Making The Grade:
A Hard of Hearing Adult looks back on
Her Education

By Debra Capella

I started my education in Illinois in a classroom for preschool children with hearing losses.  This is where I learned to read as a 4-1/2 year old.  Miss Bratlie went through the alphabet every day we met and next to each letter was a picture and a word beginning with that letter.  I shall never forget the day that the "light bulb" came on.  It was during the time that she was going over the alphabet.  We had just done "Y" for yellow.  Suddenly I understood that the word "yellow" was "yellow"  and then I looked back at the word "orange" and figured out that the word was "orange".  So I basically picked up reading by sight reading.

This wasn't because I had been hearing for 4-1/2 years.  My Mother discovered my hearing loss when I was 3-1/2 years old.  She kept asking the doctors why I wasn't  talking yet.  They assured her I was fine and that in due time I would talk.  One day I went out to play but she wanted me to wear a sweater.  So she called me in her normal tone, but I didn't respond.  So she called my name a little louder, and still I did not respond.  So she kept calling my name louder until I responded.  She said that when I turned around, I had the sweetest smile on my face and that was when she realized that I had not heard her until she had yelled.

They (probably my parents and the teacher) decided that since I was reading that I could skip kindergarten and go on to 1st grade even as a 5 year old.  Even though I was an avid reader and read many books (won most contests on number of books read until they "disqualified" me), I was never pushed to read challenging books and never asked about the book I read.  As a consequence, I only read for pleasure and did not learn the skill of learning information from what I read.

When I was "mainstreamed" in 4th Grade, I think the teachers thought I couldn't handle tougher books (which may have been right).  I was in the "lowest" reading group.  Some of the problems which they may have seen, (but I don't perceive them as trying to help me) were that I didn't think about the content of the book particularly as relating to life, and a low vocabulary because I didn't look up words that I didn't know (probably because the story was so exciting I couldn't take the time to get the dictionary out and look it up).

I always did poorly on assessment tests.  Usually it was because of my vocabulary-I didn't hear the bigger words used in everyday life.  I think people tended to use a smaller vocabulary when talking to me.  It was difficult for me to listen to table conversation at mealtimes (when I probably would have heard the bigger words) and eat at the same time so I tended to be in my own world a lot.  My dear Father has a voice in the range that is difficult for me to hear and I have to really concentrate to hear him.  He often shared what was happening at work but I tended to tune him out.  (I say all that because my brother and sister who have normal hearing scored at the top of their assessment tests as students.  So I think they were enriched by family conversation.)

Another reason for doing poorly on the assessment tests was that I was never taught how to pick out the main idea in a story or paragraph.  When taking the test, I would read the selection then read the question and then reread the selection and try to figure out the answer to the question.  Usually the question was related to the main idea, which I found to be difficult to answer.  I think that current students are taught that the main idea is usually found in the first  sentence.

When I was a student, we sometimes watched movies.  I gained very little information from these movies because they were not closed-captioned.  I think today's students are at an advantage because they do have advocates and many movies do have closed-caption.  (I was pleased the last time I went to the IMAX Theater at the Museum of Natural History that they had equipment available for reading the closed caption.)  The availability of closed caption on television also aids students in their vocabulary building. 

The other major problem I had in classroom settings in high school was where the method of learning was through class discussions.  I usually could not understand fellow students talking and thus didn't gain any information from the discussion.  This again is an area where I wish I had a note taker available.  I think students here have better advocates for them and probably would have help available. One other problem was that I had a few teachers who were tough for me to hear.  I learned very little from their lectures.  I have thought about what the solution would have been (of course, now they have FM systems available which is fantastic) but I probably should have been more vocal about my classroom situation to my parents.  I just chalked it up as something I had to cope with.  I know that with my children that their usual response to my inquiry about what they learned that day is "NOTHING".  Fortunately, their teachers often send home newsletters indicating what they are learning and I can quiz them on the subject matter and get a feel for their understanding and what they are learning or not learning.

It takes work by the student, teacher, and parents to help a student increase their vocabulary.  I thought of 5 ways to help the student:  1) Hear it, if possible (I still mispronounce words because I don't hear them); 2)Read it; 3) Use it both in oral and written language; 4) Learn Latin - helps to figure out new words and their meanings; and 5) Write down synonyms even for words the student already knows.  I have told my boys that most ideas or things have two words for them.  For example, a ball can be called a sphere.

I hope that my perspective on education and the suggestions I have given can help parents understand the needs more clearly of students who are hard of hearing in the classroom.  I know that our kids, with the right support, can "make the grade".

Debra Capella is an adult who is hard of hearing, and has 4 sons, one of whom is hard of hearing.  She is a national member of Families for Hands & Voices.

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