Rockville couple receives national Cueing Family Award
Parents raised hearing-impaired children to use alternative mode of communication
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This story was corrected on June 29, 2010. An explanation of the correction follows the story.
In 2005, Rockville residents Steve Scher and Grace Consacro discovered their twin daughters, Lola and Ella, were born with hearing losses.
The parents, both of whom also have hearing loss, wanted their daughters to grow up learning and communicating with the spoken word as they had, so the couple made the decision for the girls to receive cochlear implants. At 18 months old, Lola and Ella underwent surgery for the procedure.
Many of couple's deaf acquaintances and friends criticized them for the decision.
"Some deaf people think you should wait and let the children decide," Consacro said, "But we thought it was important to do it. We saw it as the best choice possible for the children."
Two years later, their son Max was born, and he received cochlear implants at 14 months.
"It was not easy," Consacro said. "It was a very scary and painful decision. The doctors had to put them under anesthesia and there was the risk of meningitis involved."
Now, after several years of raising their children to learn a type of communication among the deaf and hard of hearing known as Cued Speech, the couple was honored with the national Cueing Family Award at a May ceremony at Flower Valley Elementary School in Rockville, where Consacro teaches.
The award was presented by Amy Ruberl, executive director of the National Cued Speech Association in Bethesda.
Ruberl said several people joined together to nominate the Rockville couple for the award, which recognizes dedicated parenting or support of youth who are deaf or hard of hearing using Cued Speech.
According to the National Cued Speech Association website, Cued Speech is a visual communication system that uses eight hand shapes in four different positions near the face in combination with the mouth movements of speech, which makes the phonemes sound-based units of speech visible.
Cued Speech was invented by the late Dr. R. Orin Cornett, a Laurel resident who served as vice president of long-range planning, research professor and director of Cued Speech programs at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Ruberl said the use of Cued Speech as an alternate form of communication to American Sign Language has been a controversial topic among the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
"Cued Speech is the new kid on the block," Ruberl said. "It's only been around for 45 years. Many people feel that it is not acknowledging the language of the deaf community, and that it's too oral."
Dr. Melanie Metzger, professor in the department of interpretation at Gallaudet University said there has been "a rather long debate" on how best to communicate with deaf children.
One side thinks it is best for deaf people to learn to read the lips of those who speak around them and to speak as best they can a language they might not hear at all, Metzger wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette.
The other side, she wrote, describes Cued Speech "as a form of communicative oppression" and encourage visual communication such as American Sign Language "and the visual culture that surrounds it."
Barry Scher, Steve's father and a former board member of Gallaudet University, said despite criticisms and pushback from educators of the hearing impaired and parents, he and his wife made the decision for Steve to learn Cued Speech.
"It gave him the ability to accurately read lips, to hear something through his hearing aid, and thirdly, to get a visual cue from the cuer," Barry Scher said.
He said he has noticed how advanced his grandchildren have become in their language and speech development with the use of Cued Speech.
"Most people would not even know they have a hearing impairment," he said.
Steve Scher and Consacro said their children like to be read to, and their favorite books are by Dr. Seuss. Lola and Ella also are avid readers. When they were 3, the girls had tested out of the Montgomery County Public Schools' Infants and Toddlers program and into the Individual Education Plan, where both scored at or above age level in expressive and receptive language, their parents said.
Ruberl said low reading levels are a common problem among deaf and hard-of-hearing children, and Cued Speech gives children opportunities to advance in reading and writing.
Steve Scher said it was important for Lola and Ella, now 5, and Max, now 3, to learn Cued Speech because they would be able to build their vocabulary.
"We show them a word, and show them how it looks on both the hands and the lips," Scher said. "We don't limit the vocabulary."
Scher and Consacro met at a camp for Cued Speech users and their families.
Scher, a native of Montgomery County, received assistance from a transliterator from first grade through college. Consacro, who originally is from Nashville, Tenn., first learned how to read lips and then learned Cued Speech and a transliterator from fifth grade through college.
Ruberl said a transliterator is a person who takes language in one form and puts it into another form, in this case, spoken English to Cued English or Cued English to spoken English.
She said a Cued Speech transliterator will cue without voice all the auditory information available, such as what is being spoken and noises such as sneezes or bells ringing.
Steve Scher graduated from the University of Maryland in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in English. He worked in public relations for the National Hockey Team in Nashville and for the National Captioning Institute in Vienna, Va., before becoming a stay-at-home father.
He tutored Lola and Ella in Cued Speech when they were toddlers and now is tutoring Max. He also is a Cued Speech camp director and president of the Maryland Cued Speech Association.
The three children attend the River School in Washington, D.C., which describes its mission as providing "successful educational experiences for children and their families by uniting the best practices of early childhood education and oral deaf education, and to promote clinical research and training in child language and literacy."
Ella and Lola are enrolled in the pre-kindergarten program, and Max is enrolled in the toddler program two mornings per week.
Consacro graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in English and earned a master's degree from Vanderbilt University in 1997. She is a teacher for Flower Valley Elementary's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program.
"She is an excellent teacher," Principal Wilma Holmes said. "She does a really super job here with the students."
Metzger said some deaf or hard-of-hearing people have chosen to become bilingual, signing in American Sign Language and cueing in English, and are "comfortable in their bilingual, bicultural lives and work."
Steve Scher said "it was an honor to be nominated" for the award.
"What we did was not special from what anybody else would do in our position, and what any parent would do for their children," he said.
Cued Speech is used internationally and has headquarters in France, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, according to the National Cued Speech Association website. For more information on Maryland Cued Speech events, visit www.marylandcues.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To watch a video on Cued Speech featuring Grace Consacro and Steve Scher and their children, visit http://cuedspeech.org/sub/newsroom/InsightVideos.asp.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Ella, Lola and Max Scher had to have cochlear implants to learn Cued Speech.