April 29, 2010 in City

Father of North Idaho deaf child to appear in court

Girl’s required implant draws ire on YouTube
By The Spokesman-Review

A deaf Washington man faces a contempt charge in Kootenai County 1st District Court for refusing to force his deaf daughter to wear cochlear implants in a case that has attracted national attention.

Emma McLaughlin-Orton was born to Jennifer Orton Miller and Shaun McLaughlin in February 2002. The child had surgery to install a cochlear ear implant on the right side when she was 1 year old, and on the left side when she was 5, court documents show. Although part of the device is implanted, users cannot hear without also wearing an external processor and transmitter.

The girl’s parents, who are not married, share custody; when Emma is with her father, she wants to “be deaf like daddy,” said Judy McLaughlin, Emma’s paternal grandmother.

Orton Miller’s attorney, Scot Nass, declined to comment. However, in court documents, Orton Miller said the Spokane Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic “has stressed the importance of wearing the devices at all times for continued progress with her hearing and speech.”

Judy McLaughlin said people would not know her granddaughter is deaf because she has learned to speak and hear well with the device.

Shaun McLaughlin, 33, said through an interpreter that when his daughter is with him, they communicate using American Sign Language. “The court has the power to force her to have the cochlear implant in. She’s supposed to wear it all the time. I didn’t want to force her. I’m willing to have her do whatever makes her comfortable,” said McLaughlin, who lives in Ione. “I want to give my daughter her own choices in life.”

The cochlear implant is made up of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin. The device includes a microphone, speech processor, transmitter and receiver, along with an electrode array that collects the impulses and sends them to the auditory nerve, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Shaun and Judy McLaughlin say Emma’s right implant works fine but the left one bothers her and she frequently asks to not wear the external equipment when she is with her father. That has created friction between McLaughlin and Orton Miller, who lives in Coeur d’Alene.

In August 2009, Orton Miller, who can hear, asked the court to revise the custody order to require that the child wear the device during all waking hours, except when “activities would preclude” their use, such as swimming or wearing a helmet.

Many in the deaf community were enraged by the order signed by Magistrate Judge James Stow requiring the child to wear the device all the time. People have learned of the case through videos Judy McLaughlin posted on YouTube. One video, called “Missoula Moanings,” shows Emma screaming and crying and refusing to wear the device.

The video has been viewed almost 8,000 times and responses were fast and furious. The comments decry forcing the child to wear the device and offer support. One man posted a 4 1/2-minute video speech in sign language opposing the ruling.

“TWO WORDS FOR IT! CHILD ABUSE!” one commenter said.

Donia Campbell, a volunteer advocate working with the McLaughlins, said opinions are varied in the deaf community regarding cochlear implants; many feel the devices will take away their culture.

Shaun McLaughlin said he thinks the situation has angered deaf people because they feel they’re being told how to live their lives by hearing people who don’t understand their culture.

“I think it impacts them because deaf people feel like they don’t have sufficient authority over their own lives,” McLaughlin said. “I guess I feel like, on the list of civil rights issues … we’re kind of toward the bottom of the list.”

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