The audiologist clicked a link on her computer screen, and 10-month-old Dennis Hill perked up. His eyes began to dart around the room.
“Denny?” his mom said.
“Can you hear me?” his dad said, as a smile spread across Dennis’ face.
Born with hearing loss, Dennis’s new cochlear implant had just been turned on and he was hearing his parents’ voices for the first time. Minutes later, he was smiling and babbling, possibly hearing his own voice for the first time, too.
It was an emotional moment for his parents, Michael Hill, 23, and Jenna Jones, 24, of Roscoe, Illinois, who are both deaf and have cochlear implants—an electronic device that’s implanted in the ear and uses a microphone and transmitters to provide sound.
Nine years earlier, Prof. Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago, a pioneering surgeon who shaped the field of cochlear implant research, performed Hill’s procedure when he was 14. It changed his life, and he wanted his son to have the same doctor.
This was not the first time Suskind performed cochlear implant surgery for members of two generations in one family. But she said this was a special case because Dennis’s parents made the "bold and admirable" decision to raise him bilingual. That means he’ll be able to hear and speak, thanks to his cochlear implant, and he’ll also be fluent in American Sign Language, or ASL. Both parents are bilingual themselves.
Being part of both the hearing and deaf worlds is a sensitive topic in the deaf community. Some believe a deaf person should proudly own the identity and embrace deaf culture and language. Giving a cochlear implant to a deaf or hearing impaired child becomes an inflection point, changing the trajectory ahead.
Jones and Hill are confident people will accept their decision and welcome Dennis into both communities, just like they were.
“ASL will always be Dennis’s first language. We’ve been signing with him since birth,” Jones said. “The deaf community has amazing and intelligent people. I am so blessed to have wonderful friends who do and don’t have cochlear implants or hearing aids, and we all accept who we are. I look forward to Dennis meeting more people in the deaf community and finding his own path.”