might be a good candidate for a cochlear implant. The tests confirmed Gayle: In late August, a CAT scan showed that Ashley's cochlea could support an implant. And in September, a developmental evaluation showed that Ashley was bright, lacking only language skills -- in other words, capable of making use of an implant. (Ashley also demonstrated a full complement of three-year-old stubbornness: Some of the scores, the report noted, were probably too low, since she simply refused to do some of the things she was asked.)

Julie scheduled a conference with Ashley's otologist, Dr. Daniel Franklin, so he could explain the implant's pros and cons to the adults in Ashley's family: Julie and Greg, plus both sets of Ashley's Houston grandparents. Besides the family, there was also a delegation from the Center, including Nan and Gayle, plus Rose Chmiel-Hardcastle, an audiologist at Methodist who works with cochlear-implant patients.

"Are you excited?" Julie asked Jerry Yount, Greg's dad, in the waiting room. "I'm excited."

The doctor's conference room barely held everyone; a nurse had to scrounge for extra chairs. When Franklin entered, he exuded medical authority at odds with his boyishness: He wore a white jacket over his scrubs, and had a surgeon's lamp draped over his neck. He seemed amused by the show of support. "Ashley draws a crowd," he joked.

Franklin explained how the implant works. In a hearing person, the cochlea, a snail-shaped organ, translates sound waves into the electrical signals that travel to the brain. The cochlear implant simulates the process. The user wears a microphone that hooks over the implanted ear, and looks something like a conventional hearing aid. The mike sends sound information to a computer "brain," about the size of a Walkman, that the wearer can carry in a backpack, or hooked to a belt, or even stuffed in her bra. The "brain" digitizes the sound and processes it according to the wearer's particular preferences. That information then travels to a "transmitting coil" -- a round piece that attaches magnetically to the implant inside the wearer's skull. The coil beams an FM signal to the receiver inside; and the receiver sends the information through a flexible tube containing 22 electrodes, each of which stimulates different nerve fibers in the cochlea.

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