Many parents have videos of their baby's first steps. John and Kristen Scifres of Granite Bay cherish footage of the moment their baby could first hear.
Their son, Kevin, now a first-grader, was born deaf, the result of a rare recessive gene. At 9 months old, he had cochlear implant surgery, making him among the first children in the world under a year old to have the operation, and one of only a few to have both ears implanted simultaneously.
With video camera rolling, headphones were placed on Kevin, the implants were activated, and he heard his first sounds, the beeps of the hearing test.
"He immediately started smiling," Scifres said. "It was a magical, magical moment. We still celebrate his hearing birthday."
The Scifreses are among a growing number of parents choosing technology to help their deaf children hear, including cochlear implants and hearing aids. And more parents are choosing oral deaf education, also called auditory oral education, to teach deaf children to listen and talk.
The shift means children who are deaf or have profound hearing loss don't rely on sign language. They can be mainstreamed into public schools and integrated into a hearing world.
Surgical and technological breakthroughs, along with new ways of teaching, allow such children to hear and speak. Some say it could improve their chances to go to college, get better jobs and make more money, which has an economic impact on both the deaf and hearing populations.
More than 36 million Americans have some sort of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
About three children in every 1,000 nationwide are born deaf or profoundly hard of hearing, said Nikolas Blevins, director of the Stanford Cochlear Implant Center and chief of Stanford University's division of otology. Another three in 1,000 children will develop hearing problems by age 5, he said.
"There's a big societal impact there," Blevins said. "This gets to where we as a society spend our dollars in treating and educating our children."
The societal costs of educating and supporting a deaf child can exceed $1 million over the person's lifetime, including special education and lost work productivity, according to Blevins.
"If we can take some of that money and invest it early, we have the potential to integrate them into the hearing world," he said.
A cochlear implant device alone costs up to $30,000, and education and therapy afterward can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, but returns are healthier in terms of productivity and quality of life, Blevins said.
"We are now seeing kids with cochlear implants graduating from college, and becoming doctors and lawyers in the hearing world," Blevins said. "When you look at the decreased wages and societal costs of deaf children, this becomes a positive investment for our society."
Oral deaf education is a personal choice for families, said Laura Turner, principal of Children's Choice for Hearing and Talking in Rancho Cordova, a leading school in the field of teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children to listen and develop spoken language. Many deaf advocates argue that deaf people already have a culture and support network, and that sign language is a valid form of communicationm, she said.
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