When Mecaden turned 4, she listened to
her family sing "Happy Birthday."
While implants are fast becoming the standard treatment for deafness, some parents don't want to subject their child to surgery, especially if she's medically fragile. And there are parents, primarily ones who are deaf themselves, who see implants as a form of mutilation -- or just an attempt by the medical community to correct a nonexistent problem.
Jason and Valerie Miller, of Frederick, Maryland, had no family history of hearing loss before their otherwise healthy daughter, Faith, was born deaf five years ago. Valerie immediately bought a book about American Sign Language and began teaching herself and her family. "Faith started picking it up at 7 months, and didn't seem to have barriers to communication," she says. Doctors, friends, and relatives insisted that the only way Faith would succeed in life was with an implant. However, the couple met deaf professionals and families with deaf children, and they visited their state school for the deaf. "We found a rich community who welcomed us and our daughter," says Valerie. "Our decision not to get Faith implanted involved a lot of tears, prayers, and research. But ultimately we agreed that she was perfect the way she was born, and that she could do anything anyone else could do except hear." If Faith wants an implant later in life, her parents will be supportive. "For now, she identifies herself as Deaf," says Valerie. However, Mecaden and other children with implants who are being raised in an oral environment do not. But technically, they still are.
When Emily removes Mecaden's implants before she goes to sleep, takes a bath, or goes swimming, Mecaden can't hear. At those times, the family gestures and Mecaden reads their lips. Sometimes Emily forgets her daughter is deaf. Strangers who meet her often never know. In preschool, Mecaden has worked with a teacher to prepare her to be mainstreamed in kindergarten.
But Emily will never forget the day about a year after Mecaden received her first implant, when the Bennetts met a family at their neighborhood playground. Their toddler son was a few months younger than Mecaden. He listened as she narrated her every move, and then he repeated her descriptions: "Up, up, up," as she climbed the slide, and "Down, wheeeeee!" as she slid down. "His parents started clapping for him," Emily recalls. Two years earlier, she'd thought her daughter would never speak, let alone inspire another child to increase his vocabulary. But rather than share Mecaden's whole story with them, Emily just smiled. "They were so excited that their son had learned some new words," she says. "I kept my party to myself."
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.