A sympathetic ear

The founder of Israel’s Auditory Verbal branch celebrates as her 20-year-old twins graduate from a program for the hearing impaired.

AV 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
AV 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘One day I took one of my two-year-old twin daughters grocery shopping at the supermarket. While I was paying the bill, I saw that she was walking out, so I said to her, ‘Tamar, don’t go. Wait for me.’ But she kept going. I thought that perhaps as a twin she didn’t make the distinction between herself and her sister, Dana, so I called to her and said, ‘Tamar and Dana, wait for me.’ But Tamar kept on walking. I thought that maybe I should say it in Hebrew, but she still kept going as if she didn’t hear me at all. That was the first time I realized that there was something wrong with my daughter’s hearing. In fact, there was something wrong with both girls’ hearing capacities,” recounts Elaine Tal-El.
Tal-El is the director of the local branch of AV – the Auditory Verbal Association – and its founder in Israel. She recalls those difficult days with a smile and a certain degree of serenity, for Dana and Tamar, today aged 20, hear and speak normally.
The Tal-El twins were among the 12 graduates of the AV program at a recent ceremony that took place at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. It was a joyful though very moving evening for the parents, children and therapists, who shared the same feeling of accomplishment: Children who were diagnosed as deaf, and after using the AV methodology, succeeded in being able to hear and speak normally.
The large auditorium at the Cinematheque was almost filled to capacity with graduates and family members, as well as representatives from the local school system and the National Insurance Institute.
Today the twins serve in the army and, as their mother had dreamed, no one can tell that they were diagnosed as deaf at the age of two. At the graduation ceremony, short films were shown of the children’s initial period of learning the AV method. There was not a dry eye in the house as the audience watched the children take those difficult first steps, compared to the consummate success of the graduates now.
AV is a parent-based organization that works on the auditory-verbal rehabilitation of children with varying degrees of hearing loss. It provides diagnostic assessment, auditory-verbal therapy, hearing tests and hearing aid adjustments, as well as counseling. The method is based on using a cochlear implant in each ear. The association employs eight professional auditory-verbal therapists, who work with 75 children and 10 adults across the country.
Families of infants and young children who take part in the program receive ongoing training in speech and language therapy, as one of the principles of this method is collaboration between the parents and the professionals, who empower the parents to be their children’s most effective teachers and supporters.
It was on May 22, 1992, that the verdict came for the Tal-Els. “My husband, Elie, and I took the girls to an evaluation center for deaf children, and we were told that our daughters would never be like other children – that they would never be able to speak, to hear, to serve in the army. That they would, at best, learn to lip read and use sign language and, needless to say, would have to study in the special education sector. We were devastated,” recalls Tal-El.
“I don’t want to criticize anyone or any system, but when my husband and I went to such a rehabilitation center and saw the children there moving around in total silence, our hearts broke. We decided that our daughters would not go that route. We didn’t have any idea what to do, but it was clear that we didn’t want that kind of education for them,” she says.
The Tal-Els had no idea what was already being done for children with hearing loss. It was pure coincidence that brought them to the AV option, which existed in the US and Canada, from where Elaine had made aliya in 1980. With the AV system, hearing-impaired children receive hearing implants and undergo intensive speech therapy, which ultimately enables them to hear and speak normally.
About 90 percent of the children who are diagnosed with deafness can reach total rehabilitation with the AV therapy, but all agree that time is of the essence: The sooner the problem is diagnosed and taken care of, the greater the chances of success.
When the Tal-Els realized that AV was an option, Tamar and Dana were already over two years old (considered relatively late; today, the diagnosis and therapy start at around age one). They immediately decided to go for it.
“While this is not an option reserved only for educated or well-to-do families, it is nevertheless a very demanding system, where not only does the child have to work hard, but the parents and the whole family are mobilized. People have to understand that right from the beginning,” says Tal-El.
Elaine’s sister, a nurse at a Toronto hospital where the AV therapy was being implemented, registered them in the global association, but it went no further, as there was no knowledge of the method in Israel at that time. A few months later, the Tal-Els were contacted by a family that had just made aliya from Mexico and had three deaf children who had undergone the AV system. They had seen the Tal- Els’ name on the list of the international members.
“They thought we could provide them with valuable information regarding the facilities available here. It turned out they were much more aware of the situation than we were. We went to meet them, and we couldn’t believe our eyes and ears: Their ‘deaf’ children talked and behaved totally normally, and we burst into tears. My husband and I decided on the spot that this was what we wanted for our daughters,” says Tal-El.
THAT WAS 1992. A year later, Tamar and Dana underwent surgery at a hospital in New York and received their first implant. In 1994 Tal-El decided to drop all her other activities – she had been a teacher and later worked with her husband in his documentary film company – and concentrated on the AV method.
The Tal-Els’ two older daughters also became involved in the family project of teaching Tamar and Dana according to the AV system. Tal-El contacted the international AV organization and received authorization to create an AV branch in Israel as a nonprofit organization. She hired a gifted speech therapist, who traveled with her to Toronto to study the method, and she began to spread the word around the country. AV Israel is supported mainly by private funding and donations, in addition to substantial support through the NII.
“The whole family became involved in this struggle,” recalls Tal- El. “Besides the obligation of the parents to attend all the speech therapy sessions, we turned our home into a lab: large signs on the fridge, on the cupboards, lots of attention to every word spoken to name each item. We never used words like ‘this’ or ‘that’ but always ‘the broom,’ ‘the pillow,’ etc. The twins had to learn the name of each thing, memorize it and learn how to say it properly.
“One of the results is that we had to make a choice regarding the language we used with them. Naturally, we also spoke English with the older girls, but with Tamar and Dana we had to use only one language and we made a ‘Zionist’ choice and used only Hebrew. Today, they both speak English well, but it’s different from that of their older sisters. You can hear the difference, but there was no choice and we’re at peace with it,” says Tal-El.
Today, AV Israel has become a large center for children with hearing impairment. The main branch is in Jerusalem, and a new one recently opened in Ra’anana. Hundreds of children receive the therapy, in addition to the crucial empowerment, professional and psychological support and follow-up for hundreds of deaf children from toddlers up to high-school graduates and even those doing military service.
“The main purpose of AV is to provide mainstream integration into the regular school system,” explains Tal-El, “as opposed to the low expectations that awaited these kids before we forged a different path for them.”
Six hospitals in the country perform the implant surgery, which is now included in the health basket. “Now it is not necessary to go to New York like we did and to pay, on a private level, $15,000 for each implant,” she says.