Leslie Cox: My deaf son launched me into leadership

Leslie Cox, special education program manager for Fresno County Office of Education and the mother of a son who was born deaf.
Leslie Cox, special education program manager for Fresno County Office of Education and the mother of a son who was born deaf. Special to The Bee

In my early 20s, I was a busy young mother of an adorable 9-month-old son. Life seemed perfect and everything our son did delighted my husband and me.

It was at that time we learned that he had been born profoundly deaf. His disability wasn’t noticeable in the beginning, because he talked and acted like any other child his age.

This was a heartbreaking time in our lives. We felt guilty for somehow not giving our son the ability to hear. As a family, we decided we would devote every resource we could afford to helping him be successful.

Over time, we learned about the difficulties children with hearing loss have in comprehending language. They don’t overhear the conversations of their parents and don’t grasp what people are saying.

We drove all over the Los Angeles area to therapy, lessons and meetings with specialized teachers.

Eventually, we moved to Fresno to take advantage of a program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Our son flourished in this program and I became more and more involved in his school. This led me to a job as a classroom aide. I returned to college and completed a master’s degree in deaf education, which resulted in more opportunities and becoming a teacher for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Today, I’m a program manager for the Fresno County Office of Education’s Special Education Department. I oversee the program for students in general education classrooms with physical disabilities that prevent them from accessing the classroom instruction. These students may have a vision, hearing or orthopedic impairment, but often their cognitive abilities are the same as nondisabled students.

FCOE has a team of teachers specifically trained to help these students. They travel to general-education classrooms to support students and collaborate with their teachers. They educate staff as to what each child needs in equipment or technology that will contribute to student achievement.

This could be a special microphone to help a child hear, a magnifier or a large-print book to help a child see the material or a higher desk to accommodate a wheelchair. It could be a specialized hearing aid, a sign-language interpreter or learning to read in Braille that makes the difference in these students’ lives.

Helping students access the right accommodation in the classroom is so important to the children and families we serve. Recently, one of our preschool students was in an accident and lost her hearing aid. Our team worked with the insurance company and hearing aid center to replace the aid and get it programmed as quickly as possible. When her aid was ready, she beamed with delight.

One of our students lost his vision in high school just before he got his driver’s license. Our team taught him to use Braille so he could continue his education and also how to navigate the streets of Fresno so he could remain independent. He graduated from high school with honors and went to college.

Another student in a wheelchair could not move his body, but had much to communicate. Our team found a communication device that he can use by only moving his eyes. Now he can make his wants and needs known through this advanced technology.

I feel passionate about these and all of our students. With the right accommodations, they can achieve at school and grow and develop like their peers. When students with disabilities have the tools they need to learn, they can thrive and compete in our complex society.

My son is no longer that little boy facing the untenable world without sound. Because of the deaf and hard-of-hearing programs and teachers who cared for him along the way, he has grown into a successful adult who has married and begun a life of his own.

As an educator, I experience every day the life-changing influence of the inclusion of special needs students into general-education classrooms. And what I’ve learned is that our most fragile students are the most powerful when it comes to teaching lessons of compassion, kindness and respect.

I may help them hear, see or feel the world differently, but they teach me how to live in it with hope.

Leslie Cox is special education program manager for Fresno County Office of Education and the mother of a son who was born deaf.