School navigation

Serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

February 05, 2009

Television anchor Kate Kelly spent 40 minutes practicing in front of the camera, determined to coordinate the sign language she had just learned with the speed and inflection of her voice.

“I don’t know how your teachers do this all day long,” she said to Jill Ellis, cofounder and executive director of the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness (CEID) in Berkeley, California.

Kelly was preparing a news segment on Ellis, who received a prestigious Jefferson Award in March for her more than 30-year commitment to detection of early hearing loss and intervention for babies, children, and families.

The Jefferson Award, founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft Jr., and Sam Beard, originated as a way of honoring public service on a national level. In 1977, the program established media partnerships to identify and celebrate local unsung heroes.

Unlike many of her colleagues, Ellis had no personal experience with deaf family or community members prior to adulthood. Instead, she traces her interest to college roommates who were taking courses in sign language and rehabilitation.

“I always had an affinity for languages,” she says. Ellis had also studied dance, so she was comfortable in her own skin. “Signing came naturally to me.”

After earning her master’s degree from Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling, she received advanced training from Good Samaritan Hospital–Infant Hearing Resource (now part of the Portland Hearing and Speech Center). She then worked with babies and parents in Oregon and California.

When California’s Proposition 13 limiting property taxes passed, Ellis recognized that funding for early special education was in jeopardy.

She and a colleague, Mary Molacavage, after obtaining a three-year federal grant from the Handicapped Child Early Education Program, launched their new family-centered program in the basement of the United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

When the grant ended and referrals from the San Francisco East Bay began to rise, they located new funding sources and moved their program to Berkeley.

Currently, the center serves about 70 babies and young children every year, but the number of people actually served–including siblings, parents, grandparents, bus drivers, nannies, and babysitters–is closer to 350, Ellis says. CEID also trains about 80 to 100 pediatric residents from several area teaching hospitals each year.

Success stories at CEID abound.

One involves 6-year-old Nicole, who came to the program with severe bilateral hearing loss. She walked around the classroom touching things, but made no eye contact and couldn’t communicate.

“She reminded us of a young Helen Keller with vision,” says Ellis. “On initial observation, we were concerned she might be autistic or cognitively delayed.”

Fortunately, Nicole turned out to be a candidate for a cochlear implant, a device that stimulates the auditory nerve.

“She’s made dramatic progress and now shows a tremendous capacity for academic success,” says Ellis. Nicole is now reading books, reciting poems, and developing close friendships with several peers. “She’s one of the many reasons my work is so rewarding.”

–by Pattie Pace

Share this story on

The Chronicle Magazine

Contact Us