One Family’s Journey

Maybe The Manual is in the
Box to the Left

By Maria and Allie Renninger

hiAllie camping in July

As a college senior, I briefly studied language acquisition in deaf children. My reaction was “Wow, this is fascinating; this is for me.” I planned to proceed to graduate school and make it my field. But it was the mid-1990s, and the recession was lingering. There was scant chance the grant-funded research project I was wrapping up that year would be succeeded by a fresh one. Rent had to be paid. I thought, “No studying deaf kids and language yet--maybe I can get to grad school in a few years.” Then, I got a job writing educational software, and bought a little single-gal starter-house in Seattle, and the years passed.

And, in one of those mystical, in-awe-of-the-turns-of-the-universe moments, I realized: “Now I get to learn about language acquisition in deaf children.” Immediately following rushed in the thought, “My goodness, I have a lot to learn.”

Then came 2003. That September, I gave birth to my daughter Allie, confident she would be left-handed. Her dad and I both were; obviously, it was meant to be. Allie’s birth was medically dramatic, such that in our hospital room, relieved and happy, I thought, “My baby is healthy, I’m holding her, and things are great!” Soon a volunteer came by to conduct a hearing screen on my lovely little baby. I looked at that machine and all those electrodes, and this person who wanted to hook up my baby to all that. I glared, thinking, “GET AWAY FROM HER!” Luckily, Allie’s dad Brian was there, and unlike me at that moment, he wasn’t flooded with postpartum hormones, nor about a quart short in blood supply. He calmly replied, “That seems like a good idea.”

So, we did the screen. The display read, “Refer.” It was so simplistic of a response that I assumed it related to how to operate the machine, and I asked the volunteer, “Refer to what? The operating manual?” (Thus began the many times I would wish for an operating manual as a new mom.)  For any message relating to my baby, I expected many more words, such as--

 Dear Maria,

This miraculous, amazing, beautiful child may be partially or totally deaf.

Please visit a wonderfully expert audiologist to find out for certain. If she does turn out to be deaf, remember to ask for the manual!

By the way, did we mention how amazing your baby is?

The Electrodes

--but nope, the display said only, “Refer.”

The volunteer screener shared that it usually turns out to be fluid in the baby’s ears, but to get her hearing checked in six weeks. That seemed reasonable, considering all the fluid Allie had recently experienced. So we made a follow-up appointment for a hearing test.

A few months later, after some frustrating detours to not-so-helpful medical offices, we gratefully landed at Seattle Children’s Hospital. We were indeed visiting a wonderfully expert pediatric audiologist. We learned that Allie was moderately deaf in both ears and could benefit from using hearing aids.

My first thought was, “I wonder if you can get hearing aids in bright colors now.” Back when I was in first grade, an older girl at my school had beige hearing aids. But Allie’s older cousins’ braces and retainers had fun, bright colors, even graphic designs. Surely these days there also would be fun options for kids’ hearing aids? And, in one of those mystical, in-awe-of-the-turns-of-the-universe moments, I realized: “Now I get to learn about language acquisition in deaf children.” Immediately following rushed in the thought, “My goodness, I have a lot to learn.”

At that audiology appointment, it took us about 20 minutes to choose colors for four-month-old Allie (bright red earmolds and bright yellow BTEs). Now almost 10 years old, Allie has been picking her own colors since she could point, and always picks at least two colors for each earmold, for a minimum total of four colors. She uses translucent-purple BTEs decked out with two-tone tube twists from Hayleigh’s Cherished Charms. (Thank you, Hayleigh!) We have ASL-signing friends, SEE-signing friends, and Auditory-Verbal friends. Our own family is a communication hybrid. Allie is primarily verbal but we sign ASL, also. She uses her hearing aids sometimes, other times not. She prefers the term “partly deaf,” rather than “hearing impaired,” “hard of hearing,” or “hearing loss,” because as she says, “I’m not a broken hearing person.” She doesn’t like fruit; she does like vegetables. She is an avid reader with lots of friends. She is not, however, left-handed. She is very definitely right-handed. It’s as if she’s intent on being her own person.

And I am still looking for the manual.

Editor’s note: Renninger became the board president for Washington H&V in August. She wanted to share this story by way of introduction, and invites any H&V members traveling through the Seattle area to get in touch. “I’d love to meet people from the larger H&V community.” Find her at

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