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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Once-deaf woman a passionate performer

Thursday, June 18, 2009

By Maria Sciullo

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sarah Clark is a dancer from way back: first with tiny ballet slippers and tap shoes, then learning en pointe.

She spent much of her childhood at Patty's Place, a local dance studio "that was practically my home. Everyone was family," said Ms. Clark, 29.

The music was in her, but it wasn't until fairly late in life that she could actually hear it.

"I was born deaf, but a cochlear implant changed my life," said Ms. Clark, whose family now lives in Bethel Park, although she is a 2001 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School.

A cochlear implant is a tiny, surgically inserted electronic device. It allows the representation of sound to be felt by the wearer through stimulation of the auditory nerve.

Ms. Clark received the implant at Allegheny General Hospital in 1999, and it was a resounding success. The first thing she remembers hearing were birds, and in the fall, she was puzzled to hear crickets chirping.

"It is the greatest thing; I got to hear my nephew talk," she said. "He said my name, and it stole my heart."

Up until then, she was able to pursue her passion, dancing, by following visual cues.

"How I learned to dance was just follow the pace of the other dancers," she said. "I could hear a little bit, but not quite well."

She was profoundly deaf from childhood, but a car accident when she was 16 "destroyed all of my hearing."

Doctors told her that strenuous activity, including dance, was not an option for the foreseeable future, which led to a new hobby: signing.

"My father [Richard] would sing, and I would sign," she said. She had the words and music on paper and, using the same concept of following the other dancers years before, she was able to keep up.

There are several schools of thought among parents raising children who are hearing-impaired. Some believe they should be incorporated into society knowing how to read lips. Others believe that only signing is the way to go. Ms. Clark learned both as a child.