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Reflecting On 50 Years At CID, Robin Feder Is Hopeful About Future Of Deaf Education

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CID
For people with hearing loss, pandemic masking has brought with it unique communication challenges. Since CID returned to in-person instruction earlier this year, students and teachers have used clear masks.

The spring of 2021 has been a time of celebration on a couple of different fronts for the Central Institute for the Deaf, or CID, which has served deaf and hard-of-hearing children for more than a century.

Two weekends ago, 11 students ranging in age from 5 to 12 graduated from the St. Louis-based school, all prepared to attend their neighborhood schools alongside their peers in the fall. And last week, the organization offered a tribute to its longtime executive director, Robin Feder, who is retiring after 50 years with CID.

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Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
A volunteer before becoming a teacher and eventually the executive director of CID, Robin Feder is retiring after 50 years with the organization.

Located just east of Forest Park, the school approaches education in a unique way. Instructors don’t teach American Sign Language; rather they teach children to listen and talk — an educational journey that can take years.

Feder has seen the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing children change in remarkable ways over the course of her career. Early on, much of the instruction focused on lip reading.

“And we would also teach the children to touch their face and touch their throats so that they could feel the vibration of sound,” Feder recalled on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It was really different then. Children came, and they lived in the dormitories. And they came, and they stayed with us in those days for 10 to 12 years. They were wearing big bulky hearing aids that were attached by a cord to an amplifying box in the room.”

In the late ’90s, Feder explained in conversation with host Sarah Fenske, legislation in Missouri and around the country led to newborn hearing screening.

'Teaching Them To Listen' At Heart Of CID's Work With Children
Listen as CID's retiring executive director Robin Feder talks with host Sarah Fenske.

“And that detected children’s hearing loss at birth, and cochlear implants were around that time as well,” she said. “And so the combination of catching the child’s hearing loss really early and cochlear implants, as well as really sophisticated digital hearing aids, have just transformed what we see. The children now have small devices that they wear, and our focus now is on teaching them to listen.”

Feder shared how CID continues to have an impact both on its hundreds of students and on the larger field. She also touched on what she sees to be some of the organization’s biggest challenges and successes in recent years.

“I think the biggest challenge for us is, and we’ve been successful at it, but it’s been raising the funds so that we don’t have to turn anyone away,” Feder said. “I think that’s a big obstacle for some families. And they think that they’re never going to be able to come to a special school like CID. And when we’re able to tell them that we have worked really hard and the community has been so generous, then it makes it all worthwhile.”

A full transcript of this on-air conversation follows:

Sarah Fenske: Robin Feder first visited the Central Institute for the Deaf before she was even born. Her mother was a teacher at the St. Louis-based school, which is often called CID, and Robin went on to volunteer there before becoming a teacher, parent educator, program director and finally executive director — a role she held for 18 years. Robin began her phased retirement yesterday after a total of 50 years at Central Institute for the Deaf. And so what better time for her to join us then today? Robin Feder, welcome.

Robin Feder: Thanks so much for having me, Sarah.

Fenske: I love that your mom was a teacher at the Central Institute for the Deaf. Did you know much about her work when you were growing up?

Feder: So she had stopped teaching by the time I was born. But what she continued to do was to tutor, and so she had a young man that she tutored probably for 15 years. During my years of growing up, I got to know him, and we were like family with each other. So I learned about her work through through her tutor[ing].

Fenske: And so watching her interact with this young man, did that give you a sense [of], “You know what, I would like to work with the deaf community as well”?

Feder: I don't think I consciously connected that; it wasn’t until I was in college, and I was looking for volunteer opportunities. And I really wasn’t thinking about my mom at all — I was just subconsciously drawn to it. I think years later, I realized that was the reason that I was there. But I didn't consciously think that.

Fenske: And so you weren’t looking for a job. You were looking for volunteer opportunities. How did you first get your foot in that door?

Feder: Right, so I had transferred back to Washington U and was looking for volunteer opportunities, and knew that there was something at CID. And I was working with children in the dorms; they would come and live in the dorms, and I was their helper on Sundays around the lunch table, and then picking them up when they were flying into the airport from wherever they lived. And so that was part of my job also.

Fenske: So kids [were] coming in from all over the country, and part of your job was to just help them and support them while they were here.

Feder: Right. Those parents would put their children on an airplane, and [it] was different those days — they would be 3, 4 or 5 years old. And the stewardess would pick them up at one end and drop them off at the other, and we would pick them up and bring them to CID. So it was their home away from home at the time.

Fenske: I mean, on that first day, those kids must have been terrified.

Feder: They were, but we made it fun — as fun as possible so that they wouldn't be terrified.

Fenske: And so when they’re there, I think it might be instructive for some of our listeners to understand how CID works. You're not there teaching them American Sign Language, which some people might assume. What happens to them when they're there on campus?

Feder: Right. So Central Institute for the Deaf is really a unique school; we don't teach any sign language in our school. And our goal is to teach our children to listen and to talk. And I know that seems counterintuitive for a child who has hearing loss, but that’s what we do is we’re teaching them to develop their brain and their listening skills so that they can learn to talk. And so our children then develop all of those skills, to talk and to listen and to read and to do all of their academic subjects, with the goal of going out and entering into mainstream schools when they leave us.

Fenske: So, now cochlear implants have completely changed the whole landscape. But back when you were first doing this, was this mostly a case of what we’d call lip reading?

Feder: It was a case of lip reading. And we would also teach the children to touch their face and touch their throats so that they could feel the vibration of sound. It was really different then. Children came, and they lived in the dormitories. And they came and they stayed with us in those days for 10 to 12 years. They were wearing big bulky hearing aids that were attached by a cord to an amplifying box in the room. And it was very different, and they would stay with us for a long time.

Fenske: And when did that begin to change — that it became a much shorter stint and that they were learning with much more sophisticated devices?

Feder: Right. So in the late ’90s, there was something called newborn hearing screening that was legislation that was passed in Missouri and in all other states as well. And that detected children's hearing loss at birth, and cochlear implants were around that time as well. And so the combination of catching the child’s hearing loss really early and cochlear implants, as well as really sophisticated digital hearing aids, have just transformed what we see. So the children now have small devices that they wear, and our focus now is on teaching them to listen, and we really didn’t do that before. But that’s really what our curriculum focuses heavily on.

Fenske: And with a cochlear implant it’s still hard — there’s a process of learning how to listen with that.

Feder: Absolutely. You have to train the brain; you have to train the brain to listen. And so you can’t just put a cochlear implant on your child or an adult without rehab, if you will, or just training to teach them to listen. And so that’s what we do. We’ve developed curricula at CID around that topic, and that’s our focus.

Fenske: And so how lengthy a process is that for a kid where maybe it was detected pretty early in life, that they didn’t have hardly any hearing at all or maybe none? How long would it take to get fully up to speed with a cochlear implant?

Feder: We typically see children — they'll stay on average four or five years now, and it used to be 10 to 12 years.

Fenske: That’s still a long time.

Feder: It takes a lot of education, a lot of training, to get their brains ready, to get them to learn to say all of the sounds and the words. And we are also teaching them all of the academic subjects. So early listening skill, early reading skills, early literacy. But after, on average, four or five years, they’re ready to be mainstream. So many of our children who come as babies will leave us by kindergarten or first grade.

Fenske: So that’s got to be exciting and so good for their families. Is it still a situation where people are living there on campus, in some cases?

Feder: No. So we don't have a residential program anymore. People used to come from all over the world, and some of them lived in our school. That has changed; we don’t have the residential program, but children are still coming, and families are still coming from all over the world — families come and move to St. Louis, so that their children can attend CID for however long they need in order for them to be successful.

Fenske: So these devices have been such a blessing to so many families, but they have not come without controversy. There are some people in the deaf community who have really pushed back on that. Has the school found itself at all in a place of controversy because of that?

Feder: It's a really different school of thought for those people who are opposed to cochlear implants. And their philosophy, if I can speak to that, is that they feel that deafness is a culture and it’s part of their heritage. And they don’t want to fix that or change that. We feel that deafness is to be respected. And we want the children to feel good about who they are. But we also realize that the world is open to them if they can learn to talk and to listen and to read and be successful. So that's what our goal is. And we, like I said, we’re very unique in that regard, because most state schools for the deaf teach sign language still.

Fenske: That’s interesting. And so you still have families moving here, because this is what they want for their kids. Do you find as the kids grow up and get older, that they want to stay in that world? Or in some cases are they deciding, “No, I actually want to live in the way that people who are coming out of different states and different types of schools [are] and be more oriented towards American Sign Language”?

Feder: We feel like they then have a choice, because then they know how to talk and they know how to listen. And so some children will add sign language to that. It helps them when they go places like the Muny or other places where it's hard to lip read from far away, and they might add sign language to their repertoire. But they always have that foundation of learning to listen and talk which serves them so well.

Fenske: We’re talking today to Robin Feder; she is easing into her retirement this week. She's now the director emeritus of the Central Institute for the Deaf, which is quite an institution here in the St. Louis area. Robin, talking about the work you do and the school does, this is some pretty intensive work. And that means it’s pretty expensive work. I know the school is a nonprofit and looking at all the many jobs you've held there, at one point you were the director of development. So I know money is something that you had to pay a lot of attention to. As you were trying to expand and increase the school — I saw just how many additional students came on during your tenure there — was this something that was easy to sell donors on?

Feder: I don't know if I would say it’s easy, but donors have been just extraordinarily generous to CID. And that is probably our biggest challenge, is to be able to raise enough funds to enable children to come to our school. We are proud to say because of the incredible support from the community we don’t turn any families away for financial reasons. And so we feel very fortunate. And it’s only because of our extraordinary donors that we're able to do that.

Fenske: And so you’re up to something like 235 students a year, is that right?

Feder: We serve, yeah, approximately 200, 200-plus children a year, and they are from newborns up to age 12.

Fenske: And most of those are receiving some form of financial aid?

Feder: All of our children received some form of scholarship, yes.

Fenske: So that’s a lot of students. And then let’s enter the pandemic into the conversation. Suddenly, everything gets a lot more complicated. How did you have to pivot to deal with that?

Feder: So for our youngest children, we serve them typically in their homes, and we go into homes and coach their parents. And those are the children birth to 3. That stopped completely; we were unable to go into anyone's homes during COVID. And so we transitioned and did remote training with those parents, and that worked amazingly well. Our staff just rose to the occasion. Our audiologists were able to do remote repairs of hearing aids and cochlear implants, which is just remarkable.

Fenske: That is remarkable. If you can see my face right now, my jaw has dropped to the floor. How can they do remote repairs, like coaching parents through how to do it?

Feder: Exactly — ordering parts and helping parents figure out how to attach a new cord or whatever. And so they were able to do some of that remote programming. And then for our children who are 3 and up who are in full-time education in our school, those children were then learning remotely.

Fenske: And did that work out OK for them? I know, having young kids myself, it’s so hard to get them to focus on a screen versus an in-person face.

Feder: Right. It’s really hard. Our teachers were fabulous; our teachers formed committees to learn how to do Google Suite and Google Classroom. And we all wore masks that are clear masks so that children could lip read when we were in person with them. And when we were on Zoom, or whatever platform we were using, the teachers have a class of typically three or four children. And so they were able to keep them engaged and to make it entertaining and a wonderful learning opportunity. And all of our children learned. They all made tremendous progress, which I think is just such a credit to our teachers and speech pathologists and audiologists to have made that happen this year.

Fenske: I do want to mention, we actually just tweeted a photo of Robin and a handful of the CID kids all masked up wearing those clear masks that Robin mentioned. So if you’re curious to see what that looks like, just check out our Twitter feed — that’s @STLonAir. So this did not come to a screeching halt during the pandemic; these kids were able to continue their education at that point. It must have been hard, [and] for little kids now they still can’t get vaccinated. But now adults can. So are things back in person?

Feder: We are back in person; we’ve been back in person since January and have a lot of protocol and a lot of protective equipment around the school, and of course the masks. But that’s hard for a child who’s learning to listen to have that impeded signal of a mask. Even though it’s plastic, and they can see you, it makes it harder to hear. So there are particular challenges being deaf and hard-of-hearing, and having to wear masks.

Fenske: So that’s a big challenge. You’ve had a number of big challenges over the years — you don’t stay at a place for more than 50 years without experiencing that. What would you say, of all your time at CID, has been the hardest thing that you’ve had to deal with?

Feder: I think the biggest challenge for us is, and we’ve been successful at it, but it’s been raising the funds so that we don’t have to turn anyone away. I think that’s a big obstacle for some families. And they think that they’re never going to be able to come to a special school like CID. And when we’re able to tell them that we have worked really hard and the community has been so generous, then it makes it all worthwhile.

Fenske: What do you feel has been your biggest success, especially looking at your time as executive director? That's 18 years — that should be a wide enough range.

Feder: I think of the successes that I’ve had as being the successes that the students have had. And I just look at the accomplishments that they have made over the years, and they’re remarkable. We have students who have grown up to be doctors and lawyers and college professors, and they can do anything. And I think that that’s all of our collective biggest successes are our children.

Fenske: You know, you mentioned doctors and lawyers, and those are both so important. But you also had one of your most famous alums. This is Miss America Heather Whitestone. And this was back in 1994. But I think so many of us have a memory of her dancing, that she had learned how to dance. And was that using techniques she would have learned at CID?

Feder: It was. I was actually one of Heather’s teachers way back in the day. And when she became Miss America, and she was doing her competition, her dancing, she explained to us when she came back later and visited that she would watch the pianist and watch his hands. And when he started playing the piano, she would start counting, and that’s how she knew what steps she was on, because she wasn’t able to hear any of the sounds. But she was remarkable.

Fenske: That is remarkable. What tremendous discipline. So you’re now at the point where you're retiring and they’ve made it very clear at CID that this is a phased retirement. You’re not leaving — you plan to continue to assist the new director going forward. What made you decide now was the time to move to the next thing?

Feder: I’m excited about the fabulous team that we have in place at CID. We have fabulous administrators. We have a program that we started a few years ago working with professionals. It’s always been a little bit part of CID, but it’s a growing program where we’re working with professionals all over the world, helping them help the children in their community. And I just see the programs being so solid and so successful right now that it felt like the right time, the right time to move on.

Fenske: You feel like you're leaving things in a good place.

Feder: I do. I do.

Fenske: Well, Robin Feder, thank you so much for joining us today.

Feder: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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