Hi Hopes helps deaf Jerome

A BIG smile and a friendly wave were all that Jerome Jarvis could manage as a greeting when we met.

A BIG smile and a friendly wave were all that Jerome Jarvis could manage as a greeting when we met.

It was only after his mother Pippa lifted her hand to her forehead in a gesture similar to a salute that Jerome responded.

This is because three-year-old Jerome of Eikenhof, south of Joburg, is profoundly deaf. He communicates with his family and friends using sign language.

Instead of sound, sign language uses a combination of hand signals, facial expressions and movements of the body to express thoughts and feelings.

Language is visual for little Jerome. Instead of signing a person's name, he would recognise them by their "most obvious" feature, such as his big brother Chance's prominent forehead, explained Pippa.

Jerome was born prematurely and spent the first three months of his life in an incubator in intensive care, which could have contributed to his hearing loss, says Pippa.

"He was a placid baby. He would sleep through everything and make no effort to look where sound was coming from."

Following his diagnosis, Jerome was taught his first hand signal at six months.

"At six months he could make the sign for milk, which is a clenched fist similar to a baby holding a bottle," Pippa says.

With the help of Hi Hopes, a programme that gives support to families of deaf babies based at Wits University, more hand signals were gradually introduced to increase his vocabulary and help him articulate himself.

According to Hi Hopes deafness is a silent epidemic and the most prevalent disability at birth. A total of 17 babies are born deaf in South Africa daily.

This number excludes children who suffer hearing loss as a result of illness such as meningitis, jaundice, ear infection, HIV-Aids and the use of ototoxic medicine.

Various factors contribute to hearing loss, though the causes are unknown in about half of the cases, said Hi Hopes director Claudine Storbeck.

Storbeck says the needs of children differ according to the severity of their hearing loss.

Hi Hopes offers ongoing home-based weekly support to families of deaf babies.

This includes information on the choices and the type of support available to deaf children.

Storbeck says early intervention is crucial to promote and enhance a child's development and communication strategies.

This not only includes learning a language but also nonverbal cues such as maintaining eye contact, reading body language gestures and facial expressions.

"It is important for mothers to trust their gut feeling if they are concerned that their child may have problems with his or her hearing," Storbeck said.

Paying close attention to a baby's responses to sounds around them would give valuable clues.

Hearing infants respond to sound by blinking, moving their body, opening their eyes as if they are listening, Storbeck says.