Two East Valley families each awoke one day to the same news: They have a deaf child. With that, they had to make education choices in a time when technology has given parents more options.
Sixteen-year-old Brittany Steinhoff of Mesa cannot hear or speak, but excels in college and high school classes using sign language. Five-year-old Henry Matney of northeast Phoenix has set signing aside. He talks and is learning to hear electronic impulses that simulate sound through a cochlear implant in his ear.
An emotional rift in the deaf community and among educators can make it difficult for parents to choose their child’s path — a decision that must be made as the baby still coos in their arms.
Many don’t think children need to be "fixed" with the implants that are growing in popularity among parents — especially hearing parents of deaf children.
Often, though, parents and educators are eager to use the latest technology to help deaf children learn to hear sound recreated by cochlear implants.
Each side hopes to change recent national studies that show deaf students often graduate high school reading at second- to fourth-grade levels.
"Sign language is what helps them to understand — it’s very important," Steinhoff said in American Sign Language through an interpreter at her Mesa charter school, Sequoia School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
She fits in easily and confidently with hearing students, she said, and keeps up in her college classes, sometimes serving as a role model for students who struggle to bridge the gap from sign language to spoken language.
An implant, which experts say recreates sound like a computerized voice, has helped Matney bridge the gap, but he still has some trouble determining what direction a sound is coming from.
He’s had a cochlear implant since he was 1 year old, but even those 12 months of no sound has him racing to catch up and learn what words are, his mother, Jill, said.
"He got to the point he was very frustrated — he didn’t have the language," Jill Matney said. "He couldn’t really communicate. I think if Henry was dependent on just signing or lip reading, then he would be so cut off."
This year, Steinhoff will graduate from Sequoia, a bilingual high school where hearing and deaf students mingle and use American Sign Language.
Sequoia principal Curt Radford said teaching American Sign Language is essential because it helps deaf children understand the concept of a language based on sound — and the implants don’t work for all children.
Too many public schoolteachers, he said, place the bar low for deaf or hearing-impaired students, Radford said.
"Schools should be accepting deaf people for who they are," he said, rather than "fix them and put them in the mainstream."
Henry Matney’s family moved to the north East Valley so the boy, whose siblings attend Scottsdale’s Sequoya Elementary School, could attend the private Desert Voices Oral Learning Center in Phoenix.
"We actually teach the children how to listen using cochlear implants or hearing aides," said Desert Voices executive director Kristin Negilski. "Then teaching them to talk using their voice."
The training should start when children are babies or toddlers, Negilski said, so they don’t fall behind.
Lynne Davison, department chairwoman and teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing in the Mesa Unified School District, said schools work with audiologists to identify early children with hearing problems and offer parents a wide variety of choices.
"There are many within the deaf community who are not in favor of cochlear implants because they don’t view themselves as being impaired or handicapped and they view deaf as their culture and (American Sign Language) as their language," Davison said. "But I’m seeing growth in the oral deaf population. I think it’s phenomenal that we have the option to restore hearing. It comes down to a personal choice: A family choice."