Making Sense: Deaf Children And The Choices Their Parents Face
As she sat with her newborn in the hospital bed after a long and painful labor, an exhausted Corrine Walters held her son close, rocking him in her tired arms. Her first child. She smiled at him.
“Hi Jackson, you’re here, finally!” Corinne remembered saying. “I’m your mom!”
Read the full story, view videos in American Sign Language, and listen to the radio documentary at wnpr.org/makingsense.
It was July 1, 2011, and that inimitable feeling of creating a life overwhelmed her and her husband, Ryan. The pregnancy had gone perfectly. Newly married, the couple had recently graduated college, gotten jobs, and bought a condominium in Connecticut. They had wanted to wait a year before trying for kids, and by the time they were ready, she got pregnant.
“Everything was going great,” Corinne said. “He was the first grandchild so the whole family was super excited.”
Friends had told her about that special moment when your child hears your voice and connects to you. There’s even evidence that a baby in the womb can already identify the mother’s voice. Corinne couldn’t wait to say hello.
But something unexpected happened. Jackson wouldn’t respond to her voice. He instead stared at the bright fluorescent lights above the bed. He appeared captivated by them.
“I knew something was going on,” she said. But she questioned herself.
“Moms are very hypervigilant when it comes to their kids and I think that was my first ‘mom moment’,” she said. “Like, what’s wrong with him? It was just something that I questioned for one second and then it went away.”
When Jackson failed the initial hearing screening at the hospital, nurses and friends told Corinne it’s common. It’s just the amniotic fluid in his ears from the labor, it will pass. She went back for another test a week later, and he failed that one, too. A third test was scheduled.
“In that time, of course I started doing crazy stuff, like smashing kitchen pans together and screaming real quick to see if he would get startled, and he wasn’t,” she said. “Then I started to get a little nervous.”
Jackson had to be asleep for the third test, called an auditory brainstem response, which shows whether the inner ear, or cochlea, is working. It also checks the brain pathways for hearing. An audiologist placed electrodes onto her son’s tiny head while he slept. A machine sent signals through the electrodes and into Jackson’s brain, measuring the response.
“I didn’t fully understand the whole test, so I was kind of praying he would sleep the whole time,” she said. The machine was connected to a computer that she watched as they tested her son. The monitor remained blank.
“I can still picture the screen,” she said. “They were getting nothing… I didn’t see any of the movement the whole time. When she told me that that’s what they had been looking for over the past 45 minutes, I just lost it, I started crying.”
They told her Jackson was profoundly deaf, unable to hear any sound.
“Like, sign language deaf?” Corinne remembered asking, admitting now that she didn’t know there was a spectrum of hearing abilities.
“I didn’t know anything about cochlear implants or that deaf people could learn to speak,” she said.
Within minutes, a hospital worker handed her two pamphlets about her options and that was it.
“And we were sent home,” she said. Other families were waiting for their tests, and there wasn’t any time for consultation, or consolation.
Now she and her husband had to make a choice -- and they had to choose quickly. How would Jackson communicate? Should they teach him sign language? Or should they teach him to speak? Both? Every moment of delay risked stifling his brain development.
Questions raced through her head. What does all this mean? What’s next? The questions multiplied as her family learned more. As they sought help, it quickly became apparent that there were deep divisions among the experts. Precious time began to slip away with every contradictory thing she was told.
They needed time to think. But Jackson needed language immediately.