Reflections on the Circle of Listening and Spoken Language

-Deborrah Johnston, MA, AuD, CCC-A, F/AAA


Dear DePaul Family,

As I reflect on 40 years as an audiologist and 21 years at DePaul, three common themes emerge - hope, perseverance, and success.  These words are a tribute to both my real family and my DePaul family. Thank you for all that you taught me, for giving me the original and continued inspiration for my career choice and for the opportunity and privilege of serving you.


I recall vividly when I first learned about deafness at age six. At my grandparent’s home in Squirrel Hill, my mother and her sister pulled me aside with serious looks on their faces. They explained why my cousin was not answering me when I talked to her - she was deaf and could not hear me even with her hearing aids. Her diagnosis of profound deafness had been diagnosed in 1965 at age two, via Auditory Brainstem Response testing at Eye and Ear Hospital. My grandfather speculated that there would be a solution for deafness in her lifetime, given the rapid scientific advances of the time.  

All of our DePaul families have had the same experience of learning that their child has a permanent hearing loss. Learning this is often accompanied by shock, denial, grief, and eventually acceptance.  It is with that acceptance that hope arises - hope that your child will hear with hearing aids and cochlear implants - hope that your child will learn to listen, talk, read and learn - hope that your child will use their own voice to communicate with family, friends, and community members. DePaul has provided that hope for hundreds of families since 1908.  Hope provides the impetus for families and professionals to persevere in their goals of teaching speech, language and academics to children who are deaf and hard of hearing.


Two months after my cousin’s deafness was discovered, her parents welcomed their second daughter and again the ABR revealed profound deafness.  As elementary school teachers, my aunt and my mother focused their energies on developing communication skills for both girls - speechreading, tactile cues, the John Tracy Clinic correspondence course, formal speech therapy and support from the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Home-based, family-inspired Early Intervention in the mid 1960’s did exist ! She earned her Master’s degree in deaf education at the University of Pittsburgh and traveled to Yugoslavia to learn the Verbotonal (tactile) method of teaching deaf children to speak.  She persevered for many years guiding her daughters along their childhood journeys.

From the moment I starting working for DePaul in 2000, the dedication and commitment to excellence of DePaul’s professional staff was apparent.  I observed the effectiveness of the team approach and the commitment to providing  the intensity of specialized services to meet the individualized needs of each student. I saw the tireless dedication and perseverance of DePaul faculty, families and staff working towards common goals - most notably the brass rings of TALKING to communicate, learning to READ, and READING to learn.


Along the journey, there may be more hurdles, such a secondary issue like apraxia, dyslexia, or other reading disability.  Our students, staff and families accept and face these unexpected challenges, re-configuring goals and intensity of services to meet them head-on.  “Giving up” on a child’s potential and opportunity for continued progress is not in the mindset of DePaul and its mission!

Without the benefit of the cochlear implant, my cousins did learn to talk! They graduated from college, married and have had successful careers in Washington, D.C.  As predicted by my grandfather, the solution to pediatric deafness came in the form of the cochlear implant and its FDA approval for children in 1990. 

An estimated 50,000 children in the United States have at least one implant. Nearly 1000 students with cochlear implants and hearing aids have received their intensive habilitation and education services at DePaul, leading to the ability to communication with their own voice. Our oldest graduates with cochlear implants have graduated from college and are working in their chosen careers.

I have treasured being part of the DePaul family and professional team, working with so many wonderful families and children who taught me so much and inspired me in so many ways.  I am proud of each of you and your journey, just as I am proud of the legacy of my cousins’ journey.  

Wishing you continued and lifelong success,

Dr. Debbie