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 Article of Interest - Hearing Impairment

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 lawyers.

"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 safe."

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 implants.

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 implants.

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 implants.

"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 expert witness.

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' teaching.

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.

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