Nfld. & Labrador

Families with deaf, non-verbal children start new educational support group

The Children's Language Acquisition Support System is a resource centre for families who have children that are deaf, hard of hearing or non-verbal.

CLASS offers resources for deaf community in the St. John's area

Parent Leah Farrell, left, and Kimberley Churchill, chair of CLASS, a new support group for families with deaf, hard of hearing or non-verbal children. (Amy Joy/CBC)

A parent in St. John's has started a new support group that offers resources for families with children who are deaf, hard of hearing or non-verbal.

Kimberley Churchill said when her family learned her son Carter was deaf, she didn't know where to turn. Carter was three months old, and she said there were no services in the city that taught children sign language.

Now seven-years-old, Carter still doesn't have the same resources or access that his brother Hunter has, Churchill said.

"It's a huge difference," she said. "My older son Hunter, when he's in school he has full inclusion in his education system. With Carter, it's completely opposite. We have had to fight every single year for him to have access."

That's how CLASS — Children's Language Acquisition Support System — was born.

It's just a wonderful way for families to come together and meet one another.- Kimberley Churchill

The non-profit is a network for parents and children to connect, and put resources at their fingertips. Families can learn about sign language and cochlear implants, as well as other language and speech techniques and technology that they can use to communicate.

For Leah Farrell, CLASS has been a resource to network with other parents.

When her son Eli was four months old, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Cri du chat syndrome. As a result, Eli is "uniquely verbal," Farrell said. He uses signs and sounds to communicate.

Farrell said Eli is the only known person in Newfoundland and Labrador with the diagnosis, which has left her feeling alone. She said CLASS is a place her family can feel comfortable.

"With CLASS, we know that we'll feel safe and connected," she said.

Earplug challenge

With the school year ahead for now four-year-old Eli, Farrell said the support group has also helped with her stress.

"Having resources that I know that CLASS will provide, definitely takes a bit of a weight off of your shoulders."

September is National Deaf Awareness Month, so Churchill is challenging schools to take part in an "earplug challenge." CLASS has 5,000 earplugs to hand out, so students can learn empathy by seeing what it's like to have reduced hearing.

The group also launched on social media last week, and Churchill said the response has been great.

A child wears an auditory brain stem implant to hear. (UNC Health Care/Associated Press)

"It's been overwhelming in a very positive way. It's been fantastic," Churchill said.

She hopes that the group will prevent other parents who are facing daunting diagnoses from going through the same experience as her family.

"It's just a wonderful way for families to come together and meet one another," Churchill said.

CLASS is hosting an open house on Thursday, where people can learn about the resources and support it offers. The event will be held at the Mount Pearl Tennis Club from 6:30-8:00 p.m.

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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