Pittsburgh's DePaul School celebrates a century of helping hearing-impaired children

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The eight preschoolers are excited as they suggest things to throw into a Halloween brew: a spider, worms, eyeballs and a ghost.

The children speak clearly as they answer the questions even though all are deaf or hard of hearing.

Most have cochlear implants; some have sophisticated hearing aids. All are learning to speak at DePaul School for Hearing and Speech in Shadyside.

When Declan Haas answers "ghost in the pot," teacher Mimi Loughead, who is emphasizing the future tense, says, "I will throw," giving him a chance to say the whole sentence.

He replies, "I will throw a ghost in the pot."

The game goes on without any of the children seeming to realize it is a drill about speech structure, not just a fun game.

Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, the DePaul School was around long before children who are this deaf and this young could speak so clearly.

Today such feats are possible, thanks to early intervention and technological breakthroughs.

To emphasize that point, DePaul and supporters this year launched a "Hear for Life" campaign, urging universal newborn hearing screening, checking developmental milestones and getting help promptly.

With early diagnosis and treatment, said Sister Mary Jo McAtee, director of educational services, "We've seen children progress much faster."

From its start 100 years ago, DePaul always has emphasized oral communication for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The school opened with the mission of preparing hearing-impaired children "to actively participate in the hearing world."

The Sisters of Charity -- who answered Bishop John Francis Regis Canevin's call to found a Catholic school for deaf children -- chose to tackle that mission with an oral approach.

The school does not teach sign language, but today teaches speaking, listening and lip-reading skills in an approach called auditory/oral communication.

DePaul, which has taught thousands of children, will celebrate its successes and anniversary tonight at its "Reach for the Stars" benefit gala at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown.

In the early years, graduates who learned to speak had such severe hearing loss -- and little way to amplify sounds -- that many of them ultimately needed to use sign language.

By the 1970s and 1980s, hearing devices were improving, making it possible for the students to hear speech sounds and then produce more natural-sounding speech.

Now, thanks to early identification and treatment, some children are able to learn strong speech skills and be mainstreamed into regular classrooms sooner than before -- by third grade or sooner.

The changes have made such a difference that DePaul closed its high school two years ago when just two students graduated. It now takes students up to age 14.

DePaul added a toddler program in 2005, using foundation money, and also offers services in the home for babies. Enrollment on site totals 56, counting four toddlers. Another 15 babies are served in the home.

At DePaul, all students rely on cochlear implants or high-tech hearing aids to amplify residual hearing. Sixty percent have a cochlear implant in one or both ears.

Cochlear implants are electronic devices that are surgically inserted in the head, near the ear. The wearer has a round external transmitter on the side of the head, connected to a tiny microphone and speech processor behind the ear. The implant receives information and sends it through a wire to electrodes that stimulate nerve cells inside the cochlea, a part of the inner ear. This results in the auditory nerve sending a signal to the brain, which interprets it as sound.

The implant is not an instant fix. Once it is turned on, the wearer still must learn how to distinguish sounds and give them meaning, just as a newborn who can hear must learn the meaning of sounds.

The FDA approved the implants for adults in the mid-1980s. By 1990, the FDA had approved them for children as well.

Lily Giancola, who was the first Pennsylvania child to receive an implant, traveled to Tennessee for it in 1987 when she was 6. This year, she became a teaching assistant at DePaul after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

As a result of the implant, Ms. Giancola said, "I was able to communicate with people using my speech. I was able to hear the sounds. I could hear people talking. I never had that before."

Now, younger children are getting the implants.

Rachelle Greggs of Mercer drives 90 minutes each way to DePaul twice a week so her son Michael, nearly 5, can receive speech and hearing training.

Michael received a cochlear implant just before he turned 2. With the implant and instruction, his mom said, he now is on the same level as his peers in the regular preschool he attends two days a week.

"We wanted to give him every tool available to communicate with the hearing world," Ms. Greggs said.

"His opportunities are limitless."

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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