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Hear Me Out

For Ian Patterson, deaf since birth, communicating with, and being understood by, the world around him has been a work in progress.

April 04, 1999|STEVE EMMONS | Times Staff Writer

It could have been a scene from the year's big feel-good movie.

Little Ian Patterson from Stanton, who is 3 years old and has been deaf since birth, had a chance to hear. If the money could be found. An unproven but promising ear implant might let sound into his otherwise silent world.

Local news articles about Ian prompted a fund-raising campaign. Public reaction prodded his health insurer to pay up. The implant surgery went well. In November 1983, Ian sat at a table in a Los Angeles clinic, oblivious to the technician who attached a wire just behind his left ear.

He was playing with toy animals when the technician said, "Ba ba ba ba." Ian looked up, surprised, then delighted. He had heard his first sound. The photograph of his beaming face rippled across the news wires and dampened eyes as far away as Europe and Japan.

Less than a year later, his mother, Amber Patterson, reported big changes in Ian. He now went to movies and sat glued to the screen; before, he had been bored and fidgety. He now tried to form words; before, he merely mumbled. His mother said she was certain he would eventually overcome the greatest challenge to the deaf and learn to speak.

This is where the credits ought to roll, sending you out of the theater with that happily-ever-after feeling.

But Ian, now almost 19, and his family still work hard at what comes easily to others. At home, only his mother is as expert as he in sign language. His older brother, Bo, is fluent but has moved out on his own. Ian's stepfather and his younger brother and sisters use only the most basic sign language and improvisation. With strangers, he must resort to pad and pencil--or merely pointing and gesturing.

His speech is indistinct to those not familiar with it, and his signing sometimes makes strangers uncomfortable.

"Maybe your voice sounds funny and you look weird because you're excited, and they don't understand that," said Ian through signs interpreted by his mother. "Maybe they're thinking I'm a little retarded. But I'm not retarded. I just can't hear."

"Ian's deafness has definitely made family life more of a struggle," said his mother, now Amber Toliver, 41. "Even just sitting down at a meal, we have to stop and answer his questions: 'Why are you laughing? What are they talking about?'

"He and I are a lot closer because of his deafness, but for the family . . . it makes it harder for them to be close. And grandparents and cousins, they don't know how to sign at all."

To stay in touch with his father, who moved to Arizona to work as a prison guard, Ian uses a TTY telephone, which has a typewriter keyboard like a computer. A telephone operator acts as translator between Ian's type and the caller's spoken language. Though slow, the system allows Ian to use the telephone.

Former teachers say Ian is creative and intelligent but that he often is frustrated when he misunderstands others or is misunderstood.

His frustration extended to his implant as well, which he began to resist at 7. By 11, he refused altogether, saying it bothered him. He still insists that he wants no part of modern implants that can produce much more distinct sound sensations.

"I am proud to be deaf," he said. "It's natural, I don't want to change. I am happy right now." He works at a small food dye factory and he hangs out with friends, although his parents don't approve of them. He wants to make his living as a graphic artist.

His mother concedes that raising a deaf son has been taxing, that fear of deafness accompanied each new birth, that "I've made mistakes, I know it."

*

Subtle hints went unnoticed. But when a dropped drinking glass shattered beside 5 1/2-month-old Ian and he didn't react, Amber knew. Tests confirmed Ian was profoundly deaf, and the doctor referred him to the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.

One of Amber's first visits was to the institute's counselor.

"You mourn the loss of the normal child you thought you had," she said. "I felt bad that I felt that way. And there are family things: 'It must be your fault.' 'No, it must be your fault.' It was kind of tough. I wouldn't wish it on anybody."

Marital difficulties followed, but she and her husband, Robert, then a construction worker, decided to postpone their divorce until after Ian's surgery for a cochlear implant, an electronic device that was undergoing clinical trials in children.

A small electronic device was surgically implanted under the skin behind the ear and its single electrode positioned near the auditory nerve. A sort of hearing aid worn on the outside sensed sound and induced a small electric current in the implant, which stimulated the nerve. (Modern versions have up to 22 electrodes.)

The result was perceived sound like a staticky, poorly tuned radio, according to users who had once been able to hear. The rhythm of speech could be heard, but the words were indistinct. Even so, it was hoped the sounds would eventually help Ian read lips and learn to speak. But for Ian, they would do neither.

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