Parents of deaf children must navigate sounds, signs and choices early

Published: Friday, Oct. 7 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Shelli Rosbach and her son Colton communicate at their home in Kaysville, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011. Shelli signs ball. Colton has cochlear implants, but is also learning sign language.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

KAYSVILLE — When Colton Rosbach failed a few hearing tests during his first 3 ½ months of life, it was the least of his parents Shelli and Phil Rosbach's concerns.

Weighing less than 2 pounds at birth, Colton's serious health issues eventually resolved as he grew. His hearing, however, never improved, leaving it up to his parents to decide how their infant son would communicate for the rest of his life: with his voice, or with his hands and possibly his voice.

Parents across the state face the same decision, which comes down to choosing between Listening and Spoken Language — which can require cochlear implants — or American Sign Language-English for their deaf or hard-of-hearing children. And they oftentimes make that choice when their children are just a few weeks or months old. 

Shelli Rosbach, of Kaysville, felt the full weight of the decision. She worried that if she chose one path, Colton wouldn't take to it and at age 3 or 4 or 5 they would have to start from scratch, his language delayed.

"A baby is a baby. They can't tell you," she said. "It's really hard to try to determine what is best for your child at that exact moment."

The state's Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind offers a Parent Infant Program for deaf children up to 3 years old to help new parents choose a language model for their child and immerse them in it before they ever attend school.

"It's so incredibly urgent to move as fast as possible to give our children language access," said Day Mullings, director of the Parent Infant Program. "If we're there to teach the parent to teach the child, a 1-week-old child is not too young. … It sounds a little over-the-top, but it isn't."

The program has had its share of controversy in recent months and years, with some members of the deaf community saying the LSL program is clearly favored, and parents given biased information.

Mullings said they've worked to address any lacking information.

"We were getting lots of feedback that parents weren't getting the information that they needed," Mulling said. Which is why last December, the schools assigned new orientation specialists who are the first point of contact for all families that receive word their child is deaf.

Family is boss

Specialists Ann Lovell and Sharelle Goff champion the very different language philosophies, but they're dead-set on making sure they're both present at every in-home family appointment, including those in the far corners of the state.

Lovell is the school's LSL specialist. She has cochlear implants that allow her to hear and she speaks. Goff communicates through American Sign Language-English. Together, they meet with every new referral to explain their options.

"We'll be free and upfront about the fact that we do have different opinions, but we're going to give them unbiased information," Lovell said. "We both support that they hear the other side."

Goff said they use no pressure tactics. They simply equip parents with information.

"The family is basically the boss in this," Goff said through an interpreter. "We keep (visiting with families) and do different activities to increase their knowledge — anything that the parents want to do to have more exposure and understand their options."

That exposure may include observing preschool classes at USDB, interviewing deaf adults or attending social events for the deaf.

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