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Oral training opens world wider to deaf, backers say

When asked what activities she enjoyed at school, Jamie Martin looked puzzled. Her mother pulled words from the suddenly shy 11-year-old, asking Jamie if she liked sports.

"Today we played hockey," Jamie offered proudly. "I made a goal, first try."

Jamie's voice is somewhat nasal and her pronunciation rounds out hard consonant sounds. Her sentences may not have the syncopation of someone who can hear the subtleties of spoken English, but Jamie can carry on a conversation.

Mrs. Martin is obviously proud.

Jamie was born with profound hearing loss, and such sentences have been hard-won for both parent and child. Each new word that Jamie has acquired has been repeated and provided a context until she mastered both sound and meaning.

"Yes, it can be done," Mrs. Martin said. "If you are determined and dedicated enough and work hard enough."

Today, Jamie is in the fifth grade at the Holy Family Catholic School in St. Petersburg, where she makes A's and B's. Her scores on self-esteem tests are very high, Mrs. Martin said. She has many friends among her hearing classmates.

Mrs. Martin credits the Bolesta Oral Teaching Center with the success Jamie is having in the hearing world. Jamie has received oral training at the center at 7205 N Habana Ave. since she was 5 years old.

The center was founded by Ethel Denney Bolesta in her Tampa home in 1948. Although oral training for deaf people used to be the dominant method of deaf education, today there are only three such oral centers in Florida, according to the Florida Oral Education for the Hearing Impaired. The non-profit center has 20 students, director Rima Lahoud said.

Oral training is based on the assumption that with hearing aids, most deaf children can be trained to listen and speak well enough to move within the hearing world, or be mainstreamed. The center includes computer programers and registered nurses among its former students.

"We strongly believe that they have every right to be a part of society and to function as normally as possible," Lahoud said.

Sign language is not used in the training, which consists of imitating the sounds and rhythms of spoken English. Orally trained children are taught to imitate sentence flow and word sounds through breath exercises, musical games and pronunciation drills. When a student is learning a word, the teacher covers her mouth so that her lips can't be read to decode the word, Lahoud said.

Several parents whose children attend Bolesta said the program flies in the face of what experts told them to expect for their deaf children.

Jim Massing said he was told that his 8-year-old son, Thomas, would be best served in a residential program where he would be taught sign language.

Thomas has 90 percent hearing loss in both ears, and even with hearing aids can hear only train whistles and car horns. Although Thomas can speak only in simple sentences and is in the first grade, Massing said he is making very good grades. Thomas' teacher wears a special microphone that transmits sound to a receiver he wears.

"I am very, very happy with the results," Massing said. "It is very exciting to my wife when he uses words that she realizes she didn't teach him."

Mrs. Martin said she was told when Jamie was 2 years old that she never would hear well enough to learn how to speak, even with hearing aids.

"I was told I was in denial if I ever thought I could get her to speak," Mrs. Martin said.

The New Jersey public school system recommended that Jamie be trained in special education classes, Mrs. Martin said. Jamie would be taught using total communication, a method of instruction introduced in the 1970s that combines spoken English with sign language.

When Mrs. Martin remembers that advice, she gets angry.

"If I had listened to what the public school system told me, Jamie would be a signing deaf child who would always have to live in the deaf community," Mrs. Martin said. Jamie will continue training at the center until she is about 13 years old, Lahoud said.

Not everyone in deaf education shares an enthusiasm for oral training. Oral training has fallen from favor as the emphasis has been placed on accepting sign language as the most natural language of the deaf community.

"Oralism was seen as a way to normalize, in some ways to deny deafness," said Mike Ernest, an associate professor in the interpreter training program at Hillsborough Community College. Ernest said oral techniques might have a place in deaf education, but sign language should be accepted as the first language of the deaf.

Ernest said that in oral education so much effort is placed on acquiring a word that the subtleties of communication, the texture of its relationship to the world and to others, is lost. Sign language, he said, provides a complex and self-expressive symbol system.

In defense of oral training, Lahoud said that with advances in the technology of hearing aids and other amplification methods, mainstreaming deaf children has become more possible and more successful.

"I think every child should be given the chance to develop oral language first," she said.

Lahoud said deaf people who can function in the hearing world live richer lives. To be isolated within the deaf community through sign language, she said, places artificial limits on deaf people's circles of experiences.

The cost of oral training at the non-profit Bolesta Oral Teaching Center is $25 an hour. Oral training usually costs between $80 and $100 an hour, according to Florida Oral Education for the Hearing Impaired.