Giving a voice to the hearing impaired

By Sara Bruestle | Sep 11, 2013
Courtesy of: Barbara Luetke Sanghyun Bak, of Mukilteo, reads a book to teacher Tonya Suqua at the Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children.  He is reading and signing concurrently. If he doesn't know the sign, he looks it up in the spiral dictionary on the table.

Sanghyun Bak understands English, but he can’t hear it. He communicates by signing grammatically correct English to the few who can sign back.

Sanghyun, 14, of Mukilteo, attends Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children. Northwest is the only school of its kind in the United States devoted to children with hearing loss.

He was born with hearing impairment, although it is unclear how impaired. He now has hearing loss of 110 decibels in his right ear and 70 decibels in his left ear.

Sanghyun is profoundly deaf in his right ear, but he can still hear loud noises with a hearing aid in his left ear, such as airplanes, thunderstorms, trucks and his own name – if it is yelled at him from in the same room.

“He can’t recognize speech,” said Lynn Bak, his aunt. “He can hear sound, but he can’t understand the language through hearing.”

Although Sanghyun passed his newborn hearing test, he didn’t speak until he was 3 years old. At the time, doctors diagnosed him with autism.

The Baks then moved from South Korea to Mukilteo, where Sanghyun was diagnosed with hearing impairment.

At 4, Sanghyun started speech therapy and had a cochlear implant, an electronic device that provides a sense of sound to those with profound hearing loss, put in his right ear. Neither worked.

So, in partnership with the Mukilteo School District, Sanghyun enrolled in school at Northwest in Shoreline. He is now in eighth grade and loving school, which started Sept. 3.

“School is fun; studying is hard,” he signed. “I like talking to my friends.”

Teachers at Northwest communicate by signing exact English as they speak it, to maximize the students’ reading and writing skills.

Sanghyun’s favorite subjects are reading, writing, math and science. He works hard in school, but he is academically behind his peers because of his late diagnosis.

“There was no language for the first 3 or 4 years of his life,” said Lynn Bak, who sometimes subs at the school. “It’s been the biggest disadvantage for him.”

Before he attended Northwest, his mother showed him pictures to communicate with him. Sanghyun would point to a picture of food if he was hungry or a picture of a toy if he wanted to play.

Once in school, Sanghyun made “abrupt progress” in his communication skills, Lynn Bak said. He finally learned to express himself through sign language.

“He was able to ask detailed questions and express his feelings,” she said. “In the absence of language, you are able to point at what you want, but you are not able to let people know how you feel.”

When he was 12, Sanghyun was diagnosed with high functioning autism. The doctors in Korea weren’t all wrong.

His mother, Milim Bak, is happy that Sanghyun now has language, but she is concerned for his future; he is limited by who he can communicate with, which she worries may limit him in other ways.

“She always worries about him every day, every night,” Lynn Bak said. “Even after he goes to school, she is still worried if he’s doing OK. If the bus is late, she’s worried.”

“She always asks herself if he can achieve a normal life. That is the biggest concern for her.”

Milim Bak is fluent in Korean but understands limited English, so she communicates with Sanghyun through simple sign language: She can sign words and phrases like “food,” “shower” and “get ready.”

Neither of his brothers, ages 16 and 6, know sign language.

Milim Bak’s hope is that he will learn life and technical skills in high school, so that he can achieve some independence, and maybe get a job as a cook or a gardener.

“I don’t know what I want to do,” Sanghyun signed.

This is Sanghyun’s last year at Northwest before he graduates and moves on to Edmonds-Woodway High School, which has a deaf and hard-of-hearing program.

The thought of switching schools makes Sanghyun nervous. Especially about making new friends.

“He’s been there for his entire life, so he’s scared of change,” Lynn Bak said.

Sanghyun will have to learn American Sign Language at Edmonds-Woodway, but he won’t be alone – several of his classmates from Northwest will be learning ASL right along with him.

He has lots of school friends, however, he lives too far away to hang out with them outside of class.

Perhaps his closest friend is his 6-year-old brother. Even without language, Sanghyun and his brother Sangwoo Bak are very close.

Sanghyun plays with Sangwoo and takes care of him. They “speak” to each other through facial expressions and movements.

On his own, his hobbies include fashion, skin care and watching YouTube videos about makeup and hair.

“I want to be handsome,” he signed.

Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children contracts with 22 school districts in the Puget Sound, including Mukilteo.

All of the school’s students who finish preschool through eighth grade go on to graduate high school, 67 percent go on to graduate college and 85 percent have jobs. That’s significantly higher than the national average.

“Our ultimate goal,” said Head of School Dr. Peggy Mayer, “is to create self-confident, articulate, academically competitive learners and community members who demonstrate that hearing loss is a difference, not a disability.”

Knowing that gives Milim Bak hope for Sanghyun’s future and lessens her worries.

“This is an important time in his life,” Lynn Bak said, “because he is going into high school where he will learn those necessary skills which will play a vital role in his future.”

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