Deaf mom fights to keep
kids from ear implants
by Theresa D. Mcclellan, The Grand Rapids Press,
Friday, September 06, 2002
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Lee Larsen, a deaf woman from Wyoming, says she should not be
forced to allow her two deaf children to undergo surgery for
implants that could give them some hearing.
But a state social service agency is suing, saying the window
of opportunity to install cochlea implants in the boys -- ages
3 and 4 -- is closing.
The case, in Judge Kathleen Feeney's court, is attracting
attention from deaf activists from around the world, and
involves two American Sign Language interpreters and four
"I should decide," Larsen testified Thursday, the fourth day
of the trial. "They are my flesh and blood. I am deaf. God
made them deaf. I do not want them to have implants. It is not
Larsen's voice shook with emotion and she punched out her
words in the air as she spoke orally and signed her desires
through an interpreter.
The boys are temporary wards of the court and in foster care
as a result of negligence charges filed against Larsen by the
state last October. The state investigated after someone
reported that the boys were left in the care of a deaf woman
with other disabilities in Baldwin while the mother traveled
to Ohio for a week, according to court records.
During the children's time in state custody, administrators in
the Grand Rapids Oral Deaf Program at Shawnee Park Elementary
and the foster care program with Bethany Christian Services
suggested the children receive implants.
During the procedure, a hole is drilled behind the ear and a
wire is inserted into the cochlea, which stimulates the brain.
The procedure is irreversible and whatever residual hearing
the child has is destroyed.
Larsen's children are considered "profoundly deaf" and one
child has cerebral palsy. She backed away after reading about
the surgery and hearing from other deaf people who oppose the
She told the court she has friends who tried the implants as
teen-agers and adults and were unhappy because it made no
changes to their hearing and affected their speech.
Larsen said the implants appear to be a good idea to the
hearing world, but not to all deaf people.
"But I want them to grow up with a strong self-esteem, not
trying to be something they are not," she testified. "I want
them part of the deaf culture."
The Shawnee Park School is an oral school and does not teach
sign language or lip reading. About half the students have
Larsen, who does not have implants, said she attended the
school as a child. A school in Northview provides "total
communication," which includes sign language, lip reading and
speech, but did not have full-time openings.
Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Bramble asked Larsen how the
children could get around in the hearing world without
"Look at me," Larsen said. "I am deaf. I am in the hearing
world and the deaf world."
The boys' father lives in California, and his attorney said he
also opposes the procedure.
Joe Tevlin, the court-appointed attorney representing the
boys, asked the court to order the children to receive the
implants as soon as possible. He argued that there is a
"window of opportunity" between birth and age 4 when the
children would most benefit from the surgery.
Tevlin presented multiple expert witnesses who testified that
the implants are important for a child's language development.
Feeney ordered the children to be evaluated to see whether
they are eligible for surgery. An evaluation is scheduled Oct.
4, the same day the trial resumes in her court with a final
Besides deciding whether the children will get implants,
Feeney will determine whether the neglect charges against the
mother can be terminated and if the family can be reunited.
Larsen's attorney, David Gersch, said a recent hearing showed
the mother was making good progress with her court-ordered
parenting classes. He argued that if Feeney approves the
surgery before returning the children to their mother, she
would be setting Larsen up for future neglect charges since
Larsen does not want her children to have the surgery and the
success of the implants is partially based on parents'
The case has garnered attention with deaf activist groups from
as far away as New Zealand, with Feeney receiving more than
300 e-mails and letters. Legal briefs are also expected from
civil rights and deaf rights groups.
"The cochlea implant is to a large degree a denial of deafness
and the deaf community is quite torn on this issue," said Lois
L. VanBroekhoven, an interpreter referral specialist for Deaf
Inc., a neutral community resource within the deaf community.
As the mother spoke, deaf supporters signed to one another at
times so intensely that the court interpreter told the judge
it was distracting.
"I don't allow talking in my courtroom, and the same will go
for signing," Feeney told the gallery.
The judge then allowed the signers in the gallery interpreting
for deaf court viewers to switch positions so their backs were
to the court interpreter.