Women's Volleyball
Cochlear Implants Help Birks' Brothers Hear, Defy Odds

The Birks family is a tight-knit group that rallies around each other through difficult times.
The Birks family is a tight-knit group that rallies around each other through difficult times.

Jan. 3, 2013

By Chad Beyler, Illinois Sports Information

Outside hitter Jocelynn Birks led the Illini in kills this fall as a redshirt freshman, but she is even happier that her two brothers, Jeffrey and Jeremy, can hear “Point, Illinois!” every time she finishes a play. However, it wasn’t always that way because Jeffrey, 21, and Jeremy, 13, were born deaf.

Jeffrey, and his parents, Jeff and Jeanette, were told by doctors that he wouldn’t make it past the third grade in school, or be able to talk, read, or do many of the things most kids his age could do. However, Jocelynn says her mom “just wasn’t having that, so she worked with him all the time.”

Jeanette Birks wasn’t satisfied with her son being able to only communicate through sign language, “so they did this thing called cued speech, which is more like feeling the sounds as they’re said,” Jocelynn said. “It’s kind of like sign language, but with the sounds and vibrations.”

Cued speech involves using sign language to express consonants (different signs with your hand) plus a location of the hand (throat, mouth, chin, or side) to express vowels. For example, “book” is cued by holding up four fingers to signal the consonant “b” sound, placing the hand over the throat to signal the “oo” sound, and then holding up two fingers (middle and index) held together to signal the consonant “k” sound.

In addition to cued speech, Jocelynn says that her brothers read lips, “so they can pretty much know what anyone around them is saying just by looking at them.”

How do you get the attention of people who are deaf when they aren’t in the same part of the house as you? Jocelynn says in the Birks household, “we flash the lights if they aren’t hearing us screaming their names.”

The changing moment came for the Birks family when they convinced Jeffrey to get a cochlear implant, which helps correct the dead sensory hair cells in the ear that are necessary for the conduction of sound to the brain.

“They were both very stand-offish about it at first, because my mom had talked to my older brother about it for so long and he just did not want it at all,” Jocelynn said.

But eventually Jeffrey had the surgery. Shortly after he received the implant, the Birks family was sitting in their living room and Jeffrey suddenly asked, “What is that booming noise, Mom?! Mom, what is that?”

“We were all like, ‘What is he talking about? Nothing is booming.’ And then he was walking around looking for it and he saw the sink dripping. We were all like, ‘Oh my God!’ My mom was crying, of course, because we were so happy that he could [hear]; it was such a small thing that none of us thought that was what he heard and that’s what it was.

“Once [Jeffrey] got it, he was like ‘I definitely think Jeremy should get it’ because it was so helpful for him.” 

Jeremy “is a little bit different,” Birks said. “He has a hearing aid and a cochlear implant because in one of his ears, he just can’t hear anything, so there’s nothing they can do for it now.”

Like his brother, Jeremy was told he would never be able to speak, read or advance past the third grade in school, but Jeremy defied the odds again. Through the help of a hearing aid in one ear and a cochlear implant in the other, he is now just like any other 8th grader who “hangs out with friends and plays Xbox,” laughs Jocelynn.

How has growing up with two brothers who were deaf for a good portion of her life affected Jocelynn? First, she had to deal with seeing her brothers get teased growing up.

Jocelynn remembers how “we would go out and see people pointing at him or staring at him, and I would just get so frustrated because it’s not like he can help it. Seeing how people can be, it was really hard for our whole family to pull through things like that.

“But it made our family a lot closer and we’re all still very, very close, and a lot of it, I think, is because of that and how protective we are of each other.”

Another result of her brothers’ hearing difficulties was that Jocelynn took a class in high school where she got to help kids in the special education program. She is currently studying elementary education with an interest in special education in hopes of someday helping kids like her brothers. Through this experience with her brothers, she says she’s “more accepting and not judgmental of people because I know how hard it is.”

Thanks to the unity of the family and cochlear implants, the lights have stopped flashing at the Birks’ home.