Health & Wellness

USU Begins Innovative Program for Deaf Children

Permanent hearing loss is the most frequent birth defect in the United States, affecting 12,000 newborns each year. If these babies are not identified during the first few months of life and provided with appropriate assistance, hearing loss can cause devastating problems for a child’s language, learning and social development.


Until recently, most children with permanent hearing loss were not identified until they were 2-3 years of age — far too late. Fortunately, recent advancements in universal newborn hearing screening programs, improved hearing aids and cochlear-implant technology mean most of these children can develop language and achieve in school as well as their typically hearing peers.

 “Instead of attending special schools for the deaf, many of these children can now develop spoken language, attend their neighborhood schools and require little, if any, special education services,” said Karl White, director of USU’s National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management, which is responsible, in large part, for the advances in newborn hearing screening around the world.
 
Utah State University’s Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education and NCHAM recently unveiled details about a new educational program that is a one-of-a-kind effort in the Intermountain Region.
 
Called “Sound Beginnings of Cache Valley,” the $3 million initiative will have what is called an auditory-oral focus, which means the program will focus on developing spoken language and listening skills, according to “Sound Beginnings” Program Director Todd Houston. He stressed that this new initiative will provide an alternative for deaf children and their families, but will not replace the department’s existing sign language training program.
 
“Because of newborn hearing screening, we can now get a definitive diagnosis of hearing loss within a few months of birth, and now we have the technology to enable deaf children to develop language similarly to their hearing peers,” said Beth Foley, department head of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education at USU. “The improvements in technology have been dramatic, and these advances have caused a major revolution — an exciting revolution — that has changed the field of educating deaf people. More important, it has changed the lives of thousands of deaf children and their families.”
 
An important part of the initiative will be a tuition-free, early childhood educational program housed on USU’s campus, Houston said. The full-day, full-week school will open in fall 2007 and will offer daily access to specialists in early childhood deaf education, pediatric audiology and speech-language pathology. Services will include school-based services for older toddlers and preschoolers, home visits for infants and toddlers, and — an important component — coordination with the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind and other service providers in the region.
 
The preschool is significant in the services it will provide for its young patrons and their families, but it also will be a critical training ground for graduate students in deaf education, speech-language pathology and audiology in the department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education. Most university-based training programs for teachers of the deaf still focus primarily on sign language-based services. Houston said that is appropriate since there is an important need for educators and clinicians to serve families that want to communicate via sign language. But many families now prefer to communicate via spoken language, and training programs for educators and clinicians to serve these families are simply are not available in most of the country.
 
“Parents can, and should be, able to choose how they want to communicate with their children,” Houston said. “The fact is that 95 percent of all newborns with permanent hearing loss are born to hearing parents, and with all of the advances in the field, most of these parents want to communicate via spoken language. Many parents are now choosing to get their children cochlear implants, and these children need intensive follow-up training and services to take full advantage of this technology.”
 
He said there is little point in putting in cochlear implants if they are not followed by appropriate intervention and support. The services available now can’t provide the intensity of services necessary. Only a few sites in the nation are capable of offering that support, and the “Sound Beginnings” initiative is ground-breaking in the Intermountain West. In fact, Houston said there is no similar program in place between San Francisco and St. Louis.
 
“Unfortunately, these programs are not available in many parts of the country, and parents shouldn’t have to move elsewhere to have access to these services,” he said. “We’ve heard many stories of parents having to pack up and move long distances just so they can have this opportunity for their children.”
 
Foley said Houston’s national and international expertise will add significantly to the department’s already highly regarded status and, especially, its ability to attract top-notch graduate students to the program. He is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on hearing technology and teaching deaf children to listen and talk. He is the former executive director and chief executive officer of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington, D.C. AG Bell is the world’s oldest and largest consumer organization for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
 
Parents who would like to learn more about the program or who may be interested in having their children participate in the tuition-free preschool can contact the USU Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education, 435-797-7554, or the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management, 435-797-1224, or email Vicki.Simonsmeier@usu.edu or diane.behl@usu.edu.

A teacher and toddler in a pre-school session

A teacher uses a play-based activity to facilitate listening and spoken language with a toddler with a cochlear implant.

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