Deafness Doesn't Sound like a Handicap to Christopher Lopez

Article excerpt

Byline: Amy McLaughlin Daily Herald Staff Writer

Christopher Lopez can't hear a thing - not a whisper, not a shout, not a firecracker. If he stands on the curb when a fire engine roars by, he can feel the siren wailing and the air horn blasting, but even that riot of noise can't enter his brain as sound because he is totally deaf, and always has been.

His mother Nancy evidently was exposed to measles when she was pregnant with Chris, and although she never got sick herself, the virus apparently destroyed her son's hearing while he was in the womb. From the day he was born - May 4, 1971 - Chris heard nothing. His aunt was the first to notice - he never cries, she said. Doctors confirmed their fears - the infant had no apparent hearing, not even a trace.

Nancy thought about all those noisy baby toys Chris had - he would never hear them. But she didn't want to take them away just because he wouldn't experience their sounds. "I felt he got something out of them, by touch," she recalls. "I decided right then and there that he was going to be treated as a normal child."

And he was. Chris never thought of himself as handicapped. He always thought of himself as perfectly normal. Sure, he recognized he was different. As a child, he would watch his parents moving their mouths at each other and wonder what they were doing. "I was very frustrated," he admits, speaking in sign language through his mother, his steadfast translator.

But he resisted any attempt to help him hear. As a toddler, doctors outfitted him with a hearing aid that consisted of headphones attached to a unit strapped to his chest. One day his parents found the contraption in the sandbox. Then they found it in a garbage can. The third time they never found it - Chris had dropped it down a sewer.

The only time Chris complained about being different was when other children teased him because his ears curled forward. (A doctor later volunteered to correct the problem at no charge.)

"Oh it was awful, the crying," Nancy says. "He used to come crying to me and ask, 'Is God mad at me?' and I would say, 'No, God picked me special.' "

The message got through to Chris - he wasn't merely normal; he was special. He decided God picked him to show people there's more to communication than speaking and hearing, and he would show them how much more.

"I was born this way," he says today. "I was chosen. Why fix me? I'm not broken. I can do anything ... except hear."

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Of course, not being able to hear can be a problem. Some children who become deaf after birth - after hearing human speech for a few months or years - can still learn to talk, especially if they can hear at least a faint echo of their own voices.

That was never even a remote possibility for Chris. "When you can't hear a word, how can you repeat a word?" his mother says. "He never heard speech. Never."

So instead of trying to teach Christopher to communicate with them, Christopher's parents taught themselves to communicate with him. When he was 6 months old, they enrolled their son in a sign language program at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. While he learned to sign, they learned to sign, too. The only difference was that when they signed, they spoke the words too. One message they sent repeatedly to their son was that he could do anything. Christopher took the message to heart and set out to prove he was normal by performing extraordinary feats.

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Sign language is as rich and complex as any spoken language. Those fluent in it make puns, engage in "wordplay" and even recognize foreign "accents." They can communicate eloquently - to those who can understand them.

The problem is that few people understand sign language, so Christopher often found himself cut off from interaction with hearing people. That bothers him even today. During an interview, when his mother started talking quickly and forgot to sign, Christopher pointed to his mouth and made sounds - he did not want her to leave him out of the conversation. …