Rachel McNallenI was born a healthy 9 pounds via Caesarean section in Hinsdale, Illinois in 1990. My parents were sent home with a daughter they had named Rachel and were somewhat mystified by my preternaturally loud shrieks, which signaled basic infant care needs. Universal newborn hearing screening was a thing of the future.
My father would comment on my “raptor calls,” his affectionate moniker for my ear-splitting cries. Meanwhile, my mother (Sandy Mosetick) made subtle, unconscious adjustments to our routines to accommodate for a yet-to-be-identified hearing loss. For example, she would position herself within my line of sight rather than trying to call after me.
However, my mother noted a series of strange incidents as I approached linguistic milestones. First, although I’d begun to babble on schedule, I had dropped the babbling shortly afterwards. Then, at nine months or so, she observed another baby at the same age who was crawling towards a flight of stairs. His mother shouted, “David!”, and David froze in his tracks at the sound of his name. My mother observed, “I wouldn’t have been able to do that with Rachel.”
She brought me to the pediatrician regularly, and she shared her concerns about my responsiveness to environmental sounds with him. His first comprehensive diagnostic evaluation consisted of him standing behind me, clapping his hands and shouting, “Sarah! Sarah!”
“Her name is Rachel,” my mother said. “Oh, she doesn’t mind,” The pediatrician waved her off. “Look! She turned around. Her hearing is fine.” He denied her requests for a referral to an audiologist for weeks, and when my parents finally got a referral to an audiologist, the audiologist was unequipped for testing young babies. Finally, in 1991, at twelve months old, I was scheduled for an Auditory Brainstem Response test in a children’s hospital.
The results were dismal. They indicated a bilateral, sensorineural profound hearing loss. My parents must have felt shocked and devastated; there was no history of deafness in the family. Basic genetic screening at the time ruled out common genetic causes, and I tested negative for cytomegalovirus. The medical community shrugged and referred me for further audiological evaluation and a hearing aid fitting.
Once I was aided, my parents and older brother started learning American Sign Language (ASL) as a first course of intervention. I was enrolled in a special education co-op in the Chicago suburbs, where a Parent-Infant Teacher frankly laid out expectations for my development to my parents.
“Sign language is the natural language of the deaf. Your child will probably never learn how to speak. And you should lower your expectations for her academic success,” she said.
Fortunately, my parents continued to seek options. In September 1991, my mother attended a picnic for parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children. She met a woman, Mary Ann Lachman, who had been using Cued Speech with her own profoundly deaf son for several years. Mary Ann asked my mother, “How will your daughter be learning English?”
My mother was temporarily stunned. She had thrown herself into learning as much ASL as possible, tirelessly working daily with me. Up until then, her primary focus had been pouring as much language as possible into me. Access to English and literacy had not yet crossed her radar, narrowed as it was due to her determination to closely follow the advice of the experts she had access to.
That October, at Mary Ann’s behest, my mother and father attended a Cued Speech workshop taught by Dr. Orin Cornett. After a two-to-three-hour workshop, my parents had learned enough Cued Speech to master the system in a few evenings of practice. They read Dr. Seuss books to me, slowly cueing the words and rhymes.
The next January, 1992, I enrolled into the Central Institute for the Deaf’s (CID) Parent/Infant program in St. Louis, Missouri. Every month, my mother and I made the 300-mile drive from Chicago to St. Louis so my progress could be evaluated by leading professionals in audiology and communication. CID evaluated my baseline language levels immediately. At 20 months old, I had 500 signs, thanks to my family’s determination to learn as much as ASL as quickly as possible, and non-measurable expressive spoken language. The first language development task CID assigned to my mother was to fill a box with ten objects at home. She was then to spend the next month teaching me the name of those 10 objects by repeating their names in English until I learned the English words for them. A challenging task no doubt, CID thought, given the benefit they could reasonably expect me to get from my hearing aids. That month, my parents cued to me consistently. They didn’t just cue the ten objects in a box; they cued whenever they spoke. I returned to CID in February with 40 new English words.
“You must be an excellent teacher,” CID complimented my mother. “Clearly you must have spent a lot of time sitting with her one-on-one.”
“We cue at home,” my mother explained. “I don’t just ‘sit’ with her. She attends our cued conversations and reading sessions. I also cue as much as I can with her about what’s going on around us.”
CID harrumphed, “You really ought to drop the cueing.”
Maybe CID thought the cueing would interfere with spoken language development. Maybe they thought the cueing would distract me from using auditory perception. I don’t know why my parents’ choice of modality offended CID so much.
The months passed. My mother kept track of my expanding English vocabulary in a journal. My first word was “Uh-oh!” Apparently, I enjoyed knocking objects off of surfaces so I could exclaim, “Uh-oh!”
In February 1993, CID determined that I was now age-appropriate in expressive language and vocabulary, after just over a year of consistent cueing.
“This can’t be right,” CID declared. “She must not really be deaf. We’re going to retest her hearing; we must have overlooked something.”
My mother experienced a brief flutter of hope, but in the back of her mind, she knew that I was likely just as deaf as my original diagnosis indicated. Indeed, CID returned with an audiology report with good news and bad news.
“The bad news is, her hearing levels remain the same: profound in the left ear and severe-to-profound in the right ear. The good news is, Rachel is doing far better than 99% of her peers with similar hearing loss,” CID admitted.
My parents were convinced. Cueing was working for our family, but as I grew older, I started developing a strong sense of identity linked to my hearing loss. My mother enrolled me in two preschools, and I insisted on attending the preschool that had other deaf children and teachers who used ASL at least a couple of times a week. By age four, I would introduce myself as, “I’m Rachel; I’m four; and I’m Deaf!”
In 1995, I was five years old and reading books at a second-grade level in mainstream kindergarten. I had a Cued Speech Transliterator in the classroom with me all day, cueing everything the teacher and other students said within earshot. I was also learning spoken Hebrew at my religious school and was able to recite Hebrew prayers that I had learned from my mother cueing Hebrew for me in class.
My family let out a sigh of relief, but then their minds turned toward ASL again. They knew I was deaf, and they knew I considered my deafness to be a huge part of my identity. My mother in particular wanted to ensure that I would have access to deaf peers and the deaf community as I grew older. Admittedly, ASL had fallen by the wayside in my family, so focused my parents were on pouring English into me and ensuring that I was meeting (and exceeding) performance standards. My parents hired an ASL tutor, Carrie.
Carrie came to our house once a week and taught my whole family sign language. My older brother became frustrated that he was being asked to switch from ASL to cueing and back to ASL again. My dad participated as much as he could. It became apparent over time that the true beneficiary of having a Deaf mentor and a Deaf ASL tutor was…me.
Carrie became a lifelong family friend. In fact, my brother and I were the ring bearer and the flower girl, respectively, in Carrie’s wedding in 1998.
By 1996, my brother transferred from the public schools system in our neighborhood to a private, Montessori school in Mt. Prospect, IL. The Montessori school used Cued Speech as the modality of English instruction for all course subjects: math, science, reading, social studies. Although my brother was hearing (He has perfect pitch, actually, and later graduated from college on a musical scholarship and with a degree in Music Theory.), my mother felt that he would benefit enormously from the child-centric, independency-fostering Montessori curriculum. A year later, I joined my brother in the school. Interestingly, my brother and I didn’t even learn how to cue expressively ourselves until we were exposed to other deaf Cuers in the school. We both learned in a matter of weeks, since we knew the system intuitively already.
At the Montessori school, I exceeded “normal hearing” peers on every testable measure, even achieving a post-high school grade level by the time I graduated in 2001, at age 11. I was then mainstreamed in my local middle school district with a Cued Speech Transliterator. I also began attending my own Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings with my mother. Every year, I came to each meeting and explained my hearing loss, my classroom needs, and I introduced myself to my teachers. My mainstream teachers felt very confident about having a deaf student in their classroom after meeting me and learning about how my FM system worked. I also had speech and auditory therapy in school. My school districts always approved a salaried Cued Speech Transliterator during classroom instruction, given how much I benefitted from it, how it was my modality for communication at home, and how it was the most practical way to ensure that I continued to receive my education in my native language, my “L1,” which was English.
Middle school was very rough for me, because I was the “new deaf girl,” and it was hard for me to follow conversations among my peers in the classroom, in the halls, at lunch, and during recreation and sports. By 7th grade, I had started hanging out with Michelle, who would become another lifelong friend. After working on a few classroom projects together, Michelle became curious about what my transliterator did in my class, and was it something she could do too? I think the idea of communicating silently with me appealed to her, so she could say all sorts of things that would raise eyebrows among polite society.
At age 12, Michelle learned Cued Speech, and she achieved fluency within six weeks or so. “Achieving fluency” means cueing at the rate of speech with minimal errors. By age 14, I had entered high school, this time with a different Cued Speech Transliterator. Another girl, Arielle, took Honors World History and Honors Spanish with me. She was fascinated by the use of Cued Speech, especially in a classroom where Spanish was the only language being spoken.
One day, Arielle Googled the Cued Speech system, learned how to introduce herself, and then she approached me in Spanish class and cued, “Hi, my name is Arielle.” We became lifelong friends after that. Both Michelle and Arielle are now Masters in Speech Language Pathology and work with deaf children in clinical and school services settings.
At 16, I got a 34 on my English Reading ACT score, and at 17, I was accepted into the National Technical Institute for the Deaf/Rochester Institute of Technology (NTID/RIT) on a full merit scholarship from both NTID and RIT. I would be matriculated with almost two semesters’ worth of college credit from Advanced Placement testing, including Spanish. I decided to go to NTID/RIT instead of a “mainstream” college, despite being offered me a Presidential Scholarship for a Master’s in Deaf Education. The primary reason for my decision to attend NTID/RIT was because I participated in Deaf theater and in a Deaf dance troupe for eight years, and I didn’t want to sever my ties with the Deaf community when I went to college. NTID/RIT offered the chance of a competitive college education along with access to the Deaf community, and indeed, NTID’s own dance program. Most importantly, NTID/RIT promised me access to Cued Speech Transliterating services.
At NTID/RIT, I fought for Cued Speech Transliterating for four years. I met with their Department of Access Services personnel and explained why I needed access to English in the classroom. NTID offered“C-Print,” a captioning service. C-Print’s excessive paraphrasing and slow service restricted my ability to participate in classroom discussions, and sometimes I didn’t even know what the teacher was talking about by reading the text (riddled with inaccuracies and confusing paraphrasing). I was used to getting 100%, real-time access to English. Ironically, as a cross-registered student at a deaf-hearing college, I found myself relying on my hearing more than ever than I ever had to, using C-Print and ASL interpreters as a crutch for when I missed something while listening. Sometimes the service providers noticed my sporadic attention and took offense, and the Department of Access Services would threaten to pull back services if I continued relying on my hearing and lipreading instead of being wholly dependent on the (in my view) inadequate or non-existent access to English NTID/RIT provided.
I still had overwhelmingly positive experiences at college, however, and I continued to dance in a deaf theater troupe at NTID until I left campus at age 22.
How has cueing helped me outside of the classroom? I started transitioning into the hearing workplace at age 20, when I took my first internship as a safety engineer with Wegmans Food Markets’ corporate headquarters office in Rochester, NY. I elected cochlear implant surgery at age15, so I used one hearing aid and one implant in school and at work. Cueing improves lipreading skills, and it provides a complete map of the English language in one’s head for better listening skills. So because of cueing, I felt more comfortable using speech and listening in spite of the CID’s concerns about me having a “visual crutch” when they evaluated me as a toddler. Wegmans and each of my four successive employers between age 20 and 23 deeply appreciated my strong verbal and written communication skills, giving me extremely high ratings on the internship evaluations they sent back to NTID/RIT.
Not only did cueing help me develop strong oral skills for the hearing workplace, cueing also fostered deep, meaningful personal relationships outside of school and work. It didn’t stop with Michelle and Arielle. My first boyfriend was deaf and used a mix of sign language and speech, but he learned Cued Speech quickly, for the first time, at age 18.
When I first started dating my husband, who was hearing, we experienced the frustrations of living together during the times when I couldn’t wear my hearing aid or implant, or when I couldn’t lipread due to the light being turned off. My husband learned how to cue three months after we first started dating, and he became fluent after a couple of months of practice with me and with cueing songs on the radio. Cueing allowed me to develop relationships based on sophisticated English conversation, wit, culture, and humor with people, regardless of whether they were deaf or hearing.
My husband and I delight in our 18-month-old son, Elias. He is a “Cue Kid,” exposed to Cued Speech from day one and has join the ranks of friends and family who learned how to communicate with me in English, with none of the frustrations or misunderstandings caused by deafness. My husband and I have chosen a bilingual approach to raising our son, Elias. In keeping with the recommended approach to raising bilingual children, I am using ASL; and my husband is using spoken and cued English. Elias has a few signs and an English vocabulary that has recently exploded by the epic proportions that only a child can achieve.