TORONTO — When Elaine Tal-El’s twin daughters, now 18, were diagnosed with profound hearing loss at age two, she not only did what she could to help them, she helped deaf children across Israel.
An independent filmmaker who immigrated to Israel from Canada in 1980, Tal-El, whose twins are the youngest of four daughters, is the co-founder and chair of A.V. Israel, a nonprofit organization that seeks cochlear implants for everyone who needs them and the mainstreaming of hearing-impaired children.
In Toronto recently to raise awareness and funds for the organization, Tal-El said that after facing the shock of her daughters’ diagnosis, she researched services in Israel and found the approach to deaf children to be “backwards.”
“We were told the girls would never be like their sisters, and we were advised to have them learn to lip read, which is a very tricky way of learning language. So many words look the same.”
She learned about cochlear implants – electronic devices with an internal component surgically implanted in the inner ear and an external piece that attaches by magnet – from a Canadian expert she brought to Israel at her own expense.
The girls ultimately had their first implants in New York in 1993, at a cost of $70,000, and Tal-El said “the results were dramatic. Along with therapy, the girls, who had not spoken until then, began hearing and talking.”
With the use of the technology and intensive rehabilitation, “the girls learned language just like the best of us.”
About four years ago, the girls had their second implant, and the family’s insurance company agreed to subsidize the procedure for $25,000.
Now graduating high school, the girls hear, and they speak Hebrew and English fluently, Tal-El said. They also plan to join the Israel Defence Forces.
Tal-El said her vision, as well as the vision of A.V. Israel, is that every person with hearing loss in Israel should have the opportunity to communicate through spoken language and to maximize his or her potential to become an independent and creative member of the hearing world.
In its two centres, in Ra’anana and Jerusalem, A.V. Israel provides speech and language therapists who are trained to educate children with hearing loss using auditory-verbal strategies.
The organization also provides parents with support, education and counselling to help them meet their children’s needs, such as acoustic accommodations in schools and special arrangements for high school students preparing to take matriculation exams.
A.V. Israel’s main focus, however, is to help families obtain cochlear implants, Tal-El said. Although the Israeli government pays for the first cochlear implant, that’s only the first step in becoming part of the hearing world.
The government doesn’t pay for a second implant, which allows for bilateral hearing, and it doesn’t pay for batteries, which have to be replaced every two days.
Tal-El said that her organization lobbies health officials to improve insurance coverage for these families.
She said that “we live in a beautifully auditory world, and I want our girls and other kids like them to be part of it.”
For more information, write to the Canadian Friends of A.V. Israel, c/o Ruth Garbe, treasurer, at 25 Pearwood Cres., Toronto, M3B 2C1.