Theater is therapy for kids with hearing loss

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Story highlights

  • Performance can boost language learning for kids with hearing difficulties
  • Early intervention means better speech outcomes for children with hearing loss.
  • [Video: closed caption version]

Culver City, California (CNN)Twenty years ago, Michelle Christie directed a stage performance. The actors were all students with hearing loss.

CNN Hero Michelle Christie
As a teacher, Christie had been helping them learn to speak -- and listen. Theater, she realized, brought a noticeable improvement in their oral language skills and self-esteem.
"When you have characters in costume and they're all with all their friends who had a hearing loss, they felt like they belonged," Christie said. "I remember just looking at the audience a lot and seeing parents just weep. They're just so happy to see that their child can do this."
    The theater group was such a success that Christie was asked to continue the program and replicate it in other cities. So, in 1997, she founded No Limits Theater Group. She traveled the country, bringing together groups of children with hearing loss to rehearse and perform plays written specifically for them.
    From place to place, Christie says she noticed a trend: Students who'd had more early intervention also had improved speech and reading ability. She found that low-income students were falling through the cracks because families couldn't afford the resources their children needed to succeed.
    "It just didn't seem fair. I decided I wanted to start an educational center really helping families in poverty," she said.
    Today, her No Limits organization has three education centers -- located in California and Las Vegas -- offering free support and enrichment programs to children with hearing loss. The organization works with about 600 children and their families each year.
    No Limits has also produced 100 plays in 13 states. The group has reached more than 200,000 people nationwide.
    "Many kids are enrolled in college or have already graduated from college. It's so exciting to see it, because now they are the future. ... I want them to dream big for their lives," Christie said. "We have kids who are pilots. We have scientists. We have lawyers. We have psychologists. There are so many successful people with hearing loss."
    CNN's Allie Torgan spoke with Christie about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
    CNN: No Limits is considered an oral program. How does that work?
    Michelle Christie: I think there's a myth out there that when a child gets a hearing device, like hearing aids or a cochlear implant, that immediately they're fixed. It's not like wearing glasses. You put a pair of hearing aids on, that doesn't mean that you're automatically going to learn language.
    Some of our kids are not getting a hearing device until age 3. So, they haven't heard anything for three years, and that's a very long time. You need somebody there to help you and guide you to understand the sounds around you.
    For the kids from low-income families, they haven't received a lot of that early intervention. A lot of our kids tend to have low-reading skills. Parents are often told that their child's never going to learn to speak.
    We're building up the vocabulary; we're teaching them how to speak. We're filling in all the language, the grammar, and also teaching them how to read and write. And we also have an academic program here, so as the kids get older if they need some refreshing and academics, we're going to help them.
    CNN: How do you involve families in their children's progress?
    Christie: It's so expensive to have a child with a hearing loss. Most parents try to work more jobs and do whatever they can to pay for it. But then they're spending less time with their children. And that's what they need to do is be with their child. So the system's broken.
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    It was so important to me to make sure that the parents were involved. So when they come to No Limits, we offer a free program to allow their kids to have an equal playing field. Parents are driving, sometimes taking the bus, two hours to get here. We're teaching them what they can do with their child. They come into the speech classes; they learn from our teachers so they can apply what we're doing.
    It's involving the entire family, not just focusing on the child with the hearing loss. Everyone here is about believing in their potential.
    CNN: What inspires you to do this work?
    Christie: When I was a little girl I was really morbidly shy. I spent a lot of time by myself and always felt a little isolated and unconnected to the world. For me, theater broke me out of that isolation; it broke me out of that shyness. Playing somebody else seemed a little easier. It really got me through those rough, challenging childhood years.
    No Limits challenges kids with hearing loss to improve language skills and self-esteem
    I say to the parents all the time, "Whatever I can do to try to understand what you're going through, I'll do. Whatever I can do to help your child not feel alone." I don't want those children to feel the way I did.
    I think sometimes you look at these kids and maybe they're not speaking very well quite yet. But they will. They may be the next Picasso. They may be the next inventor. They may cure cancer. We don't know unless we give them all the tools to do well in life.
    Want to get involved? Check out the No Limits website and see how to help.
    To donate to No Limits, click the CrowdRise widget below.