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The Sound of Silence: When Children Are Born Deaf

When a child is born deaf, it can trigger a whirlwind of worry and options for parents. Two local families share their stories on finding the right solutions for their kids.

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Rolan Sundberg of Southfield was only a few days old and already facing an important test – one that would shape his life. The infant was undergoing a newborn hearing test, something that would reveal if he had a hearing impairment.

It's a test that the Michigan Department of Community Health made mandatory in 1997 and is now administered by all state birthing hospitals and centers. The goal is to identify infants who are deaf or hard of hearing as soon as possible, so parents can pursue early intervention for their child and prevent potential speech and language delays.

The importance of this was something that Rolan's mother, Teresa, knew all too well.

She was born with conductive hearing loss in her right ear. She wears a hearing aid when the situation calls for it. She is also an educator for the deaf and hard of hearing, having taught deaf children early in her career. In recent years, she has been working as a teacher consultant in Macomb County. In this role, she works with deaf and hard-of-hearing children, their families and their teachers to assist that child in fulfilling his or her full potential in the classroom.

And so she was well prepared and informed when Rolan didn't pass his hearing test and when the follow-up test with an audiologist confirmed that Rolan, now 7, was born profoundly deaf.

"I'm so glad he was born to me," she says.

Getting a diagnosis and help

According to the Center for Hearing Loss Help, there are four categories of deafness: mild, moderate, severe and profound. It is defined according to the quietest sound, measured in decibels, that an individual can hear. For a profoundly deaf person, the quietest sound he or she can hear would have to be 90 or more decibels.

"That means for Rolan, he wouldn't be able to hear a motorcycle revving its engine right next to him," Sundberg explains. "He would be able to feel it, but he wouldn't be able to hear it."

Sundberg recalls bumping into her mentor soon after learning about Rolan's deafness and taking away some helpful perspective.

"When we ran into each other, the news was still so raw, and I remember talking about options for Rolan with her," she says. "My mentor reminded me that no matter what, I was his mom first. When I would be advocating for him, I needed to do that as his mom, not solely as someone with professional experience in the field."

Within a week after Rolan was born, Sundberg also received a call from a woman with her own deaf child. She was reaching out on behalf of Michigan's Guide By Your Side Program, which pairs families just learning of their child's hearing loss with another family who has a deaf or hard-of-hearing child and who can thus relate to the questions, concerns and options before the family.

Since then, Sundberg has also found support and assistance in the Michigan Chapter of the Alexander Graham (A.G.) Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, of which she currently serves as president. The association was started by Bell himself in 1890 and takes the stance that children with hearing loss can develop the ability to listen and speak if their education begins early and they can make maximum use of their residual hearing. To that end, the association supports the use of listening and spoken language devices.

When Rolan was just 3 weeks old, he was outfitted with hearing aids. By the time he was 13 months, he received a cochlear implant, an electronic device surgically implanted in the ear. According to A Guide to Resources for Family and Providers, published by the Michigan Department of Community Health's Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Program, the implant transmits auditory information directly to the brain, bypassing damaged or absent auditory nerves.

Sundberg still vividly recalls the day her son's implant was activated.

"When the audiologist first turned the implant on and Rolan could hear some initial beeps, he looked up to see where the sound was coming from," she says. "Then the audiologist turned it on, so that he could hear our voices. He looked up at us like 'Wow!' Later he sprinted down the hall, and I called his name. He stopped and turned around. He heard me, and it was incredible."

A different approach

Sundberg's experience is very different from that of Christina Harucki of Royal Oak who was born deaf, married a fourth-generation deaf man and has a hearing son, Lucas, 4, and a daughter, Chloe, 20 months, who is deaf. Harucki is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), as is her husband and both of her children.

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Mar 25, 2014 05:47 pm
 Posted by  anniekaras

I want to emphasize that those parents of the Deaf girl are career oriented. I believe the mother is also an educator for over 10 years, and the father works for AT&T for over 13 years. They do not allow communication barriers stop them from succeeding in their careers.

Mar 25, 2014 05:49 pm
 Posted by  anniekaras

The fact that insurance does not cover the cost of hearing aids is one of many reasons why new parents lean towards cochlear implants that are often covered by insurance. This must be challenged as parents should have a choice of choosing the best device for the Deaf child, not being forced to choose the one that is covered by insurance.

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