Pioneers Helping Children Learn to Hear

Jane Madell
October 2, 2012

Helen Beebe was one of the pioneers who worked to help children with hearing loss learn to  use residual hearing to develop speech and language. Beebe, along with some of the other pioneers, Doreen Pollack, Ciwa Griffiths, and Dan Ling, helped change the way people thought about deafness. They developed the philosophy of auditory-verbal or acoupedics – in other words, deaf children can use hearing.


What came before listening?

Prior to Beebe, Pollack, Ling and their colleagues, most deaf children were taught to lipread. They wore hearing aids, but often only one,  and while hearing aids helped, they were not very strong and provided an assist but could not be relied on for sufficient access to language. When I first worked in this field in the mid-1960s, it was typical to fit children with only one hearing aid. Sometimes they alternated ears, sometimes, they kept the hearing aid on the ear that seemed to have better hearing. Many schools for the deaf were oral schools. Children learned to lipread, and had auditory training lessons to try and build listening skills. Many of those kids became physicians, lawyers etc. In light of today’s technology, I wonder how they did it.


What were hearing aids like in the old days?

Hearing aids were body worn and cumbersome. I think in the 60s there were no hearing aids that offered more than about 50 dB of gain – a challenge if you have a profound hearing loss. (If you have a hearing loss of 90 dB, and your hearing aid provides 50 dB of gain, you cannot expect to hear at softer than 40 dB.  You will not hear any soft speech, which is at about 30-35 dB, and normal conversation will be soft.)  Those old hearing aids did not have any of the noise-canceling or frequency-altering technology available in today’s technology. There was very limited high-frequency benefit so listening to sibilants and fricatives was not going to happen. That kids could learn to listen with them was truly amazing.


Helen Beebe

Helen Beebe started working with a little girl with a hearing loss and, against all odds, taught her to hear. She used whatever she could to get sound to her, and did not encourage her to look at her face. Beebe started a program in which families came for a week with children with hearing loss for her to help parents learn how to work with the children. This was revolutionary. She started the Helen Beebe Center and educated thousands of professionals about the possibilities of teaching deaf kids learn to talk.


Doreen Pollack

Pollack developed a similar program in Denver and trained thousands of clinicians in that part of the US.


Dan Ling

Dan Ling worked in Montreal at the Montreal Oral School where he developed protocols to teach deaf children to speak. He developed wonderful techniques, trained many teachers, and he wrote about them so that others could learn from what he did. He inspired some of the remarkable leaders in the field of auditory oral and auditory verbal education.


Some of the pioneers I worked with

I was one of the lucky ones who got to work with some of the slightly less well know pioneers who had been trained by the first group. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing (now the Center for Hearing and Communication), where my cousin was a student. Eleanor Ronni was the director and Dorothy Noto Lewis ran the therapy program and I was a volunteer in the kindergarten program.

At that time there were no itinerant teachers in the schools so kids came to the League on Saturday morning for academic tutoring so they could keep up in school. Dorothy inspired me to believe I could help kids learn to talk. Not only were we not signing but if you even lifted your hand in a typical gesture she stopped you. She was amazing.

At Emerson College, I took my auditory training class from Helen Patton, who worked at one of the schools for the deaf outside of Boston. She would drive some of us to the school weekly so we could see first-hand how to teach deaf kids to speak. After getting my master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin I moved back to Emerson and was the first audiologist in the Deaf Nursery program started by David Luterman. Then a few years after receiving my PhD, my husband and I moved back to NY and I was hired at the League to be the Director of Audiology, where I worked for 21 years.


We are only as good as those who came before us

Like everyone else, I know that the reason I am a good clinician is because of those who came before me. Those who taught me to value what is important, who taught me to be optimistic about what is possible and to expect the best. Dorothy Lewis taught me that I had a responsibility for helping kids succeed. David Luterman taught me that if I could not obtain test results on a child it had to be my failing, not the child’s. He told me I could never say ‘This child is untestable”  but had to say “I am unable to test this child.”

The list of people who inspired me is much too long to name them all here and I would be afraid that I was leaving someone out. I can tell you  that the list includes all the parents and kids who allowed me to work with them,  and all the audiologists I helped train. The ones I failed to help are the ones who taught me the most.  We need to honor those who came before us, they are why we are here.

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