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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Women's Lives: Three Self-Portraits

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However, the audiologist advised that no definite conclusions about hearing or not hearing could be made with certainty at the moment because of my young age. Instead, he suggested further observation of my responses before confirming the diagnosis. He then counseled Mom and Dad about speech stimulation, instructing them to talk to me as much as they could, only face to face. Knowing that this method of stimulating speech would be a burden at home, the audiologist suggested that I work with a speech therapist at Old Dominion. Mom and Dad agreed, eager for me to say something.

Several months passed, and all attempts at motivating me to vocalize and imitate vowels had been fruitless. Mary Jane, a speech therapist, had worked with me two or three days a week. I do vaguely remember her as an affectionate person who seemed to work awfully hard at motivating me. Mary Jane and I met again thirty years later at a coffee café and had a captivating conversation because she told me how everyone had believed that I had a complex communicative disorder. Deafness was the last thing on their list because I did have some hearing, particularly of loud sounds. Aphasia was what everyone assumed. This disorder, which is a complete absence of the communication and comprehension skills, provides an explanation for the child’s failure to speak. An aphasic child cannot follow the meaning of the words he or she hears. According to Mary Jane, I showed these symptoms. She would set small things on the table and ask me to pick up a pen. After many unsuccessful attempts, I would finally pick up the right item. But the next day, I’d completely forget. Not knowing what the “pen” looked like. Back to the drawing board. Mary Jane would have to start all over again. But she persevered.

As our therapy sessions progressed, Mary Jane realized that I watched her lips intently. I had finally speechread some words such as “yes” and “no.” But still I couldn’t vocalize. Instead, I began talking to myself silently in front of the mirror. The medical reports explain that I jabbered without any sound coming out of my mouth, making livid facial expressions and gestures. Boy, I must have looked nutty! But I had a perfect reason for my puppetlike actions. Because I didn’t know that voices and moving lips were often associated together, I began to think it was natural for everyone to mouth words. No wonder I began to imitate facial expressions, especially Mom’s. I’d just frown hard and shake my index finger up and down, babbling in silence. That’s how Mom scolded me whenever I knocked over a glass of fruit drink or threw a plastic toy block. When scolded, I’d place my hands over my eyes. You guessed it, I didn’t want to see my mother’s lips!

Now I was two and a half years old and still not speaking. It was time to take me to John Hopkins Hospital which had pioneers in the field of deafness. That trip involved a four-hour drive to Baltimore, which would be the first of many in several months. To rule out autism, the local doctors made an appointment for us to meet with the specialist, also in Baltimore, who was famous for his research on autism. Mom and Dad feared a visit to the specialist because autism still might be a possibility. They knew autistic children lacked the ability to communicate and responded to sounds inappropriately. I had those symptoms; that’s why Mom and Dad were scared out of their wits when they pulled up in front of a small colonial ranch house which was the specialist’s office.

When we entered the foyer, the specialist descended the stairs with a broad grin and took one look at me in my dad’s arms. He told Mom and Dad flat out, “Bainy is not autistic.” My parents were caught off guard and looked at each other. The specialist explained that he was watching by the window upstairs when we parked in front. When Dad removed me from the back seat, he knew instantly that I was not autistic. It was because I wrapped my arms around Dad’s neck. If I were autistic, my arms would have gone limp or pushed Dad away. Much to my parents’ relief, the specialist ruled out autism and, instead, suspected deafness after reading the reports from my local doctors. He didn’t think I had aphasia because I watched lips.

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