Learning to Listen

by Jeff Whittington

California Hands & Voices Supporter

As cliché as it sounds, life really is full of some amazing and powerful lessons. We never know what obstacles lie around each corner or how we will be shaped though the management of each of these challenges, but through all of them, a part of us is often fundamentally changed. For both my wife and me, it all began when our son Ryland was diagnosed as deaf.

It was a paralyzing moment, as our minds raced with thoughts of family dinners where he sat silent at the table or the inability to share conversation with the friends and family who would choose not to immerse themselves in a second language. Our hearts were heavy and our minds were full of unknowns, but as with any life challenge, we chose to move forward in hope that we would find the silver lining in our new reality.

In the midst of the continuous and relentless search for both causes and cures, we found ourselves alone one evening staring at the computer screen. Sitting arm in arm, with tears streaming down our faces, we celebrated out latest discovery. We had found cochlear implants, and with each activation video we watched on YouTube, our emotions could no longer be contained. “Could this be our answer? Could Ryland really hear one day?” we asked ourselves. We were overwhelmed, but joyous, and we knew we needed to learn more about this amazing technology. Unfortunately, the more we learned, the more we sat confused and scared. The process was intense, as we came to understand that many would oppose our decision to have our son implanted. We would face criticism, anger, and a disliking for trying to change our child. Though anxious about what we may face, we chose to stand strong and united for what we felt was best for our son and we proceeded forth on the road to implantation.

Unfortunately, our emotions weren’t always cheerful. With each doctor’s visit, and each audiology exam, we found ourselves shouldering an increasing amount of shame and guilt. What many didn’t know was that although Ryland had passed his newborn hearing screen, he began to show signs of deafness early on. Signs that we chose to ignore. Now, as we learned of the timing involved in getting the implants and the concern with each day that passed without sound, we were kicking ourselves for not having acted on the signs earlier. Even though we were first-time parents, we cut ourselves little slack. Sure…we wanted to have the perfect child and no one ever wants to believe that there could be anything wrong with their sweet little baby, but our stubbornness and wishful thinking had cost us time. Although we would not let it disrupt our pursuit of Ryland’s hearing, we knew we could never again ignore the signs that he may show us, no matter what that may be. Little did we know how much this lesson would come into play and how it big it would become in the shaping of our not so distant future.

Once Ryland was implanted, we worked tirelessly to teach him to both listen and speak. He was implanted and activated at 19 months, and our goal was to one day have him mainstreamed in a kindergarten classroom at our local elementary school. Ry was a fast learner and he took to speech very quickly. Before we knew it, he was communicating through verbal language and was relying very little on the sign language that we had worked on so intensely during the months prior to his implantation. Interestingly enough, it was with each language milestone that Ryland began to present us with our next challenge. Using his newly formed skills, he would stand proudly and scream “I am a boy!” So what’s the big deal…right? Well, it depends on what gender your child was assigned at birth. In our case, and at the time of his confident display of self-image, Ryland had been born and was living as our daughter. Yep…Ryland was assigned female at birth. Ryland is transgender. Cue the confusion!

As you sit and read this, your mind is likely flooding with questions, many of which are the same questions we asked ourselves as we embarked on this latest journey. I wish I could say that there was an easy way to explain everything that we went through in getting to this point, but there just isn’t enough space in this article to do it justice. My point in even referencing our child’s gender identity, is because our journey through cochlear implants profoundly changed the way in which we parented and the way in which we heard our own child. We thought our duty was to teach Ryland to listen and little did we know that Ryland would teach us our own lessons. Ryland would teach us to hear him.

I am not sure how many view their child’s deaf diagnosis or the need for cochlear implants as a blessing, but in our case, there is no other way to see it. It taught us to never ignore the signs our child was displaying, how to stand-up for what we knew was right for our child, how to fight the system and culture that would condemn our decisions, and how to listen to what our child was trying to say. Raising a deaf transgender child is no easy task, but we thank ourselves every day for the lessons learned through Ryland’s deafness and the way in which our obstacles have taught us to change the way we parent. In the end, we have one of the happiest and most well-adjusted children I know, and I wouldn’t change anything about our situation.

If you would like to know more about our story and the details behind our journey, I would encourage you to pick up the book Raising Ryland written by my amazing wife Hillary Whittington.