Sunday, October 11, 2009

New boss, new language skills focus for Utah deaf school

Source Link - New boss, new language skills focus for Utah deaf school

Herriman » The stackable, wooden rings are clearly Zeke's favorite.

But the 20-month-old has spotted something new, a black and orange bucket. He grabs it, taps on the lid -- signaling to his therapist Melody Mower to open it -- and peeks inside to find a hand puppet in the shape of a ghost.

"What is it?" said Mower, encouraging Zeke to say, "Boo, ooo, ooo."

This is no simple Halloween activity. It's a therapeutic strategy to help Zeke, who is profoundly deaf, master "Ling Sounds," the building blocks of speech: Ah, Ooo, Eee, Mmm, Ssss, Shhhh.

And it's with such early interventions that new schools for the deaf and blind superintendent Steven Noyce plans to improve deaf education in Utah.
Zeke Butterfield, who is 20-months-old and deaf, plays with a toy telephone as he is taught to associate all object with a sound. Utah Schools for Deaf and Blind parent adviser Melody Mower visits Zeke once a week to to help craft an education and intervention plan. Zeke who received a cochlear implant three months ago has improved significantly in his language development. (Francisco Kjolseth / The Salt Lake Tribune )

A longtime advocate of oral deaf education, Noyce is no stranger to Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind (USDB), having overseen its Salt Lake programs years ago.

It's "a true gem," said Noyce who says elsewhere deaf and blind education is provided by large school districts or a consortium of districts, which don't always have the right resources or know-how.

Noyce has reforms in mind for USDB's blind programs, too. But he's starting first with what he knows best.

Most of USDB's hearing intervention specialists have a master's degree and some level of certification. Noyce wants them all certified in sign language and auditory verbal therapy.

He's not vowing a shake-up. And he believes most of the training can be done in-house using already trained staff.

But he has made it clear to employees that, "We need the best trained, most capable people in our early intervention programs."

"Some of our specialists have a long road ahead of them," he said.

Noyce's emphasis on oral education risks alienating adherents of American Sign Language, some of whom believe teaching deaf children to speak threatens the continued existence of deaf culture.

But that sentiment is changing with technological advances in hearing aids and cochlear implants. Today, deaf children are learning to listen and talk. And they're being mainstreamed in school as early as age 3.

Noyce is quick to stress he's not abandoning sign language.

"Parents need to make that choice," he says. "And they need to understand those choices before making them."

That's Mower's job. The hearing intervention specialist has visited Zeke weekly since he was three months old. She'll continue her therapy sessions until he's 3 years old, at which point he'll either transition to a USDB program or mainstream preschool.

Mower started by teaching signs to Zeke and his parents Brandon and Alex Butterfield, neither of whom are deaf.

Parent education is central to USDB's parent-infant program. When Zeke was fitted with a hearing aid, Mower helped the Butterfields determine it wasn't working.

Since July, when his cochlear implant was activated, the focus has been on training Zeke to listen. She bathes the toddler in language, using tricks of the hearing interventionist trade to help Zeke make connections between sound and meaning. Through practice and reinforcement by his parents, Zeke will build on simple sound and begin to learn to say whole words and sentences.

"His ears are just three months old, which means he has the hearing of a three-month-old baby," said Mower.

But he's making quick progress. "He knows 80 signs, but has dropped some in favor of sound," said his mom Alex.

Catching children early when their brains are still developing is key, said Noyce who is considering upping visits to two times a week.

"If they choose the auditory path, one visit isn't enough," he said. Noyce also wants to launch a weekly parent-toddlers support group to build camaraderie among families.

About 85 percent of parents of deaf children choose to an oral language path.

Some change their mind midstream. Cochlear implants aren't prescribed for everybody, said Mower.

And even with the implant, Zeke's hearing won't be perfect. There are times he can't use it; in the bath and at night while he's sleeping.

For this reason, the Butterfields are also visited weekly by a deaf mentor who hones the family's sign language skills and introduces them to deaf culture.

"It used to be you had to choose one or the other," said his dad Brandon. "We're lucky and thankful to have options."