Posts Tagged ‘parenting a deaf child’

Valli Gideons: My Battle Call

November 7, 2018

Raising kids is hard. Add a diagnosis of hearing loss and you might find yourself thinking parenting is not for the faint of heart.

My children were born with needs categorized as “special.” They look like typical kids (with the exception of their devices) but they don’t hear like those with natural hearing.

Understanding and information are key.

Some things I recommend people avoid saying to a parent:

• My child also uses selective hearing.

Most people want to make you feel normal, only a hearing child’s experience is not the same as one who is deaf.  Sure, all kids use selective hearing from time-to-time, but kids with hearing loss experience sound much different.

According to an article written in Central Institute for the Deaf by Karen Anderson, PhD., when researchers examined fatigue in children with hearing loss they found that children reported a greater level of fatigue than those with typical hearing.

She goes on to say kids with hearing loss also exert more effort during listening tasks than their typically-hearing peers. Any degree of hearing loss, with or without amplification, requires a greater effort.

• I could never do what you do.

There are days I feel like I can’t do it or don’t want to do it. Only, that’s not an option. Throughout the years I have had moments I wished things were different. But, then I remember—this is us. And I wouldn’t change it.

• They use their hearing as an excuse.

Research shows fatigue experienced by children with hearing loss is substantial, even when compared to children with other chronic health conditions.

But, because hearing loss is invisible, the effects of fragmented hearing, listening comprehension, and fatigue are often ignored.

There are times my kids have bad behavior. This makes them typical. However; without proper listening breaks, they have a hard time regulating. Knowing the difference is the key.

• God gave you this because HE knew you could handle it.

I don’t think God gave this to me. I am sure He designed my kids perfectly imperfect.

• My (insert name) wears hearing aids.

Grandpa becoming hard-of-hearing late in life and getting hearing aids is NOT the same as being born deaf.  A grown person who takes off his hearing aids to tune out Grandma (perhaps humorous to some), in our world isn’t funny. And, it’s not the same.

Losing your hearing, at any age, can be isolating and difficult, and isn’t a joke.

• Your kids have progressed because they have matured.

This minimizes the countless hours of therapy and tough grind they have been through. To say they are thriving simply because they are older discounts all their hard work and oversimplifies something otherwise complex.

We don’t have it harder than most families. I’ve learned every person has something to overcome, whether invisible or not. And, in the end, we want our kids to be happy, kind, and a little uniquely special. Ultimately, what this mother of kids with special needs want others to say:

I see you. I see your kids.
Not just the special part.
THE WHOLE PART.

Written by Valli Vida Gideons on My Battle Call

This piece originally published here:

Raising kids is hard. Add a diagnosis of hearing loss and you might find yourself thinking parenting is not for the…

Posted by My Battle Call on Monday, October 8, 2018

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Rosabel Agbayani: The Road We Travel TOGETHER

August 15, 2018

The road we travel TOGETHER: Our Family Journey

By Rosabel O. Agbayani, MPH

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” -Mother Theresa

Sometimes we think that in order to make change we have to make a lot of noise. What I have learned from my experience of raising my children, and especially raising my deaf child, is that you have to be able to drown out the noise and listen to your heart.

We found out my son was deaf in September 2010. I’m not sure why I was so shocked because after almost six months of testing we finally had an answer. But I still remember that feeling when I heard the words “Your son has a hearing loss.” My heart sank, tears fell, and this overwhelming feeling of shock took over. The Audiologist had many well-meaning things to say. But I felt like I was in the scene of a Charlie Brown cartoon when the adults talking sound like jibberish. All I could focus on was “What was my son’s life going to be like?” “What is our family’s life going to be like?”

We came home from that appointment and I felt defeated. But with a six-month old infant, a teenager, and now a Deaf child, I had no time to feel sorry for myself. So I spent most of my time on the internet looking to find every answer to calm the worries in my head. We asked for second opinions, I went through parent training modules, but there was no place in the internet that reassured me that everything was going to be okay.

Reaching out to family had challenges of its own. Those closest to me felt pity for our circumstance. Pity was not going to help me, so I found myself getting angry with them and frustrated having to explain what I was trying to do for my child.

To further complicate the issue, in my culture and within the community of family, disabilities is not something to be discussed. Filipinos have a tendency not to share, for fear that if others realize our weakness then we, ourselves are perceived as weak and therefore bring shame to a family. So even in my own family I felt lost and out of place.

In fact, we lost a lot of friends and family along the way. Well-meaning individuals who would minimalize his hearing loss, or say things like “Well just get a set of Rosetta Stone and he will learn language like normal.” One of the most hurtful things I witnessed was at a family party when my nephews were playing a game of “Can you hear me now?” They would walk around my son asking him if he could hear them. Because my son is the playful type, he innocently went along with the game while they laughed at his expense. It was then that I realized the true meaning of “You must learn to walk away from the things that no longer serve you.” It was a painful but necessary lesson. Their noise was clouding my vision.

 

The first time I ever felt “normal” again was in February of 2011. We had just fought and won our first battle to get our son into the only non-public oral deaf school in our area (a story I will leave for rainy day). I remember clearly his first day, walking through the gates of Oralingua School for the Deaf in San Marcos, California. We were all welcomed and greeted by mothers who were so excited to see another child admitted to the program. There were only six children at the time and my son made the 7th student at the school.

I finally felt at home with our new community. When our kids were busy learning, the parents (we proudly referred to ourselves as the “Parking Lot Moms”) would gather at the local coffee shop and share our stories, retell how our children were diagnosed, explain how they got to the school, and their journey. With each story I heard, my heart felt at ease. Finally, I met another parent who understood me. I didn’t have to speak but just listen. Every word healed my soul. Till this day, these mothers are like my sisters and our children are like siblings from another mother.

I realized early on how important it was to have this kind of network when you are going through something unique and unfamiliar to you. Parents can benefit when we learn from each other. When we can listen and share the choices we have made with each other. We learn to open our minds to new ways that we can help shape our children’s future.

At the time when my son was diagnosed, I only knew three people who were Deaf. My Uncle (my mother’s youngest brother) who had been deaf since he was an infant, an Uncle who was late deafened as an adult, and a friend I met later in life. I asked so many questions at the time. I wanted to know what their lives were like, what challenges they had to overcome and how they got to be who they were today. Deaf adults have a significant role in our understanding as parents. I learned that they have something I cannot give to my child, an insight to the Deaf experience that was critical for my own understanding.

I especially remember talking to my friend and asking her about her hearing aids and school. I was so focused on the technical aspects and she kindly responded to all of my questions. She shared about her experiences growing up in the United States when her parents found out she was deaf. Her mother sacrificed everything she had, left her husband and their life in the Philippines, and brought her and her sister to the United States so she could have a better life. John Tracy Clinic had an international program at the time and she had the opportunity attend the school. It was then that I started to think that maybe our problems were not necessarily about my son’s hearing (I can never change that), but about giving our deaf child opportunities so that he can be the person he is meant to be.

As a parent of a child with special needs, you go through many cycles of joy, pain, confusion, and brief moments of clarity. Some days you just lose it, it comes with the territory. It doesn’t have to be anything significant that happens but some days are just tough.

I remember one day, it was just like most days. I was carrying my twelve-month old in my arms, dropped off my eldest at high school, and went to the hospital for one of my son’s many appointments. I must have been very exhausted because after one of my son’s back to back appointments I just sat in my car and cried. The emotions I held in my heart just suddenly overwhelmed me. Beaten and broken, I wanted my faith to show me a sign, anything to help me understand why life had to be so hard. I was never angry that my son was deaf but I was frustrated because I didn’t know if what I was doing was ever going to be enough.

Suddenly, my three year old deaf son (who had just learned how to put 2-3 word utterances together) looked at me, wiped the tears from my eyes, and said “Mom, why cry?” His sentiments made me smile. I just gave him a big hug. It was what I needed at just the right time. From that moment on I realized, there was NOTHING wrong with him. He didn’t know any differently that he was different. My answer was there beside me, telling me that I was doing EVERYTHING right. In his beautiful world he didn’t know he was “deaf”. All he cared about was that I loved him. I was the one who was broken and HE was the one who fixed me!

Sometimes we get so focused on taking care of others needs that we fail to tend to our own needs! Our kids need us to take care of ourselves! It is as much a priority as our responsibilities as a parent! When you are on a plane they instruct you to put your own oxygen mask first before you do it for your child. I needed my air so I could breathe and think clearly. Then I could refocus and care for the needs of all of my children.

When I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself, I got myself together, and started focusing on my own needs. It had been six months since I got a haircut and it was one of the first things I did for myself. I forgot how good it felt to feel “normal”. Little by little our lives transformed and we found our “New Norm”. I made it to the gym, spent time with friends, and enjoyed my family time.

It was important for my husband and I to spend time together finding moments of joy with each other, despite the hardships we were experiencing. We squeezed in date nights when we could, even if it meant driving in the car till “The Littles” fell asleep to have ice cream cones together. It’s those sweet moments that I cherish the most.

My husband is a hard worker. He worked full-time to support the family while I was busy managing our family business, taking care of the kids, and driving to appointments. When I needed rest or a moment of sanity he gladly stepped in and did his daddy duties with pride. We spent a lot of time talking to each other as a family, having conversations about everything. We love to travel and we learned from our experiences together.

We knew that if we were going to help our son communicate with the world we needed to learn how to communicate as a family. Because when you have a deaf child, you become a deaf family. As with most families, the diagnosis of having a deaf child changes your life and the dynamics of a family. This was not our weakness, it only made us stronger.

My son’s diagnosis changed me too! I have always been a bookworm and self-proclaimed nerd. So when life settled to a comfortable pace, I went back to school and started online classes to earn a second bachelor’s degree in Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education at Utah State University. I graduated on the Dean’s List in 2013. I always felt lucky that I had the kind of training that most of my fellow classmates didn’t have. Regardless of my degree, I was a parent first. I used my new found knowledge and taught my son how to read and write. I learned to communicate with him and create opportunities for him to learn how to communicate with others. It was exciting to use the tools I learned and see my son’s progress. I was fortunate to have on the job training! This knowledge helped me create better relationships with his educators. I knew that if he was going to meet his goals, as a part of his IEP team, we needed to work together.

When my son was mainstreamed in our home school I decided to take a job as an aide in a Special Education classroom. I worked my way up to becoming a Behavior Intervention Instructional Assistant working with kids on the Autism Spectrum. I also volunteered at the local Children’s Hospital working with kids who were Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I also volunteered briefly for an Audiology office observing Aural Habilitation techniques used for kids with Hearing aids and Cochlear Implants.

My work experiences helped me have a different perspective compared to working with my own child. It helped me understand that professionals have a responsibility to heal, to habilitate, and to provide a service that meets a specific need for our child. But that does not take away from the real learning that comes from home. As a parent, our job is to meet professionals and educators half way. They hold the piece of the puzzle that we need to understand our own journey. It’s our job as parents to put the pieces together in a way that fits best for our family.

As a parent and a “wannabe” professional, I met Auditory Verbal Therapists, ENTs, Speech Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Reading Specialists, and Deaf Educators and Specialists along the way who gave me different tools to use. I like to think of these moments like a trip to the “Special Needs Home Depot”, you can fill your toolbox with many tools and use it if (and when) the time is right. I filled my head with a lot of information, gave myself the opportunity to fill my toolbox as much as I could. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of having something fit just right for my family or for the children that I worked with. My advice for new families is to always keep that toolbox open and learn as much as you can! Together with your child you can figure out what works best!

In 2015, I got my first job working on a research project studying outcomes of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children with Cochlear Implants. Having a better understanding of the CI candidacy process and collecting data from educators helped me understand the many different factors that can influence a child’s ability to succeed academically as well as communicate effectively. The bottom line (as a parent by this time I was NOT surprised) family involvement in their child’s education has a positive correlation to overall success.

Because I was no longer just on the receiving end of services, I gained a newfound appreciation of the fact that we all have different perspectives, but our hearts are in the same place. Professionals, even those who think differently, expect different outcomes, or provide a viewpoint different from ours also want the best for our children. We are more alike than we are different. I often think to myself, “Imagine how much we can accomplish as a group if we focus on the sameness and not differences.” Our children need us to work together.

Togetherness is a concept that speaks to the core of what it was like for me parenting a child who is DHH. It is a re-occuring theme in my life, in our journey as a family, and now for me as a professional. When everything was falling apart, I struggled to keep my heart, my family, and my community together. Some days were better than others and progress was not always perfect or prompt. What gave me hope when times were tough was realizing that along the road, I walked the journey with people (my son, my family, DHH parents, and everyone else that crossed my path) who reminded me that I was not alone.

It seems like a lifetime ago when my son was diagnosed. My son is now 11 years old, entering his last elementary school year in the 5th Grade. He has friends (both hearing and DHH), plays baseball (his favorite positions are 3rd base and catcher), loves Hip-Hop music, and annoying his two siblings. My eldest daughter, a senior at CSUN in the Music Therapy Program and President of the Music Therapy Student Association, hopes to pursue a career helping others with specials needs. My youngest daughter (who is now eight years old and grew up alongside our beautiful journey) has won awards at school for good character, recognized for being kind and having compassion for her fellow students. My husband and I can only look back and think about how far we have come. Married for 10 years and after everything we have been through, we live the truth of that “which does not kill you will only make your stronger”! Our lives have never been without struggle, but we wouldn’t change a thing.

Currently, I work as a Pediatric Clinical Research Coordinator for Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, I serve as PTA President for my children’s school and on the Community Advisory Committee for Poway Unified School District. Most importantly, I remain committed to my role working with California Hands & Voices helping to build bridges between parents, professionals, educators, and others in the DHH Community.

Together we grow. While my son was learning how to speak, learn, read, write, communicate; I was learning too! When he struggled, I learned how to help him succeed. While his knowledge of the world around him grew into his identity, his identity defined who I am today. His deafness helped me learn how to listen to my heart and my heart allowed me to follow my passion.

Healing begins when you can find purpose in your pain. What started off as a desperate mom looking for answers has led me on a path where I have combined my real life experiences as a DHH mom with the knowledge of as a Professional. Because of this, I feel a responsibility to share my unique insight with others. Everyone has an important role to play. As Parents, Deaf Children, Deaf Adults, Medical Professionals, Educators, Researchers, and Advocates we all have the power to create a community for DHH Children and their families…TOGETHER.

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Rana Ottallah: Finding My Way Home

March 26, 2018

I have attended two Hands & Voices Leadership conferences and my first Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) conference. There is no place on earth that felt like home than those three conferences.

Being a parent of Deaf/Hard of hearing child, with strong beliefs and convictions–is a lonely place. Single motherhood is a lonely place, strong advocacy for Deaf and Hard of hearing children is a lonely place, being a female community leader is a lonely place. All of these roles come with lots of emotional pressures, and the pressure to look strong and capable all the time. Educated , informed, calm, collected , on top of your game, and prepared for any and all changes of plans–at each and every setting.

The weight of responsibilities on my shoulders gets heavier and heavier by the day–I feel emotionally and physically drained. I feel lonely,and on my own. Nobody gets it or understands it.

Moms of Hands and Voices

The first time I attended a Hands & Voices Leadership conference, I met other parents and listened to their stories, I felt complete, whole and at Home. I wasn’t alone anymore. I felt the warmth of home surrounded by mothers like me, experiencing the same emotions and feeling similar pressure

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Things came into prospective and the vision became much clearer when I listened to other mothers tell their stories, share milestones, and share emotional highs and lows.

I realized that it is okay to feel down, overwhelmed, frustrated, but it’s not okay to feel alone when I am a member of the Hands & Voices home. There are hundreds of Hands & Voices mothers and leaders out there who get it, understand it, and are available to pull me up when I am down, wipe my  tears when I cry, and cheer me up when I feel helpless and frustrated.

I no longer feel alone, I found my way home.

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A home filled with Hands & Voices warmth, support, and unconditional love and understanding of parents and family struggles.

I am emotionally charged and ready for whatever comes my way. I am headed to my smaller home a better mom, stronger advocate, and more capable community leader with so much to give and so much to share.

Thank you Hands & Voices for bringing me home.

 

Rana Ottallah

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Jessica Stern: JUST GOOGLE IT

August 28, 2017

“Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone but that you’re not really any different from everyone else.” -Maya Angelo

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In the 90’s, there was no Google website to go to when you wanted to search for tips on teaching your deaf child how to speak. There was no online forum where you could talk with other parents in your shoes in order to find out what worked for them. There was no app on your phone to help teach you ASL. Parents were left to their own resources and gut instincts, they were left with vague recommendations from their audiologists, and they were left with hand scribbled landline phone numbers of someone that had a deaf child.

My parents were in those shoes of not knowing what laid ahead for them. They had just been told that their 15 month old baby daughter was profoundly deaf in both ears as a result of Meningtis. They lived in rural Minnesota in a town of 1,200 people. The only deaf people in town were 80 years old or more. My parents desperately needed a family to empathize with and to relate with the issues they were going through.

The moment that gave them hope was getting a phone number for a couple in the Pilot Parent program. Dennis and Deb were the parents of a girl who also had Meningitis as a baby, and had been deaf for about 5 years. This family was the Morrows and they were our saving grace. Over the next decade, our moms became very close and learned to rely on each other. There were many phone calls to ask:

“Is this right?”

“Is this normal?”

“Tell me I am not ruining my baby…”

With everything they shared, the most important thing Deb told my mom was, “You will meet a lot of experts that will tell you what to do, but remember, the most important expert in her life will be you.” We were one of the lucky families, not everyone was able to find this type of guidance.

CHALLENGES BEYOND THE FRIENDSHIP

No matter the motherly advice my mom received from this family, there was always still a lack of professional advice based on real life cases. One of her biggest struggles was that she was not sure what accommodations the school system was legally required to offer. In an effort to know more, she joined a state board in order to surround herself with others who knew more.

With this support system, she was able to understand so much more when it came to IEP’s and services. In fact, with the expertise of other board members, I was the first D/HH child in Minnesota to have the public school system help financially with an interpreter within a private school. I did not stay long at the parochial school but it was something that my mom’s hard work and research helped make happen.

A significant lesson that my parents learned right off the bat was that you can and should try every tool out there. Each person is different and each person will benefit differently. Instead of looking at different routes as successes and failures, they looked at them as crossing out the items that didn’t work and keeping the items that did. There were many things that worked for us, and even more things that didn’t.

“YOU WANT THREE QUESADILLA MEALS!?”

We had a rule they made when we went out to eat because dining out was a chance for my parents to teach me how to be assertive. This story often makes my parents seem like they did not care, but it is the opposite… They cared so much that they struggled to watch me go through the situation of dining out. They started me with this practice at a very young age.

When it was time to order, whether it was McDonalds or Perkins, I was left to fend for myself and it would be a conversation between the waitress and me. If questions were asked by them, I had the chance to smile and nod or I had the chance to ask them to repeat themselves.

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For many years, my dad did not order a meal for himself because they knew with certainty that I would not get the food I ordered and he could eat my food. In fact, when I was 16, I accidentally ordered three quesadilla meals instead of three quesadillas. That was a $48 mistake…

As a child, I was the picky eater who would order a cheeseburger with no mustard, no onions, and no pickles. After smiling and nodding at the clerk, my order would come with extra onions, extra mustard, and pickles. My mom would just hand me more money and send me off for a second chance.

For years it seemed like I would not learn, but slowly and surely I began to ask the waitresses to repeat their questions, I would tell the cashier that I was deaf, and I would repeat my order back if needed. Now, as a 30 year old woman, I am confident going through a drive through and telling them I will see them at the window to give them my order.

“I’M A BARBIE GIRL, IN A BARBIE WORLD”

Music was one of those things that we struggled with trying to figure out. When a kid with hearing aids wants to learn lyrics to a song today, it’s easy to go to MetroLyrics or Lyrics.com. A song can be played on repeat until the feeling of the beats becomes natural and the words become second nature.

I grew up in the days where radio was the source of music and songs could not be played on repeat on iTunes or YouTube. There was no way to look up lyrics beyond learning them from sound.

In true family love fashion, my parents and sisters came together to make music work for me. My older sister, Dani, would sit in the car and record the radio to a cassette drive. Then, my mom and dad would listen to the cassette and write down the lyrics on a sheet of paper. They would have to listen very carefully, mulitple times, in order to make sure they were on track with the words. To this day, my mom always laughs and says that no grown man should know the words to “Barbie Girl” by Aqua.

There are going to be challenges and there are going to be solutions. The solution might not be ideal, but there is almost always a way around it.

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THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

If there is any advice I have for parents, it would be that the future is bright. There are so many opportunities out there for support and resources. I would be confident saying that my parents would be jealous of the options out there today as you begin this journey with your D/HH child.

Take advantage of everything you can get your hands on. Go to the family camps, try out the different technology options, follow blogs of those who have gone through this already, and never set limitations for yourself or your child. And if all else fails, at least you have Google, Siri, and Alexa to ask for help.

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Kathy Loo: Learning What is Best for My Son

June 26, 2017

Growing up, I never saw myself being the parent of a deaf child. Although my mom and brother are hard of hearing, it was never more to me than just part of  who they were. It wasn’t even that big a deal in my household.

The only deaf person I recall knowing aside from them was a friend from high school.  But again, it was just part of who he was.

We didn’t even think much about deafness until we started learning sign as a communication bridge for our youngest children. We started learning to sign when our oldest daughter was one year old and I was about 4 months pregnant with our youngest.

After we started learning we wanted to know more. We became involved in a deaf ministry near our home and started taking classes through Sacramento State.

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Little did we know, it would lead us to deaf adoption–and three years ago we brought home our son. Lots of time during our adoption process was invested in trying to figure out what was right for us. Everyone had an opinion. We even had some strong ones of our own, but that all changed the day we met him.

Suddenly it wasn’t about what was best for us, but what was best for him. It wasn’t about what we envisioned, but the potential we saw in him. Our first night with him he was so starved for communication that he soaked up around 65 signs.It was impressive  the amount of language he  gained in those first two weeks, after 8 years of minimal language.

At some point early on with us he discovered there were two worlds going on around him. Until he saw us signing with him and talking with each other, I don’t think he realized that sound actually existed.

He became enamored with the concept of sound and discovering how it works.

At that point we began to question our own biases. This was all unraveling as we watched a friend struggling with outside opinions of her son getting implanted. Was that a battle we even wanted to tackle?

We realized that no one had to answer to him but us, about what tools and opportunities we did and didn’t provide. We decided that any issue someone had based on a choice we felt was right for our child was not our problem, but theirs.

We opted for the implant and he was well on his way to discovering a world with sound. Unfortunately,  it malfunctioned a few months in, despite every effort to correct it.

We’ve since opted to do a 2nd surgery to see if replacing the internal equipment will correct the issue. We are optimistic, but no matter what we know we can stand before him and say “The only thoughts that mattered were yours. We followed your lead.”

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The most important things we’ve learned through this whole journey are:

  1. That WE are the experts in our child. No one else has been assigned the duty to love and care for him and provide his physical,  mental, emotional, and linguistic needs.

  2. It is important to surround yourself with people who support, love, respect, and understand you. Even if those people haven’t or wouldn’t make the same choices for their child that you would. They fully understand that you have the most skin in this game. No matter what, as parents we always do the best we know how and we will never get it perfect.  Despite what others think, no one has a perfect answer for raising ANY child.

  3. Every child is different. Even if they are in the same household.

Remember, we started signing with our oldest daughter. At the time, she was believed to have normal hearing. That has since come under question in the last year. The supports we provide for her aren’t the same as for our son.

There is no one size fits all. They have completely different needs and what would work for one isn’t as helpful (if at all helpful) for the other.

I encourage you to stay strong, be your child’s loudest advocate, and know that it is okay if you switch gears or make mistakes.

As parents of deaf children, we face challenges that most other people don’t have to consider in everyday life. The only thing we can really do right is to give it our all and hope for the best. Most of all, know that your best is going to be different from someone else’s and that’s okay. 20160131_142735-1

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Elizabeth Albers: Language in Any Form is a Beautiful Thing

June 12, 2017

We are the Albers Family, a homeschooling family of nine with two children who have severe to profound hearing loss. We entered the deaf/hoh world three years ago when we adopted our son, Matthew. He was five years old with severe hearing loss. We were told that he could hear and talk with the help of his hearing aids. We thought, Okay, we can handle that! We knew that his hearing loss might be worse than what was presented in his file, but we clung to the hope that he could hear and talk with his hearing aids. We began learning some sign language, and researching deafness. We had moments of second guessing ourselves, but ultimately we knew he was our son and that we would do whatever was needed to help him.

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The day we got him was a whirlwind. He came to us showing us pictures we had sent to him. He had no hearing aids. They told us they were broken. That first day he soaked up what little sign language we knew. We remember his first signs, same and different. We knew we had a smart little boy on our hands.  The next day they brought us his hearing aids with no batteries. We managed to find some, and we were so hopeful when he put them in his little ears. He knew exactly what to do.  We tried all the noises we could, there was no response. Our hearts sunk a little. That night, while in China, we got on lifeprint.com and started taking the free on-line courses for ASL. We knew we needed to up our game. This little boy was taking in all the ASL that we could give him. He wanted to know the signs for everything. He was soaking up language for the first time, and he was so excited about it. We wished we would have learned more.

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After bringing him home we started private ASL lessons with a deaf tutor, continued to learn through lifeprint.com, scoured our county for deaf people (there weren’t many), met as many deaf people as we could, did hours of research on the computer and went to multiple audiologist and ENT visits. After several months with new hearing aids that were helping him just a tiny bit, we decided to explore Cochlear Implants. We were torn, because there was such a divide on what the right thing to do is within the deaf/hoh community. Ultimately, after lots of prayer, watching Rachel Coleman’s “One Deaf Child” , and doing more research, we knew we wanted our son to try it. Ten months after being home he was activated. At first he didn’t like the sound, but he grew to enjoy new sounds over the coming weeks and months. I remember about a month after being activated, he heard the sound of a bird chirping outside, and he wanted to know what it was. We worked closely with our audio-verbal therapist who was able to help us know how to teach him to listen. His speech began improving significantly. We knew we had made the right decision.  We’ve continued with English, using sign language when needed. He’s learning to read and write at home and is quickly catching up with his peers.

Fast-forward 3 years. We are now home with another profoundly deaf son, Isaac, who is 4 years old. He was adopted 7 months ago with no language. Unlike Matthew, he had profound hearing loss. There was no hope of hearing aids helping him. But we were more prepared this time. We had so many things in our tool belt. We had a better knowledge of ASL and the deaf/hoh world, we knew the resources that were available to us, we knew what the journey to Cochlear Implants would be, and we had even learned Cued Speech by going to Cue Camp Cheerio. We decided to pursue cochlear implants and got the ball rolling with that right away with our ENT and audiologist. Right now he has been activated about 7 weeks. He’s starting to respond to our voices, but still very far from understanding speech. Since we knew that we wanted to give him access to language right away, we started with sign language from the moment we met him. He quickly grew to expressively use over 150 signs. His first sign was car. He loved looking out the cars through our hotel room in China. Once he had a good grasp of basic signs, where we felt like could effectively communicate his needs to us, we moved to using cued speech. We’ve focusing on using and teaching him cued speech for six weeks. Our whole family knows the system and continues to work on fluency. Receptively he understands a many of the basic phrases we use, and expressively he knows about a dozen words. Every day he adds a few more words to his vocabulary. It’s quite amazing to see his progression.

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This journey has not been simple. There have been ups and downs. Moments of self-doubt. But we keep going. We keep learning and doing what we feel is best for our deaf children and our family as a whole. We’ve learned that the process is always changing and growing too. Their needs may be different year to year. We’ve had to, sometimes, ignore the voices around us, telling us what we HAVE to do for our children. There are an abundance of opinions out there when it comes to raising and educating deaf children! We have, more than ever, learned over these last 3 years that every child is different. There is certainly not a one size fits all or one language fits all or one education fits all when it comes to deafness. The biggest joy of this journey is seeing our boys, who had no language those first few years of their lives, pick up a new word through sign, speech or cue. Seeing their eyes light up with understanding is an amazing thing.

Language, in any form, is a beautiful thing.

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Support for Military Families with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children

June 1, 2017

jenny and chelsea

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be a military spouse? Have you thought about trying to explain the lifestyle to others?  How do you describe a life that is so far outside the experience of most others?  Which part of this unique lifestyle warrants a mention?  Some of us delivered a baby, raised our children, and continued on our lives while our sponsor (our active-duty spouse) was overseas.  Others made the move to a new duty station on our own so we could begin life there and make the transition back home easier for our spouse.  Nearly all of us have spent many months on our own, keeping our lives, and by extension, our spouses’ lives running.

Because we are so often on our own, in a new place, we tend to bond with those in similar situations.  There is beauty in the “sisterhood” that develops from sharing common experiences related to a marriage to a service member.  We understand the stresses and strains that go along with receiving official orders to move across the country or the world.

A Permanent Change of Station (PCS), – or move, for those of you not military-affiliated – begins months in advance, when the Active Duty Service Member gets a list of available positions, which they must rank in order of preference.  That preference is not simply about where you would like to live.  Discussions revolve around not only that, but also entail which positions would be advantageous for your spouse’s career, what schools and communities are like in the area, and, for those of us with children with special needs, where the nearest medical facility is that can handle our child’s needs.  After much discussion, the sponsor turns in his list to his branch manager or detailer, who actually places the service member into the assignments, based on the needs of that particular service branch.  Then you wait… often for months, to discover where you are headed.  Sometimes you get one of your top three choices.  Other times… you do not.  Sometimes, you get an assignment, only to have it changed weeks before the actual PCS.  Once the orders are actually cut, you are *usually* good, but you will never be sure until you are physically there.  Once you receive those final orders though, it is time to Google, research, reach into that rolodex and start making calls.

Now the fun begins – the actual moving process.  People say, “Oh, but you have packers who come and move everything for you. That’s great!”  Actually, while it is helpful in the grand scheme of regular moves, take a minute to think about how you would like three total strangers coming into your house and packing everything you own.  So… the day before the movers arrive, you hide everything you don’t want them to pack in a bathroom. This includes any trash, your IDs, clothes for the duration of your move, etc.  You tape a sign over the door that says “Do not pack” and then spend the next day following the movers around to ensure that everything is packed and labeled properly, and nothing that should not be packed accidentally winds up in a box.  All of this is happening while juggling babies and fielding phone calls.

The movers arrive, and 24 hours later, everything you own is boxed up and on their way to your new location. Your vehicles are stuffed with everything you need in the meantime.  You attempt to carve out room amongst the pillows, clothes, paper plates and assorted “keep the kids happy” toys to actually seat all the members of your family.  Little Susie surely will not mind holding that roll of paper towels for the duration of your 15-hour trip. Because only the items you specifically remembered to pull out of your house prior to the pack out are with you, you will make at least one trip to the store to buy a spatula or coffee pot (!!) that you forgot to snag before all of your household goods were packed.  As you can imagine, PCSing is a very stressful time for families.  Now, let’s talk about how this applies to the family of child with hearing loss.

Remember when you first found out that your child had hearing loss?  How you embarked on a journey that meant adding many new people to your life: Audiologists, ENTs, SLPs, D/HH Specialists.  That is just the hearing portion of it.  If your child has other challenges, you worked your way through referrals and insurance, all while waiting for initial appointments for those specialists, as well.  For older children, you may have worked with your school district on an IEP team to determine what services your child needs to help them have access to all of their studies, as well as support during them.  Each new meeting is a little nerve-wracking as you work your way through understanding your child’s diagnosis and learning to relate to each member of his/her medical and educational teams, individually, in a way that (hopefully) is productive.

Once services started, each service provider had to build rapport with your child.  This means that it may have taken anywhere from weeks to months for your child to trust and respond appropriately to providers, especially if the child is very young or has other challenges.  Now, imagine that you get to repeat this scenario (minus the huge learning curve regarding diagnosis), every 2-3 years.  Obviously, the combination of moving coupled with ensuring care and services for your D/HH child can be incredibly daunting.

What if military families had a head start?  For as long as there has been an American military, families who relocate alongside their active duty member have become experts at finding “the best” in each new area.  These families are amazing at networking, for their own sake, certainly, but most notably for helping fellow dependents out.  The era of social media made this process even faster and easier.  The first thing most spouses do when their sponsor gets a new assignment is send a message off to anyone they know in the new area and/or those who lived there before.  For those dealing with special needs, the search is on for the best services in the area, the best school district, etc.  Usually, this involves friends introducing families to others in similar situations in the area.

What if we could cut out the middle step, and provide parents a forum to share current information about the area?  This information could carry over to families moving there in the future.  What a difference that would make for these parents, and by extension, their children in need of services?  This is the aim of Hands & Voices: Military Family Support.  Our goal is not to take the place of local Hands and Voice Chapters, but rather to offer support specific to those living the military lifestyle with their D/HH children.

Jenny Swan and Chelsea Hull, moderators of Hands & Voices Military Family Support

Jenny Swan holds a MAEd in Elementary Education, which she is currently using to homeschool her 5 children (4 hearing and 1 HH).  She enjoys reading, hiking with her family and gallivanting around the country in her “tiny home” on wheels.  Life is an adventure and she’s so thankful for the opportunity to live it! 

Chelsea Hull currently operates her own business as a freelance interpreter.  She first learned American Sign Language (ASL) from her mother, who was hard of hearing/deaf.

She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Deaf Education from Fresno State University and a Master of Arts Degree in Deaf Education from San Diego State University.  She has over 15 years experience providing classroom instruction, working with families of children with hearing loss and communication delays, and teaching developmental playgroups and baby sign language classes.

Chelsea specializes in teaching parents to utilize ASL signs and principles to improve their child’s speech, vocabulary and language usage, reduce problematic behaviors, and strengthen the parent/child bond.

Chelsea’s two children, both began signing at 6 months, and are now 4 and 2 years old.

 

 

 

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Janet DesGeorges: Embrace the Past, Change the Future

May 31, 2017

Janet in boston
I am the mom of a beautiful, smart, talented accomplished well educated Deaf/Hard of Hearing daughter named Sara.

Eighteen years ago, I sat in a meeting hall at an ASL Deaf retreat where the entertainment one night was a group of Deaf individuals who performed a satirical skit about the ineptitude of hearing parents of Deaf children.

I said in my heart, “I am hearing, but I am Sara’s mother.”

Twelve years ago, I sat in a medical conference surrounded by hundreds of physicians who were listening to a passionate lecture on genetics and deafness. At the conclusion of the presentation, the Researcher stated, “…and the eradication of deafness is at hand”, which received a standing ovation.

I said in my heart, “my deaf daughter will not be eradicated.”

Ten years ago, I sat in an educational conference surrounded by thousands of special education directors in the audience, and every time the presenter used the term ‘parent’ she put the word ‘angry’ in front of it.

I said in my heart, “that is not how it has to be.”

In my work at Hands & Voices, every day I am surrounded by parents of children who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing, where we share the journey of raising our children – who desperately need the support of D/HH individuals, medical professionals, and educators to help us ensure success.

But you must capture and know our hearts if you want to partner with us in this journey.

(I know what you are thinking right now… man, she sure goes to a lot of conferences…)

Of course those are not my only stories. My life experience is woven with a rich fabric of deaf individuals who have come along side me, have not judged me, have sometimes challenged me in a good way, and ultimately helped me to open the door to my heart to make decisions for my daughter based on her needs as a deaf child, and look beyond the filter of my life as a hearing person.

There have been audiologists and other professionals who have come along side our family and supported our choices and also made technology useful and functional in the real world for Sara, and given her the freedom to use her technology when and how she wanted to, and to be in control of that as she grew up.

There have been educators who have stood up and demanded educational excellence from my daughter, from her schools and not backed down when it came to her communication access, and also provided me with the tools to be effectively involved in her education.

The thousands of parents at Hands & Voices have their own stories that have framed their journey, and though I am the one up on the stage today, I carry their stories in my heart as well.
Regarding Deaf Education….

DEAF education/deaf EDUCATION

I met a deaf educator who left the field of deaf education to immerse herself in traditional and new models of education for all students and came out the other end telling me that we must never minimize either of the words when talking about DEAF EDUCATION. We must never dissect these two aspects apart from one another. Yes our kids are Deaf (and this includes kids who are hard of hearing) AND yes, our kids need an education. Let’s call it: Deaf Education.

Not just the what, but the how.

It’s not just about what we know or don’t know about Deaf Education. It’s not just about communication, language, literacy, and social/emotional development of Deaf children. We must now advocate for these things in a system and a world where it’s not often understood.

But when it works well, it can be brilliant.

Here is one tiny snippet of one tiny issue during one tiny piece of a 13 year old’s day at school. A mom went to the school and said that she had been arguing with her daughter about homework every night. Her daughter said she didn’t have any. Was this a communication access thing? Was it a teenage thing? Was it a school thing?

It got worked out…

Every day, the teacher in the classroom, when announcing homework assignments said it both verbally, making sure she was facing the student (who used an FM system and lipread), and also then turned and wrote it on the board to provide visual accommodation. The student could also turn and look at the sign language interpreter who was also there for her. The special education specialist in the school had arranged with the general education teachers that homework assignments would come to him and then also be posted for parents to have access to, so that they could check in with the student and help with any homework as necessary.

When all team members are pulling together, access happens!

The Power Seat of Advocacy

I’ll always remember the father who called and asked if I could come to the IEP for their son. I knew this Dad, he was a high powered attorney. He told me that he had never been into a meeting like IEP meetings where he felt so discounted in what he had to say.

Even if the law provides for parents to be at the table we must continue to create a future where true collaboration exists, and where meeting the needs of deaf child is not something to be negotiated by teams who all have different motivations for what the outcome might be (fiscal, methodological, lack of information) but be based on that child’s needs, as an individual who is unique. We must continue to create this in our educational system and to have hope that this can be accomplished.
Parent Advocacy

One day I was in the mountains of Colorado and the sun was setting in a beautiful grove of Aspen trees. My husband is a professional photographer so I barely ever take pictures, but I was alone, so decided I would take a picture of this beautiful scene. As I was standing there, I thought, “I think I’ll do a selfie with me in front of the trees.” I don’t do selfies very often, so I kept trying to figure out how to hold the camera, press the button, and get both myself and the trees in the photo, while still trying to capture the beautiful light in that moment. As I was juggling the camera, at the very last moment, I remembered my friend had told me that if you take a selfie looking down on yourself from above, you look thinner, so I held the camera up high, and then took the shot.
Here it is:

janet selfie

When I think about the power of parents, parent engagement, parent advocacy, parents whatever…ruling the world – I think of this photo.
If we as parents forget what the point of all this is…. In this case our children who are D/HH – it’s not about ourselves as parents – we will miss our goal. Beautiful, light filled successful children. We do not need to put ourselves in the middle of the picture. We want to stay clear on whose ultimate journey this is. But as Parents – we are the holders of the camera, we are the photographers in our children’s lives, we are the ones with the right and ultimate responsibility to frame the picture and ensure a good photograph. But we could use your help (educators, health professionals, Deaf and Hard of Hearing adults) in framing the photo and knowing how to use the camera.

I challenge you today

I challenge you. Whether you are a Deaf individual, a researcher, a teacher/educator, a medical professional – don’t forget that the point of all this is not about you, just like it’s not about me….it’s about our kids, each one individual and unique.

If you commit to doing that, so will I, and so will all parents who only at the end of the day want their kids to succeed. But if we stay separated as we have done over the centuries, I don’t know, truly if there is any hope.

I am not a Pollyanna, I know that we will not all agree in this room and/or across organizations and systems. Ghandi said, “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress” But we have no hope if we only focus on our own selves. I am so enheartened by movements right now in the field like the Common Ground project and the Radical Middle, and of course…Hands & Voices.
We must stand together…

I am learning that everyone has a story and is a human being behind their ‘role’ in this conversation. We often come together in rooms where we do not stop to listen and reflect on different perspectives in deaf education – and partly because we do not view one another as human beings with respect. I know that the history of deaf education over the past 200 years has been played out with passionate forces each clamoring for their stake in education of Deaf children. The stories I shared with you at the beginning of this presentation are my stories, and I know each one of you brings your own story to this conversation, and I thank you for it. I carry in my heart those who have come before us to make a path for my daughter today. – whether they communicated like my daughter does today or not. I am grateful for those in this world who are passionate and fight to keep the path for all our kids.

sara and Janet

I am a mom of a beautiful smart talented accomplished well educated Deaf/Hard of Hearing daughter named Sara. Does she speak or does she sign? Does she use both or not? Why does that matter? For my daughter or for any of our daughters or sons who are successful human beings in this world. Yes – we must all stand together to help our children attain success through one means or another, but the light on the trees must be successful outcomes for ALL kids, not the means by which we achieved it.

By Janet DesGeorges

(This speech was given by Janet DesGeorges, Executive Director of Hands & Voices at The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program Presentation Thriving Together Friday, May 5, 2017 Boston Children’s Hospital.)

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The “Letting Go” Moments of Parenthood

January 22, 2017

 

david as a kidWhen my first child was born, I wasn’t prepared for the experience of my heart being wrenched out during the moments of learning to “let go.”  The first time my husband and I went out for dinner and left the baby with grandparents, I was excited for about twenty minutes. Then I started wondering, “I wonder if he’s crying? (he was going through the colicky stage), did I leave enough breast milk? Will they remember to change his diaper?” and so on.

The first time I let go of my toddler’s hand to take his first steps, he faceplanted hard on the carpet. When the second and third kid came along, I was much more cautious about letting go and waited until I thought they could master the walking thing. Some of that wisdom comes from experience the second time around, and some of it comes from being patient and knowing the time when the kid was ready to master it on his/her own. That’s the fine line of parenting and letting go–figuring out that magic formula and timing.

letting go

We live in an era of Helicopter Parenting–parents who hold the reins of parenting so tight that the kid has little opportunity to learn on their own and make mistakes. But here’s the thing, letting go is a vital part of the parenting transition that enables a child to achieve maximum growth in all areas of life.

When my oldest son was around five, we were at a McDonalds (I know, I know) playland and he asked for an ice cream cone. I gave him the cash and he went up to the counter to order his ice cream. Another parent who was with me was flabbergasted.

“You let him order by himself?”

My oldest son is deaf, and from an early age I wanted him to be independent and competent just like any other kid. I stood back and watched as he ordered his own ice cream. He came triumphantly walking back happily devouring his cone. The other parent continued to order for her deaf child for YEARS after that. She just could not let go and allow her kid to struggle with the ordering process. It was far easier for her to speak for her child and do the ordering.

The struggle is part of the process. In fact, it’s probably one of the most valuable aspects of the parenting gig–letting your child navigate the world and the challenges on their own is one of the most valuable gifts you can give your kid. The letting go stuff is hard. It’s so much easier to do for, or hold on–and wait for a better time or more maturity–before letting go. Yet, by letting go, our kids gain skills and experiences that they wouldn’t have if we didn’t hover so darn hard over them.

The first time I let a child take off with the car and a newly-minted driver’s license my heart was in my throat. And no, it did not become easier with each child because I was reliving all my fears, doubts, and scary thoughts with each child. But the only way around the fear of letting go is to…let go.

steven at RIT

And the first time they leave home…oh my…that’s the ultimate letting go.

Letting go often means giving up control, and that can be so darned tough at times. Here are some tips for navigating those parenting transitions that involve letting go:

Shift Your Perspective: 

Instead of seeing the letting go process as a loss of control, focus on the gain from it: increased independence, learning, and growth. Each time you “let go” and allow your child to experience something new and unknown, both of you grow in the process. Yes, your child may make mistakes or chose poor outcomes as a result, but the lessons learned can strengthen both of you. You can actually stunt your child’s growth by holding back instead of letting go.

Connect with Other Parents:

One of the easiest ways to handle the letting go process is to connect and talk with other parents who have been there or are going through the same process. You will often find that “hindsight advice” is spot on and this will help ease the parenting transition. Knowing that you aren’t alone in the “letting go” process can be comforting.

Connect with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Adults:

When you’re early in the parenting journey with your Deaf/Hard of hearing child, it can be difficult to see into the future years because you’re just trying to get through the day to day stuff. Take the opportunity to meet Deaf/Hard of hearing adults. This is a wonderful way to get questions answered, to see different perspectives and experiences, and to gain knowledge that would otherwise be difficult to find on your own. Take some time to scour the web for stories of Deaf/Hard of Hearing adults in various professions and activities and share them with your child.

 

Karen Putz is the mom of Dave, Ren, and Steven. She is the Co-Director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Infusion at Hands & Voices. For fun, she walks on water

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Rhonda Bergsma: And This Was the Easy Part

December 22, 2016

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It was a frosty morning that April in 1982, the middle of the month– you’d think it would be warming up here in the Pacific Northwest. But maybe it was my nerves that was sending chills thru my body. We arrived at the Hospital early in the morning to get my labor started. This was my third baby and both previous births were not easy.  I was a bit nervous.

All settled in and ready to go, here we go , one more time, I can do it. This was me self-talking my way thru this ordeal called giving birth. The nurse came in to hook up the drug that would get my labor going, a must since my “water” broke the day before. In those days most people never knew if they were having a boy or girl, but then it really didn’t matter to us since this baby would have a brother who was 5 years older and a sister who was 3 1/2 years older.

To fast forward over all the gory details, labor was extremely hard but not too long, about 8 hours from start to finish. After much struggle, baby boy Bergsma was born. I noticed that all the doctors jumped up and looked concern at the moment of birth. I was so exhausted I could barely whisper “what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said the doctor.

But I noticed the umbilical cord was tightly wrapped around the baby’s neck and he was not breathing. He looked very pale and limp, dead-like really. After all that work, was he even alive?  It seemed like an hour went by but I’m quite sure it was only 20 seconds when I heard a wonderful newborn cry.

Whew.

As I looked over at him, he was nice size–I thought, maybe 9 pounds.

I was close he was 8lbs 14 oz and doing pretty well by now. Andy and I were ready to introduce Mitchel Kent Bergsma.
At home, Mitch was spoiled by his sister who loved to sit and hold him. He was a very good baby.  I didn’t know what a good baby was like since both his older brother Tyler and sister Tandi were always crying. They cried so much I didn’t know if I could handle another baby who cried. The first week we are doing good, no crying, and on we went , no crying.

I can’t remember exactly when I took Mitch to the doctor in concern. I laid baby Mitchie on the table and said, “There. Take a look at him, something must be wrong.”

Dr Johnson, our kids’ pediatrician, looked at the baby and said, “What’s wrong?

I told him it’s been months and I’ve not heard him cry yet, so something must be wrong with him. The doctor took the baby and checked him out thoroughly. He turned to me and said, “Well, I’m not sure what to tell you.”

I knew it, I thought, something is wrong!

“I think you have a good baby this time” and then he smiled.

I think I actually cried, never had I actually enjoyed the newborn stage of my other two babies because they cried all day. At this point I don’t actually believe it to be true but I went home and told my husband what the doctor said.
Baby Mitchie was such a good baby that he would sleep 12 hours at night and take a couple very long naps during the day. When he was awake he was always happy. He seemed a bit different though and I chalked it up to being such a good baby. And remember, we had never experienced this up till now.  He was extremely visual, he would watch and copy facial expressions, if you smiled big at him he would do the same back to you with his two huge dimples.

As he lay in the little seat on the table he made such a loud noise that we all covered our ears. It was a weird sound coming out of a small baby I thought. But I had a good baby this time and that’s what they are like I  guess. Looking back, I now know different but at the time, that’s what I thought.
Baby Mitchie was a very huggable baby, so lovable and very happy, always smiling. I can’t really ever say I remember him crabby or crying. When he was around 8 months old when I carried him in my arms he would always put his hand on my throat when I would talk. He did such cute things, so different from his brother and sister.
One time we left him with my sister and her family when he was around 15 months old.  It was over the Fourth of July and they took him to a fireworks show. My sister mentioned that he sat the whole time with his eyes shut and seemed scared. It seemed that whenever he was scared or not sure of what was happening he would just shut down and close his eyes. Months later we know why he behaved that way, but it seemed odd at the time.

mitch-bergsma-baby
Months went by, he was still a good baby, but now I’m noticing that he seems to look me in the face and follow my expression but doesn’t really respond to anything I say to him. If I would say “Daddy’s home” and by this close to a year old he should understand some of what I’m saying and respond to me. Sometime he wouldn’t even look at me when I’d talk to him. Again I thought was he just good-natured or a bit odd? Actually I hate to say this but I did think at one point that maybe he just wasn’t very bright.

It was time for his 9 month check up. One thing I really liked about Dr David Johnson was that he never rushed thru the visit, he would sit and listen to any concerns I had. He didn’t disappoint this time either. The doctor asked how everything was going, I hesitated to say this, but I had to get my concern out

“I think maybe this baby is not very smart.”

Doctor J. sat down next to me and said   “Well, tell me about it, why do you say that?”

I went on to tell him how the baby ignored me when I was trying to get his attention or how he didn’t respond to me correctly.

The doctor thought for a few minutes, and said, “Maybe he doesn’t hear you.”

Doesn’t hear me I thought? What, everyone hears, especially babies. After some thought I said, “Okay, then maybe he needs tubes in his ears, I hear that fixes most babies ear problems?”

“Well…” The doctor looked through his files.  “He hasn’t had any ear infections. So that’s not the problem.”

My mind was running wild.  What!? Doesn’t hear me! What, everyone hears!  What’s happening here?  The doctor said to go home, talk to my husband Andy, think about it and come back in a few months for the next check up and we’ll see what we think then.

As I am driving home, I can’t stop thinking about it and it is starting to come together.  After talking it through with Mitch’s dad, it didn’t take long for us to realize that its possible that Mitch doesn’t hear. I am thinking of all the things that were different: the strange noises he made, so loud we covered our ears and he made weird little noises in his throat, and always focusing on our faces.

I put me hand on my own throat, as Mitch always did, then made a sound.  Oh man, it hit me, he was feeling my voice!  Now I get it, he would feel my voice and then look me in the face. He liked the vibration in my throat. He knew something was happening, he was a smart baby, so very smart, really!  At such a young age he was already adapting! I think he was figuring out his surroundings in his own way and learning to deal with them.
That night, Andy and I were going over all the details of this baby’s short life so far and all the ways and funny things he did differently than the other two kids. We knew that night, we might have a deaf baby. We bonded together and decided that we would find out everything we could so we would know how to help this truly delightful baby.
I can look back today and say we never had the dreaded “why us” thoughts. We had hard times and a new path to fight through but seldom a pity us syndrome. We thanked God for that first wonderful year of Mitch’s life without the wonder of something being wrong.
And this was the easy part….

Half Full or Half Empty? 

Of course there were times we wanted to have a pity-party about having a deaf child. Not often, but it did happen. The sadness of something that never will be, things that we love that he will never have the opportunity to hear, like music, birds chirping. Things, I thought at the time, he would never be able to do; drive a car, go into a store alone and function alone in this big world. The dangers are everywhere for a deaf child. I didn’t really know any deaf kids or families for that matter so this whole deal was new to us. We had no knowledge or experience; what we should or shouldn’t do. But then it’s that way with every parent, but at least your family can guide you along. This was a whole new world for us and we were going to just have to “wing it.”

Luckily we had a very happy child, he only knows his life as it is; not as it could have been.

When Mitch was around 6 years old. our family went camping at a Washington State Park. That summer they had a few ponies for the kids to ride. We rented a pony for the kids. Mitch’s brother  Tyler and sister Tandi didn’t want to ride one, but Mitch sure did. He climbed up and of course they only let you ride it in a circle with the owner holding tight. Mitch loved every minute of it!

Then this little girl and her mom came up to ride a pony. The girl was blind and as they put her in the saddle, her mom described the pony to her. She told her the pony was black and guided her hand around his mane and head as she petted him. The mom was really good with her. We stood back in awe, as the complete opposite was happening right before us from what were experiencing with Mitch.

On one pony there was a deaf child and the other pony was a blind child; who has more of disadvantage?

Mitch couldn’t hear the clip clop of the hooves, the sounds the pony makes; snorts, whining, the owner talking to the pony. But he could see the color, he knew what black was and what the horse looked like, how tall it was, the coarseness of its hair as it flew up in the wind, the fullness of its mane, its big beautiful eyes and eyelashes. I don’t remember her name, but this little girl could hear the sounds; the snorts, the whining, the clip clop, the owner as she guided the pony around the circle. But she has no idea that the color black is very dark, what the actual animal looks like, where she was riding or who is even guiding her. She must have so much trust in those around her.

We told Mitch the little girl couldn’t see, and her mom told her  daughter  there was a little boy on the other pony that couldn’t hear. She could hear us talk but not see us sign to Mitch. Her mom explained how we used our hands to talk to him. Mitch was fascinated by her and the fact she couldn’t see and wondered why. And she was just as fascinated about him. He just couldn’t imagine not seeing, and she couldn’t imagine not hearing. They both asked why the other couldn’t hear or see.

It was an experience I will never forget; who was better off, who has the advantage? I’m sure each thought they were the one better off. As most of us enjoy both  sight and sound, our glass is half full, is theirs also half  full or is it half empty. If you asked each one of them today they would probably say they are the lucky one. She was so happy to hear her mom’s voice and the noises around her and Mitch was really happy he could see the things around him.

One day, Mitch told his dad he wanted to play hockey. He was around 10 years old at the time.

“Hockey!” we said. “Why? Why would you want to do that?”

But Mitch was very insistent, so  Mitch’s dad and uncle George took him to a Canucks game in Canada one day. Mitch came home even more excited to play. We signed him up at the local arena, bought all his gear. Then we realized that he has never been on the ice, what if he hates it or can’t skate? Too late now, we are $500 deep into this thing. He is playing even if he hates it.

Well, on his first day on the ice, he came to me and said, “Mom, you can’t know the feeling, its like floating!” He was hooked. He took to skating like he’d done it for years. I think he played for 6 years then it became a whole different game, more serious.

mitch-bergsma

By this time, Mitch was more interested in water sports. I always say he went from solid to liquid; ice to water. One of his high school friends had a wakeboard boat  and Mitch would go every weekend. He found a new love in this sport. He did seem to excel at this sport too. He would go on to be very skilled on the water, but in Washington the summers are short and only a couple of months of warm enough weather.Then his friend and family moved back to Colorado.

When Mitch was around 20 he decided to move to Colorado to live with his friend and his family so he could get away from our small town and get back on the wakeboard. I didn’t think he would actually do it as he had never driven a car to the next town let alone across the country. And now he was talking about driving his car and pulling a U-Haul trailer with all his motorcycles in it across  5 states to Colorado. He must be nuts!

The night before he left, I was in absolute disbelief and utter stock. I cried like a baby, worried myself absolutely sick, literally shook with fear and really thought I would never see him again. Had we prepared him enough for the world?  The things he might come in contact with were too much for me to bear. What if he gets lost, or an accident? How can I stop him from going?

Mitch was not afraid. He was totally prepared, with his laptop in the car with his journey all mapped out and every stop tagged. He knew what he was doing and where he was going and why. I was forced to trust him at this point and let go. My husband Andy didn’t seem to have the reservations and fears that I did. He assured me that he would be fine.

Well morning came, I had cried all night.  Mitch loaded up his car and drove away with me filling a river with tears. He said to me, as he stood in the driveway, “Do you want me to stay here forever or go live my life?”

(I have to say this is the only time that I tried to use the “deaf card.”) “Mitch! Did you forget you’re deaf?”

This sent him in a laughing fit and he assured me that he would be fine, and that I can stay in constant contact with him along the way. Which I did.

(Mitch took up competition and became a wakeboard pro. Check out his skills:

A YouTube Star is Born

Today, as I look back on this, I can be so thankful that his glass was half full and that Mitch was willing to step outside the safe box, go explore the world. He was full of life and wanted to experience so many things and adventures away from the safety net of home. But at that time I gained a few gray hairs and shed a bucket of tears. My husband would remind me that’s how we raised him and not to try to hold him back now. But at that moment, I sure regretted the independence we instilled in him.

Mitch started creating YouTube videos and all of a sudden, he attracted a large audience.  Mitch’s success on YouTube and notoriety around the world really gave him even more richness in his life. For some reason it seems to be “cool” that he is deaf. Would he have had the appeal if he was hearing? He found an outlet in this digital world to really explore his talents in videography, bring it to the world and actually make money doing it. We bought him a video camera for high school graduation because he loved photography. We had no idea he had the “eye”. He told me he did when he was younger but I didn’t really believe him.  So many doors have opened for him because he has explored this avenue.

When I traveled to Brussels with Mitch in the summer of 2014, while he was there producing a commercial, just the sounds of the languages around me were fascinating. One day at lunchtime we decided to go to the “Grand Place”  at an outside cafe. I wanted to sit next to this park-like spot because this young lady was there playing a song beautifully by Andrea Bocelli on her flute. When Bocelli sings it just makes me stop everything and listen, it romantically represents Europe to me for some reason.   Mitch asked me why I wanted to sit there and I responded that the music was so beautiful that I wanted to listen to it. He looked at me and shook his head like he understood but really he has no idea how music can speak to your soul. When I returned to work after that trip I teared up as I was telling one of my co-workers how the music that day really touched me, and how much I love music, the sad fact that he just doesn’t get the same enjoyment from it and never will. But in respect to that; sign language is a feast for the eyes, it lays out the story and transcends you into the mood and right into the song. I have a hard time watching someone signing a song and not tearing up. The movements just become the words and they paint the story so beautifully. There are times when I can’t help but sign when listening to a song, to me a song is complete when the beauty of sign language is added. A beautiful replacement for sound.

Mitch is definitely living his life to the fullest. He is now married. He still has a long list of countries to visit and things to experience  but he has done more to date than I ever expected from him in his whole life.  My view of success for a deaf child in adulthood was a job, an apartment, a car and hopefully someone to love. To date he can check all those boxes…and more.

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How do we make sure our deaf kids view the glass as half-full? I don’t have any great answers but it seems to me that experiences are what fill up that glass. We were lucky that we had a child who wanted to explore and experience life to its fullest. I think this is to be encouraged–not just our deaf kids–but all kids.

 

Rhonda Bergsma

Follow her on her blog, Deaf-initely Mitch

 

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