The Ouellette Family:
Journey through Choices
by Karen Putz
"I'm really sorry to tell you this," said the doctor to Sue and Glenn Ouellette. "Your daughter does not appear to have normal hearing."
"You mean she's deaf?" Sue responded. "How cool is that!"
The doctor was a bit surprised at her response, yet he shouldn't have been.
Dr. Sue Ouellette is the Chair of the Department of Communicative Disorders at Northern Illinois University . She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and has her own practice. She was the former Director of Research for the Research and Training Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. For 30 years, her career has been immersed in studying hearing loss and deaf and hard of hearing people.
Sue and her husband Glenn adopted their first child, Cami, from Korea at the age of seven months. A screening of her hearing prior to the adoption indicated that she could hear. A few months later, Sue began to suspect that Cami had a hearing loss. A sound booth test was inconclusive, but an ABR confirmed what she suspected: Cami's hearing loss was 90 to 95 decibels across all frequencies.
Despite Sue's initial reaction, the next day she and Glenn experienced an overwhelming feeling of sadness and grief. "It was a time of saying goodbye to the Cami that we thought could hear," says Sue, "and getting to know Cami as a baby who was deaf."
Sue also realized that they were fortunate. She and Glenn had many deaf and hard of hearing friends, and her years of experience and knowledge about hearing loss enabled them to quickly make decisions about hearing aids and therapy options.
Deciding on a communication mode presented some difficulty, said Sue. "When Cami's hearing loss was first identified, it looked like she was going to be more hard of hearing than deaf. I knew immediately that I wanted to use sign with her, but the literature on the bi-lingual/bi-cultural approach was just really starting to come out, as were articles that suggested that Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE) enhanced reading ability.
"Language development was my primary concern, so it made sense to me to give Cami as many ways as possible to understand me," continued Sue. "I opted for signing and speaking simultaneously for several reasons. First, I didn't want to deny Cami the opportunity to obtain information through her ears (and hearing aids) if that was a possible avenue for her. I figured ears and eyes were better than eyes alone. Also, Cami's father was not a signer when she was first identified, and I didn't want to exclude him from being actively involved in communicating with her. I figured he could learn to speak and sign simultaneously much more easily than he could learn ASL.
"I want to stress, though, that this was all based on our understanding that Cami had a lot of useable hearing. If she had been profoundly deaf, I might have made a very different decision. I truly believe, as David Denton (author of "Listening to Deafness, An Old Song Sung Differently") advocated years ago, that the method must fit the child!"
"We also exposed Cami to ASL," continued Sue, "from the time she was a baby. I switched to ASL to tell her stories when her hearing aids were out (like at bath time) and showed her videos of native signers using ASL. We also have many deaf friends who used ASL with her and I took her to many events and activities where she saw ASL in use."
Sue and Glenn went on to adopt two other children, Michael (now 11) and Matthew (now 16). When Matthew was around six or eight years of age, he told Sue, "Mom, Dad and I are the only hearing people in the family!" He concluded that his Mom must be deaf, because she could sign. Prior to the adoption, Michael was diagnosed with a conductive hearing loss. Because his loss is purely conductive, bone conduction hearing aids came close to duplicating normal hearing for him.
Like Cami, Michael was enrolled in a pre-school program for hard of hearing children. "It was a wonderful, language-rich environment in which everyone signed and spoke," said Sue. "Michael doesn't use an interpreter because his hearing is pretty much normal when aided." (He recently had surgery for the BAHA, Bone-Anchored Hearing Aid).
"He did use an FM for a while, but he benefits greatly from the services of an itinerant teacher (trained in Deaf Education) who consults with his classroom teachers and works individually with Michael on things he has difficulty with. Michael also sees a counselor with specialized training in deafness and that has helped a lot with his social skills and confidence."
"Cami's educational choices were more complicated," Sue continued. "She was reading at the age of three, so she was quite advanced academically when she started kindergarten. We looked at the Illinois School for the Deaf, but it wasn't a good fit, so we decided to enroll her in her home school with a full-time interpreter. This worked well until middle school."
"By that time," said Sue, "there were huge gaps between Cami and her classmates on a number of things, and she was growing increasingly unhappy. We visited the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora and thought the extremely rich academic environment and commitment to the unique development of each student would be ideal."
Cami entered IMSA as a sophomore (skipping her freshman year) and graduated at the age of 16. "IMSA was wonderful about working with a full-time interpreter who has the unenviable task of interpreting courses with names like 'pathogenic microbiology!' " laughed Sue.
During Cami's senior year, her hearing began to decline and she began to re-think her choice of attending colleges without programs for deaf and hard of hearing students. At the last minute, Cami decided that Rochester Institute of Technology would be her choice, based on their access to a large deaf community, excellent interpreters, and other support services. "Since her hearing has continued to decline," said Sue, "we think she made a wise choice!"
Cami is now 18 and obtained a cochlear implant during winter break. Sue says that she is enjoying the many new sounds she is hearing. For Sue and Glenn, having two children with two very different types of hearing loss has brought them on a journey of exploring choices to fit each child and their family. "What works for your child and your family is what makes the choice right."