As the mother of a deaf child, Iraida offers a very unique and personal perspective on the importance of technology for deaf individuals. Thanks to bilateral cochlear implants, Iraida’s daughter, Olivia, hears at 20 decibels. When she takes off the implants however, she is deaf and relies heavily on closed captions to watch TV.
We weren’t the typical twins, because when our parents would put us to bed at night, and I would talk to Olivia, she couldn’t hear me.
What was it like to watch your daughter hear for the first time?
There are no words. She had hearing. She was diagnosed with hearing loss at three and a half, and wore hearing aids until four and a half. We got the cochlear implant when she turned five. When she first heard sound, it was amazing. It just seemed to validate her need to hear for herself, being such a little girl. After that, the speech and the training for her to be able to articulate was a journey. It was all worth it, and she’s amazing.
She’s a twin. Her sister, Alexia, cried when we did an interview when they were little. She said, ‘We weren’t the typical twins, because when our parents would put us to bed at night, and I would talk to Olivia, she couldn’t hear me. So we never communicated in bed at night or fussed like sisters. And that was really hard for us.’ She said that once Olivia did get her cochlear implant and began to talk and be able to communicate with sound, it just opened their world up as twins to be able to relate to each other.
Not knowing that she had hearing loss before three, I felt guilty because I work in early intervention. I didn’t even notice it.
What is Olivia’s perspective on being deaf?
Olivia owns her deafness. In the state that I live in there’s still a lot of controversy surrounding Deaf culture. We’ve raised Olivia as a Deaf person, and she knows that she’s Deaf, yet she hears. When she takes her cochlear implants out, she’s deaf. She cannot hear anything. Although we didn’t raise her learning ASL, she does sign language now. It’s just another language for her. She is bilingual with Spanish, so now she’s trilingual. She owns her deafness, but she’s thankful that she can hear. She’s thankful that she was able to get the second cochlear implant because it just opened up a lot of opportunities for her.
How did she communicate when she was younger?
Olivia started out at the School for the Deaf where we lived. For a year and a half she was in the preschool. I then sought out another option for raising her because we wanted her to learn to talk, to listen and talk. We decided to move schools, so I would drive her an hour to school. When she aged out of that school, after she lost her hearing and got her cochlear implant, I had to move to another school in Massachusetts which was a four hour drive every day for me from Rhode Island. It was worth it because she learned to listen and talk, and academically she was thriving.
In second grade we decided to mainstream her back to Rhode Island. She stayed in an all girl college preparatory school from third grade all the way through high school. Then she graduated and was able to go to college. She was attending Stonehill College, but decided to transfer to Rochester Institute of Technology because the support there for the deaf and hard of hearing is so much more. She absolutely loves it. Now she’s fluent in sign, learning more about her Deaf culture, and she’s integrating herself in both worlds.
What was it like as a parent having a child that was deaf that you struggled to communicate with for a while?
It was hard because we’re a bilingual family, and Olivia only spoke Spanish before she lost her hearing. In school, they were like, ‘You have to teach her English. She’s got to learn sign. Don’t teach her Spanish because she’s learning English in school.’ It was a really big struggle for us.
She got her hearing aids on a Friday, and that Monday she started preschool on that little yellow bus.
Not knowing that she had hearing loss before three, I felt guilty because I work in early intervention. I didn’t even notice it. So I was feeling guilty for a long time. We made up for the years that we lost. When she didn’t say Mama, and when she didn’t say Papa, and she would mimic her twin, we thought that was part of learning language. It turns out she was trying to figure something out – she was already learning to read lips at that young age. But we didn’t know so that we could have helped her.
The first day she got her hearing aids, she was all over the place. She got her hearing aids on a Friday, and that Monday she started preschool on that little yellow bus. The bus was loud. She was like, what is all of this? But it worked out fine. She did well, but she would come home and she’d say that she didn’t want to sign because she’s learning language. She was speaking English, learning sign, and speaking Spanish. It was hard, because you can imagine three languages. And if I knew better, I knew then what I know now, I would have continued with the Spanish. And she might have been still a little delayed in language. But so what? She would have been trilingual.
What would you like people to know about raising a deaf child and communicating with people who are deaf to make their experience better?
Don’t assume that children who are deaf are not smart. You have to nurture the language that is given them, whatever the choice is, and understand that they, too, can be successful. I’m living proof of that.
We struggled so much just to push her and push her.
Olivia’s a twin and my husband and I were always like, well, we don’t want her to be behind. But when she went to the school that she went to, they did kindergarten, and then kindergarten and first grade, then first grade because of the language development. So automatically, she was a year behind Alexia. But I never wanted the gap to be so big.
We struggled so much just to push her and push her. And she goes, ‘Mama, why do I have to go to school in the summer? Why do I have to take speech in the summer? I’m 21 now. Why do I still need speech?’ I kept saying, ‘Olivia, you don’t understand. We chose an oral path for you, so we have to support that to ensure that you have good language.’ I said, ‘You’re learning new language in college. It’s a higher level learning. So speech is still important for you.’
— A huge ‘thank you’ to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) for hosting this series of interviews at the New England Walk4Hearing in Fall of 2016. Click on the image below to read more stories on the main site.
Faces Behind the Screen is a storytelling project focusing on members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community.