We brought our boys home from Russia when they were 15 months old. When they were 22 months old, Mark was diagnosed with severe to profound hearing loss. He was fitted with hearing aids a month later. Mark is now a teenager. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed. We had so many questions; will Mark learn to speak? Will he use sign language? How will he hear the phone? How will we teach him to read? We had so many questions; And, so few answers.
After he was diagnosed, we started early intervention with bi-weekly speech lessons. Each week we went to speech and we had little progress. Because we believe that language is vital for toddlers, we began to inquire about sign language. No one could recommend a class or teacher for us. This process continued for about six months with no success and we all became more and more frustrated, especially Mark. No one was able to help us.
One day, at a local grocery store, a woman asked me about the cord holding Mark’s hearing aids on. We began to talk and she informed me her son (who was not hearing impaired) used sign language to communicate because he had no spoken language. I asked her how/where/who she used to learn sign language. She gave me a name, Karen, and told me she was a “deaf mentor” and she said we should ask if we could get Karen’s services through early intervention. We called our early intervention coordinator the next day.
Karen came to our house within days. As it turns out, she is deaf. Her husband is deaf. Her children are deaf. Finally, someone who could help us. Someone who was able to teach us how to teach our child to be a successful person in a hearing world. She came weekly to our home. She came at all different times and began to teach us sign language. Her philosophy is to get language (any type-spoken or signed) into a child as soon as possible. Without language, children fall behind in every aspect of life.
She came when the boys ate lunch. She signed hot dogs, more, milk, cookie, green bean. Simple words that helped language make sense to Mark. She came before nap time and read books with us. She taught us the words to “Brown Bear Brown Bear” and “Polar Bear Polar Bear” and other board book favorites. She would come after naps and play music and sign the words to songs and play instruments and help Mark make the vital connections between things and language.
But, she did more than give Mark language. She helped our entire family. She told us about door bells that light up when the bell rings so people who are deaf/hard of hearing know someone is at the door. She told us about alarm clocks that shake instead of buzz. She taught our family what it is like to live without being able to hear. Honestly, we had never thought of any of this, after all, we can hear. It is amazing the things we take for granted.
In the year that followed, the biggest question our family faced was what type of communication we were going to use. We were not sure if we were going to use sign language, pursue an oral education, or try to find a total communication school. This decision is hard and it caused emotional grief for our family. As usual, Karen was there for us when we were questioning what to do for Mark. The best advice anyone has given me came from her. She said, “Remember, nothing is permanent. Make a choice, do it for six months and if it doesn’t work, change strategies and try something different.” We still live by that advice.
We had never heard of a deaf mentor before we met Karen and now we tell everyone we meet who has a deaf or hard of hearing child. Karen clued us in on what deaf and hard of hearing people face on a daily basis. Karen believes nothing is impossible for deaf and hard of hearing people and she helped our family realize that too.