Yet, cochlear implants are surging in popularity for deaf adults and children, and even babies as young as 5 months, Blevins said.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 219,000 people worldwide have received the implants since they were pioneered in the 1980s. In the United States, roughly 42,600 adults and 28,400 children have received them.
Blevins said the Stanford clinic has implanted about 80 devices in the past year.
The procedure bypasses damaged portions of the ear with electronic devices that directly stimulate the auditory nerve. It can be performed on very young children, because the cochlea is full-grown at birth.
In the implantation, a tiny electrode array is surgically placed in the core of the cochlea, while a receiver is placed just under the skin behind the ear. A microphone and speech processor are positioned on the outside of the ear, picking up sounds and arranging them.
After implantation, patients undergo therapy to learn how to interpret the sounds. For very young children, there's a time crunch, Blevins said.
"There are critical periods for language development early on, where kids need auditory input to understand and learn speech," he said. "We can't go back and make up lost ground. The developing brain doesn't save space for things, so it's important to get auditory signals in early, so the brain can make sense of sound."
Turner's CCHAT group, which opened in 1996 with a dozen students, is one of only two auditory oral programs serving children in Northern California.
Now, about 70 students, fitted with hearing aids, personal FM amplification systems or cochlear implants, attend the Rancho Cordova school, with some parents making the daily commute from as far away as Redding, Chico, Reno and Fresno, said Turner, the principal.
She said deaf children relying on sign language are often cut off from hearing family members and friends who don't sign. And they can't talk on the phone, which further limits their world.
"Ninety-five percent of deaf or hearing-impaired babies are born into hearing families," Turner said. "The first thing parents think is, 'Everyone needs to learn sign language.' But with the technology available today, there's good options for allowing these children to participate in the culture of their own family. With early identification, appropriate amplification and intervention, they can speak and learn to listen alongside their hearing peers."
CCHAT's teachers and speech therapists focus primarily on preschoolers from 2 months old to 5 years of age, with the goal of transitioning them into public school kindergarten, where they can participate in regular education classes with hearing students. The school also works with some older elementary school children.
The privately funded school, operated by the nonprofit Foundation for Hearing Research, costs $35,000 a year for each student, but it's free for their families, with $25,000 coming from state education funding and $10,000 coming from school fundraising campaigns and private donations.
Turner said auditory oral learning for deaf children can save taxpayers $400,000 per child in special education costs.
"We also know that deaf adults represent a cost to society, as they have a high incidence of getting general assistance, unemployment and lower wages," she said.
While CCHAT students are taught how to listen carefully and concentrate, the school also smashes notions of deaf schools being quiet, with teachers asking questions and kids shooting up their hands to answer. The school is alive with the sound of children chattering and playing musical instruments.
Six years ago, California joined other states in making hearing tests mandatory before newborns leave the hospital. The early diagnosis allows parents to become educated and make informed decisions in a crucial time.
The mandatory test, just two weeks after implementation, caught Kevin Scifres' hearing loss, which his mother said she may not have noticed for months, perhaps years.
Kevin started attending CCHAT at 6 months, even before his implant procedure, and at 4 years graduated into regular kindergarten.
Today, he is a bright and active student in his local public school. He's at the top of his reading group, likes Spanish, riding bikes and skiing, and plays soccer, basketball and baseball.
When asked how he handles questions about his cochlear implant, he is straightforward and confident.
"I tell people I was born without hearing, and this is how I hear," he said. "I usually try to explain it. I don't feel bad about it. It actually helps me hear good."
Krista Rey, a Lodi native who graduated from CCHAT, is a sophomore at George Fox University in Newburg, Ore., pursuing a teaching degree. She was fitted for hearing aids at 15 months old, and learned to speak and listen at CCHAT.
Rey said her world would be completely different if her parents had chosen a sign-language option for her instead of sending her to CCHAT.
"If I were to sign, I wouldn't be able to enjoy sports like I do," said Rey, 19. "I would have needed more help. Honestly, I don't think I would have made it to college. Now, I'm able to live a fairly normal life. I live in the dorms, I have a lot of friends who are great people. I don't need a translator in class. I love being independent and on my own."
-- Children's Choice for Hearing and Talking is a Rancho Cordova school that teaches deaf and hard of hearing children to listen and develop spoken language. www.cchatsacramento.org, (916) 361-7290.
-- The National Organization for Hearing Research Foundation funds research into causes, prevention, treatments and cures of hearing loss and deafness; nohrfoundation.org
-- Oral Deaf Education is a clearinghouse for matters regarding one schooling approach for deaf and hard-of-hearing children; www.oraldeafed.org.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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