Non-government organization


of learning and socio-cultural rehabilitation of deaf children

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This is the story of Emiliya Leongard, Ph.D., researcher and educator, who changed the way children who are deaf or hard of hearing are educated in the former Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation. Beginning her work in the mid-1960s, Leongard and her collaborators developed a system that made spoken language for the deaf a reality. At’the time, the Soviet Union had a well-established system of teaching children who were deaf in special preschool programs and schools. The children lived and studied in boarding schools completely funded by the government, but usually so far from their homes that they saw their parents only during holidays. The children were taught finger-spelling combined with oral speech. Their education, however, gave them very little ability to use oral speech, and no alternative teaching method was available.

Emiliya Leongard, Ph.D

In contrast, Leongard based her system on the use of hearing aids — rarely used for children in the Soviet Union at that time — and special daily exercises to stimulate hearing perception. Her goal was to activate the residual hearing ability that exists in all children who are deaf, including those who have profound hearing loss. She developed her system to teach children to use oral speech on the basis of their hearing and visual perception only, without using tactile or vibration sensitivity or finger-spelling/sign language. The program teaches the children, their parents, and their teachers to become creative: Whatever assignments are given to a child, they are never designed to evoke a ready-made, cliched solution. Instead, the child must always search for a creative solution or answer that stimulates speech. This is how the processes of thinking, communication, and speech assume a form that is natural for the child and results in true communication.

Although the results of the new system clearly demonstrated its superiority, the Ministry of Education did not officially approve it for wide use until 1998. For years it retained the official status of «experimental», that is, restricted to few small groups of children under the supervision of researchers. The Soviet educational establishment preferred uniformity to diversity.

The people for whom the new system had been created received the , program with quite a different attitude: These were the parents who I wanted their children to learn to speak, and they appreciated the program long before the authorities did. In the 1980s, teachers and parents whose children were taught according to Leongard’s method defended the method at the highest government levels, such as the Ministry of Education and the Supreme Soviet (similar to the U.S. Congress or the British Parliament in structure) of the former Soviet Union, where its fate was discussed twice. As a result, the experimental status of the method was confirmed, despite educational bureaucrats’ efforts to forbid the method.

People learned about the method by word-of-mouth and through a magazine for the deaf where Leor gard published a column called «University for Parents» and wrote «Assignments for Parents.» Once a month for 35 years, each issue featured Leongard’s materials for parents to use to teach their child who was deaf to speak. (Much later these «Assignments for Parents» were compiled and published as a book). The magazine publisher also provided Leongard with an office where once a week she gave consultations to parents who wanted their children who were deaf or hard of hearing to learn to speak. These consultations usually lasted for 2 hours and included a psychological-pedagogic evaluation of the child’s development and a conversation with the parents. Then the parents were given another «assignment» and were asked to send back a progress report on their child’s efforts. The reports were analyzed and answered by Leongard and her staff. It is interesting to note that at that time neither Leongard nor her collaborators had any information on the Correspondence Course for Parents created by the John Tracy Clinic.

As time went on, it became practically impossible to cope with the great number of children who needed help. The waiting list stretched over years. Many teachers from all corners of the country wanted to use her method. Under Leongard’s supervision, training sessions for teachers were organized. Despite the fact that official approval was necessary for maintaining any educational system in the centralized Soviet state, Leongard’s unapproved method was spreading by itself and became accepted even in remote parts of the country. Parent groups formed spontaneously in different cities. Experienced parents gave consultations to the novices. Those parents who came to Moscow from afar for professional consultation were given telephone numbers and addresses of families closer to their home who had children who were oral deaf. In Moscow, Leongard and her collaborators occasionally held conferences for parents. Parents brought their children with them and had an opportunity to meet other parents, learn new things, and get an emotional charge that would help them bring up their children.

It is inspiring how many lives Emiliya Leongard and her teaching methods have touched, particularly when these duties were not and had never been her main job: She performed them without remuneration. Her official position was as a researcher and she conducted her research with a few associates who were drawn into the human aspects of her work and devoted themselves to it just as she did. As the word spread about the success of Leongard’s method and as the number of children and parents involved increased, so did her workload. She introduced special classes for the deaf in regular schools for hearing children, still on an «experimental» basis, first in Moscow and subsequently in other cities. Teachers in other cities fought to get the status of «experimental» to be able to teach according to Leongard’s method. Her program spread throughout the country.

Consequently, Emiliya Leongard became the head of an enormous undertaking. How can just one woman with a small staff direct such a huge system? It seems unbelievable! I worked with her for many years and constantly marveled at her ability to juggle many balls at once. In spite of her workload she is easily accessible. She always finds time to advise a mother, speak to a teacher, and work with a child. I don’t think she ever sleeps and she has never even taken a vacation!

Because of the long-term experimental status of her program and the fact that her philosophy was quite different from what was accepted in deaf education at that time, several tests were conducted by independent professional testers comparing the development level of children in her groups to their peers with normal hearing. It is hard to describe the surprise of the professional testers when Leongard’s children performed the demanding tasks of mental effort, logic, and unusual solutions more successfully performed than did the children with normal hearing.

In 1993, a delegation from AG Bell headed by former Executive Director Donna Dickman and Patrick Stone, then president of AG Bell, visited Russia as part of the People to People Citizen Ambassador Program. This alternative system of teaching the deaf was not originally included in their itinerary. I spoke informally with another of the delegates, Kathy Sussman, about Leongard’s Preschool Program in Moscow before she left for Russia. As a result, Kathy Sussman, executive director of the Jean Weingarten Peninsula Oral School for the Deaf and the current President of AG Bell, and Etta Fisher, director of the Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired, were able to arrange a visit to the preschool. Later they invited Leon-gard to be their guest at a banquet, which shocked the Russian Special Education officials. Finally, her work received well-deserved recognition from professionals outside of Russia.

Shortly after the delegation returned to the United States, the program was given a precious gift from Phonic Ear, a set of FM equipment that could be used collectively by children in her preschools. At that time the program still had exclusively experimental status, in spite of the fact that thousands of children who are deaf were taught using it in all parts of the country.

In 2002 Emiliya Leongard was invited to the AG Bell Convention in St. Louis as a special guest of honor. The trip was wonderful and full of many surprises for her. During a break in my presentation a delicate woman came up to me. When she introduced herself as Lena Kashlev I was astounded. She was the mother of Mitya, whom I remembered from when he was 4 years old and a member of a group of children who are profoundly deaf in the Moscow preschool program. Lena was immensely happy to learn that Emiliya Leongard was at the convention. It was she who taught Mitya when he was just 8 months old and held consultations with his parents even before he was admitted to the program. Soon we met Mitya, now a tall and handsome high school student speaking fluent English and Russian. His mother told us that when they had come to the United States, he wrote an essay at school on the topic «A Person Whom I Admire» and his essay was dedicated to Emiliya Leongard. What a remarkable coincidence that they should meet at the AG Bell Convention after so many years and miles apart!

A great number of people helped me to arrange this trip and I am very grateful to all of them. It is hard to overstate the importance of the personal participation and support of current President Kathy Sussman, the AG Bell Board of Directors, the staff of Jean Wein-garten Peninsula Oral School for the Deaf, Etta Fisher and the staff of Oralingua School for the Hearing Impaired, Sister Joyce Buckler, Dr. Jim Garrity, and many others.

While Leongard was in the U.S. for the 2002 AG Bell Convention, she also visited California and met Vadim Milman, a young man who is profoundly deaf and is a manager at Oracle, a high-tech company. He began studying correspondence course materials intended for parents when he was 3 years old. His father brought him from Odessa, Ukraine, to Moscow to meet with Emiliya Leongard for consultations. Now he is bilingual and speaks both English and Russian.

More that 30,000 children from all over the former Soviet Union have been taught according to Leon-gard’s method and are now successfully using spoken language. Now the situation in Russia has radically changed: Parents of children with hearing loss can choose from among several methods and places of communication and education. All of this is possible to a great extent thanks to a woman who has dedicated her whole life to teaching and educating children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Her work has transformed lives. She deserves our profound congratulations!

Klara Libman, M.A., M.Ed., is a consultant at the Jean Weingarten Peninsula Oral School for the Deaf. For more than 10years, she worked with Emiliya Leongard in the former Soviet Union as senior researcher in speech development and as a consultant for children who are deaf, their teachers, and parents.

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