Student’s book geared to hearing impaired kids

Melanie Paticoff, pictured with her dog Sophie, has written an award-winning children’s book about hearing loss as well as produced a video and maintained a website for children with hearing loss. Submitted photo.

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Melanie Paticoff hears perfectly, but she is devoting her life to helping those who cannot and to educating the rest of us about hearing loss.

Paticoff is just 21, but the Clayton resident has written an award-winning children’s book about hearing loss, produced a video on the same topic and maintains a website to boost the confidence of children with hearing loss.

A senior at Fontbonne University, Paticoff currently is completing an eight-week student teaching rotation at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis. She will graduate this spring with a degree in deaf education and will enter a two-year graduate program in that field this fall at Washington University – the very place where Paticoff found a welcoming Jewish community at Hillel.

“I made a conscious decision to follow my dreams at Fontbonne, but I knew from the beginning it was extremely important to find a Jewish community to relate to,” says Paticoff, who grew up on Long Island in New York. “It was hard at first, but over time I met some Jewish professors, took some classes and attended a Jewish retreat. I have made a lot of close friends.”

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Her family first taught Paticoff about hearing loss. Her aunt and uncle both have used hearing aids for decades, and 13 years ago, their two-year-old daughter Julie was diagnosed with hearing loss. “Because Julie was diagnosed kind of late, she missed a lot of language learning,” says Paticoff. “In addition to hearing aids, Julie needed an intensive program, so her family moved to St. Louis, because this is where the best schools for the deaf are.”

Paticoff’s cousin and her family lived in St. Louis for three years, and Paticoff visited often. “As I understood more about Julie’s school, I fell in love with what they were doing – teaching listening and spoken language skills, rather than sign language – and I decided on a career in deaf education.”

Digital hearing aids and cochlear implant surgery have revolutionized deaf education – not to mention the lives of deaf individuals. “The technology has resulted in groundbreaking change,” says Paticoff. “Years ago, schools were dealing with kids who could not hear. Today, kids don’t have to look at you to hear, and that opens up a totally different world, with many more opportunities.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the U.S. more than 12,000 babies are born each year with hearing loss, and profound deafness occurs in between 4 to 11 children per 10,000. In half the cases, the cause is said to be genetic. “In most states, babies can’t leave the hospital until they are screened for hearing,” Paticoff says. “Babies diagnosed just after they are born can get implants by six months to a year, and they are in the mainstream by Kindergarten.”

One person particularly pleased with Paticoff’s career choice is Lynda Berkowitz, co-principal and pre-Kindergarten coordinator at Central Institute for the Deaf. “This is the first time at CID that we have had an undergraduate do a student teaching rotation, and Mel is doing a great job with the children,” says Berkowitz. “She is a vibrant, intelligent young woman, wise beyond her years. Basically, Mel gets it.”

Another thing Paticoff gets is how animals can be used to help teach people. Two years ago, she acquired her Maltipoo puppy, and named the dog Sophie. Soon after, Sophie passed the Therapy Dog International exam given by the American Kennel Club. Sophie accompanies Paticoff to speaking engagements, where the dog eases the way for discussions on hearing loss.

Last year, Paticoff published “Sophie’s Tales: Learning to Listen,” a children’s book about a dog with hearing loss. (See www.sophiestales.com.) One of 800 entries, the book won a bronze medal at the 2010 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, where teachers, librarians, booksellers and book reviewers serve as judges.

“It was my grandmother’s idea to write about Sophie,” says Paticoff. “Right away I could picture my cousin Julie if she had had a book about cochlear implants and a character she could relate to when she was younger. I decided there was a real need for this kind of book. For kids ages 4 to 7, learning about hearing loss from a dog makes it not as scary.”

Paticoff plans to write more books about Sophie to help teach children to be proud and confident in spite of their differences and to help raise awareness about deaf education and cochlear implants. Her video, “That’s Just the Way We Hear,” won first place in a competition sponsored by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association in 2009, and a new version is now out.

“I get so much satisfaction from all this, especially from spending time in the classroom with kids and writing more books about Sophie,” says Paticoff. “I just hope I am making a difference.”