CEID toddler class

The brightly colored classroom looks like any other toddler play area: a wooden slide juts from one wall, a make-believe kitchen sits in a corner, and brightly colored pictures hang on the wall.

Eight children sit around a half-crescent table, laughing with one another and looking expectantly at the teachers who perch near them on toddler-size chairs.

But instead of just communicating with their voices, these toddlers are also talking in sign language, their hands moving rapidly as they discuss the events of the day.

The children were attending class at the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness, or CEID, one of the state’s most successful schools for children who are deaf or who have severe hearing problems. Tucked away on a side street in west Berkeley, CEID is advancing the concept that reaching hearing-impaired children early and teaching them numerous ways to communicate will transform their lives.

For 30 years, CEID has worked with families and their young children up to age 5 to overcome the obstacles deafness presents. From home visits to parents who have just discovered their newborns are hearing impaired, to sign language classes, structured playgroups, audiology clinics and preschool classes, CEID promotes  early intervention to help children develop effective communication skills. Their graduates have gone on to be mainstreamed in regular schools, including Berkeley elementary schools and Berkeley High, and on to college.

“They literally change lives,” said Berkeley Councilman Darryl Moore. “The fact they help young children with hearing loss learn to be independent profoundly impacts their lives going forward.”

One in 350 infants is born with a significant hearing loss. Until recently, many of those children were not diagnosed until they were in Kindergarten, meaning that they missed the critical window for learning language, communication and social skills, according to Jill Ellis, CEID’s co-founder and executive director. This often led to poor behavior and performance in school. As adults, those who were diagnosed late often struggle with underemployment or unemployment.

Those problems are almost eliminated when kids get hearing aids before they are six months old and then learn how to speak and communicate, said Ellis. Then they develop speech and language skills comparable to that of their hearing peers.

CEID was started by in 1980 as a federally funded three-year demonstration project, with the intention of identifying deaf children and helping them early.  It had a staff of two. Now the school resides in a modern, light-filled building on Grayson Street and serves about 70 families a year.

“They are so full of love and support for kids,” said Melissa Lopez, who recently moved from Livermore to Berkeley so her four-year-old daughter, Maria, could attend CEID. “When I was at home with her I didn’t know what to do with her in terms of her deafness. Coming here I learned how to deal with a deaf child.”

CEID will celebrate its 30 birthday Saturday Oct. 16 at The Pavilion in Jack London Square. The mistress of ceremonies will be Kathy Buckley, often referred to as America’s first hearing-impaired comedienne and a five-time nominee for the Best Female Comedienne. Berkeley native and internationally known pianist and composer Gabriela Lena Frank will perform. Meyer Sound is one of the corporate sponsors.

Jill Ellis

State and local funds only cover a portion of CEID’s annual $1.6 million budget, so the school must raise about $600,000 a year to continue to serve its families, many of whom come from as far away as Pleasanton.

By intervening early with hearing impaired children and strengthening their verbal and sign language skills, CEID estimates that it saves the government about $1 million over a child’s lifetime, according to Chrissie Bartlett, CEID’s development manager.

Glenda Alfaro says CEID’s instruction has transformed her daughter Alondra, who was born with a number of physical disabilities as well as a hearing deficit. When she was young, Alfaro had trouble communicating with her daughter. She often didn’t understand what Alondra wanted, which frustrated her. Alondra first came to CEID at 22 months, and quickly learned sign language. She is now less shy and more confident, too.

“She is so much more interactive,” said Alfaro, who lives in Oakland.

Read more about CEID’s successes here.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...