Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cochlear implants changing deaf education

The intro to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the picture, Sarah Gross claps out syllables in words while working with Cara Iuliano, a speech and language pathologist at the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech.

The children are busy making a paper circus train, describing their favorite animals as they go. One boy announces he likes elephants; a classmate prefers snow leopards, explaining that they are "white as snow."

It could be a preschool class anywhere, except that the group is unusually small, with just five children, and all are wearing sophisticated electronic devices in their ears.

These children, and others at the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech in Bryn Mawr, are all deaf or hard of hearing. Yet instead of using American Sign Language, all have learned to speak, in most cases aided by devices called cochlear implants. All are headed to mainstream kindergarten.

"Listening and speaking are sensory partners of reading and writing," said Judith S. Sexton, director of the school, which also has a Philadelphia campus.

Researchers are still examining how well that theory holds up in the long term, as the first generation of children with cochlear implants enters adulthood. Some do well with the devices, which require surgery and extensive follow-up therapy, while others struggle to adapt.

What's clear is that the implants, two decades after they were first approved for children, have had a big effect on educating the deaf. The devices do not provide normal hearing, but they deliver electrical signals directly to the auditory nerve, enabling the deaf to perceive sound.

With the advent of newborn screening for hearing loss, deaf children are getting the surgery earlier than ever - in some cases even before the federally approved benchmark of 12 months - and evidence suggests they learn to speak better as a result. Meanwhile, with more deaf children in regular public schools, enrollments have declined at traditional schools for the deaf. That has raised concerns for some in the deaf community, a proud group that boasts a rich culture and does not necessarily see hearing loss as a disability needing to be fixed.

There are approaches between the extremes. At the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown, 30 of the 220 students have implants, and all are taught bilingually, with some classes in English and some in American Sign Language. New Jersey's Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Ewing uses a technique called "total communication," involving the simultaneous use of speech and signs.