When Gail Davis learned that her one-year-old daughter, Anna, was severely hearing impaired, her initial reaction as a hearing impaired person herself, was one of devastation.
"Because I was hearing impaired, I knew what that meant for her and I did not want that for her," said Gail, an animated petite woman who accentuates her words with sweeping gestures from her expressive hands.
But with continued advances in the development of hearing implants and additional lessons in speech therapy, Anna, who just began sixth grade, is now at the top of her class academically and has a busy social life.
"This is who I am and I don't want to change anything because I like being deaf," said Anna, a sweet girl with a mane of curly red hair which sometimes completely hides her hearing aids and cochlear implant and other times is worn pulled back.
Gail, who also has hearing aids, said she was surprised when her daughter left for school recently with her hair pulled back. Growing up in the 1960's when understanding about people with disabilities was not what it is today, Gail said she always wore her hair down to hide her hearing aids and was very self-conscious about the way she talked.
Anna was born with nerve hearing loss, something that her mother began to suspect when she was just 3 months old. She had her first hearing aid when she was 12 months. Gail said she and her husband were adamant that their daughter receive intervention quickly because they knew that 85 percent of a child's language skills are already developed by the time they are 18 months old.
Despite early intervention through such statewide programs for children with disabilities as Babies Can't Wait and Georgia PINES, Gail was still concerned with the progress of Anna's speech development. So she left her job in business management to be a stay-at-home mom for five years and work with Anna on her language development.
When Anna was old enough to begin school, Gail began going along on her first day of class each year in order to talk to her classmates about the hearing aids that Anna wears. From her own experience, Gail knew many of the thoughtless and hurtful comments made about people with disabilities come from ignorance. By addressing Anna's classmates' curiosity head-on, Gail hoped to spare her daughter any of the discomfort she had to go through as a child.
Gail's strategy worked. The strides American culture has made in its acceptance and understanding of people with disabilities are evident when Anna talks about what it has been like for her at Mansfield Elementary and now at Indian Creek Middle School.
"Nobody judged me on my hearing, on my hearing implants," Anna said.
While Anna's integration with her classmates was proceeding smoothly, her hearing continued to deteriorate to the point where she was almost completely deaf. The silver lining to her loss, however was that she was now eligible for a cochlear implant.
"I really wanted her to get an implant, but you have to be profoundly deaf to get that," Gail said.
Cochlear implants work similarly to the normal hearing process, but use electrical impulses to stimulate the brain stem so a person can hear.
Anna received her first implant in December 2003 when she was 7. Prior to the surgery, half of her head was shaved in order to make way for the wide 'C' incision the doctors would have to make before they could drill a small hole into her skull where they placed the cochlear implant. It took 28 staples to close up the incision.
Reflecting on that period, Anna said the thing she liked least about it was the partially shaved head. Gail said Anna quickly adapted to her new hearing ability and began to make substantial improvements in her hearing and speech development with the assistance of her Mansfield Elementary speech teacher, Meik Lee, who the family credits with her now natural and fluent speech.
Anna had a second cochlear implant surgery this past December for "surround sound hearing" as her mother calls it. The implants should be good for another 10 years before new ones are needed. Each surgery cost approximately $78,000. Fortunately health insurance covered the large majority of the surgeries, Gail said.
Gail credited Michael Moore's recent documentary "Sicko," which drew attention to the lack of health coverage of the cochlear implant surgery to persuading more health insurance companies to begin to pay for the procedure.
From the beginning of Anna's diagnosis as hearing impaired, Gail has been a strong advocate for early childhood intervention, going so far as to speak at Georgia PINES conferences and before hospital boards about her own experiences as a parent of a hearing-impaired child.
"I had always been self-conscious about my own speech impediment," Gail said, recalling the first time she had to speak in front of a large audience.
With her daughter in her lap, Gail said she just decided to speak from the heart on how important it was to her that her daughter should get to live a full and healthy life. Moved by her words, many members of the audience broke down into tears she said.
Since then Gail has earned certification as a Georgia PINES Parent Advisor.
Through her own experiences with Anna, she decided to become a special education teacher. She is now employed at Mansfield Elementary, where she was recently named 'Teacher of the Year' for the school.
When she graduated from Mansfield this past spring, Anna was given an award for having a grade point average of 96 or above throughout her entire elementary school career. A dancer for many years, she is also learning how to horseback ride and has plans to get her SCUBA certification.
"It's a silent world," Anna said, describing her love for being underwater.
To implant or not
When she and her husband decided to go through with implant surgery for Anna, Gail said she was approached by members of the deaf community who questioned her decision. They wanted to know what was wrong with sign language instead.
"I told her I wanted to give [Anna] a choice," said Gail, adding if they had waited any longer for the surgery, the benefits of it would be much less as so much of an individual's comprehension of sounds develops at a very young age. "If I let her be deaf, that would be her only choice."
Today Anna knows some survival sign language, which she uses when the external parts of the implants are taken off for sleeping, showering and swimming. As Gail's own hearing begins to fade, Anna said it is very important to her that she learn to sign more so she can continue to communicate with her mother.
Reflecting on the tension within the hearing-impaired community that largely falls along generational lines between those who were born before such inventions as cochlear implants came along and those who were born later, Gail wrote:
"I love sign language and it is truly beautiful to watch. So many hearing people do not understand sign language because they don't know what it's like to have that as their only communication outlet, but at the same time I don't think deaf people realize the beauty of hearing as hearing people do since they have never experienced it."