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Listening lab needs more funding to expand

January 19, 2018 GMT

CHARLESTON — Ella Austin was born deaf, but on Thursday she was still able to lead the West Virginia House of Delegates in the Pledge of Allegiance, all thanks to the Luke Lee Listening, Language and Learning Lab at Marshall University.

The L, as it’s called, visited the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston on Thursday at the invitation of Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, to educate legislators on what they do and to advocate for itself.

The L is the only program in the state providing auditory verbal therapy and education with the only certified listening and spoken language specialist, Dr. Jodi Cottrell. The lab prepares children like Austin to enter mainstream education by kindergarten with minimal support services, saving the state and county up to $300,000 by eliminating the need for interpreters and other support services. The program has a 100 percent success rate.

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However, the L can only serve a small portion of the more than 400 students with hearing loss in West Virginia.

The lab lost 40 percent of its funding two years ago during line item cuts to the budget by then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Cottrell said she is hoping to see some if not all of that funding restored.

“We are currently operating on a budget of $94,000 to serve as many kids as we can,” Cottrell said. “We need to let (legislators) know we need to expand our services to more kids. We

are locating in Huntington at Marshall, but there are more kids across the state that need our services.”

Karen McNealy, program director, said 95 percent of deaf children are born to hearing and talking parents.

“National studies show 80 percent of those families choose for their child to listen and talk when given the information in an unbiased way,” Cottrell added.

Rohrbach said there is legislation that will be introduced that would incorporate all deaf children in the state into the West Virginia Birth to Three program to ensure parents know all options for their child, from sign language to cochlear implants. The goal is to help parents make an informed decision as to what is best for their child.

But McNealy said that doesn’t address access to those services. Many across the state cannot make it to Huntington to utilize the L. Restoring their funding could help address that issue by allowing them to take their services on the road.

“We need to provide not just the choice, but the ability to access it,” McNealy said.

Rohrbach said he feels strongly about restoring the L’s funding and expanding the program across the state.

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As for Austin, she’s in fifth grade at Spring Hill Elementary School in Huntington after starting at the L when she was 6 months old. Her favorite subjects are reading and science, and as of Thursday she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, though her dad, Travis Austin, said that changes often.

Ella Austin said the L means a lot to her because she gets to talk to her friends who have implants like her, which helps because she knows she is not alone.

Travis Austin said he doesn’t know where his daughter would be if not for the L.

“It’s given her and our family the opportunity to be ‘normal’ and listen and speak like everyone else,” Travis Austin said.

To learn more about the L, visit http://www.marshall.edu/mu-speech-and-hearing-cen-ter/thel/.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.