Staff Spotlight – Julie Carter

“’It takes a village to raise a child,’” observes Ohio Valley Voices’ Julie Carter. “This quote is especially true for families who are raising a deaf child in a hearing world. When you come to OVV, it becomes your village.”   

If it’s true that Ohio Valley Voices is a village, then Julie, who has worked at the program for over ten years, occupies a prominent role as teacher and advocate, caregiver and friend, jester and sage rolled into one.

Julie was born and raised in Northern Kentucky. In 1972, at the age of four, she had a breakthrough case of the measles that destroyed the hair cells in her ears and resulted in bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. The change wasn’t apparent at first, but gradually Julie’s mother noticed a shift in behavior. “I didn’t respond to her when I had my back to her and was always turning up the radio and television,” Julie recalls.

Even after being diagnosed and fitted with hearing aids, Julie stayed in mainstream schools, where she was the only student with hearing loss for her entire school career.

Despite the considerable adversity she faced, Julie had an advantage. Because she had been able to hear for the first few years of her life, she had already acquired the listening and speaking skills of a typically hearing person. “The timing of my hearing loss was critical to my success as a student,” Julie acknowledges. “My language was developed before my hearing loss, but I was young enough to adapt.”

And adapt she did. “I just naturally became a speech reader,” Julie continues. “I spent my entire school career sitting at the front of the class. I never knew any other way. I never realized how much harder I had to work until I was implanted with cochlear implants as an adult.”

Julie cultivated a love of learning from a young age that she credits to a handful of engaging teachers. Inspired by their example, Julie decided to become a teacher herself, earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in early elementary education from Northern Kentucky University.

In 2007, while teaching at a Northern Kentucky school, she had a student with moderate hearing loss. Witnessing the child’s family struggle to secure resources from the school district, Julie grew frustrated. The experience prompted her to enter the field of deaf education so that she could be an advocate for all children born hard of hearing.

Animated by this newfound sense of purpose, Julie enrolled in Eastern Kentucky University to earn a certificate in deaf and hard of hearing special education. As a requirement for her degree, she was assigned to observe at Ohio Valley Voices. Although she had heard of OVV through an acquaintance, she knew little about the program. This initial immersion in OVV would trigger two epiphanies—one professional, the other personal, both profoundly life-altering. Julie recounts:

“While I was observing, the preschoolers in OVV’s Discovery Center could hear a timer bell that was signaling for them to clean up. I could not hear that bell. I was ready to find a better solution, so that I could improve the quality of my life. Not only did I immediately know where I wanted to teach, I knew that I wanted cochlear implants.”

Thus, at the age of forty-one, Julie underwent cochlear implant surgery, gaining full access to sound for the first time since she was four.

But life with implants wasn’t easy initially. It took time for Julie’s brain to adjust. “A month after the surgery, I was activated. It sounded absolutely horrible!” she admits. “It was a horrendous static sound. This is why babies cry when they are activated. You really just want the static to stop.” She details the shift from silence to sound with vivid immediacy:

“The static became electronic-sounding pings that were similar to the sounds of laser guns and light sabers from the original Star Wars movie. Voices were very robotic sounding. High frequency sounds such as door hinges, turn signals, and electronic beeps from appliances were extremely loud and annoying. I didn’t know that phones and microwave buttons even made sounds. I was just not used to all these sounds. The world is a noisy place. My brain had to learn to filter.”

Thankfully, because Julie had had access to sound as a child, her brain was well-equipped to process all the auditory information it was receiving and adapted more easily than most new implant users. “Hearing and understanding sound is a process that your brain goes through,” Julie explains. “Since my brain already had spoken language mapped out, the process moved along quickly for me.”

Having received her implants, Julie was uniquely qualified to teach at Ohio Valley Voices, a vocation she pursued with great enthusiasm. She followed up her initial observation with a six-week placement under Meredith Craven, then a brief substitute teaching post. In 2010, she accepted a part-time position in the Toddler Program, and in 2017 she transferred to The Discovery Center, where she has worked ever since.

Describing her role in DC2, Julie says, “I teach the students early learning content standards but with a focus on speech and language. Through modeling and imitation, they practice how to ask and answer questions related to calendar activities and stories that we read together.”

According to Julie, these seemingly mundane conversations are in fact language-rich exercises perfect for honing verbal skills. “I think most people would be shocked to realize just how much vocabulary is required for a preschooler to learn how to write,” she says. “They have to learn the names of the strokes: line, curve, and diagonal. They have to learn positional words: top, middle, and bottom. The vocabulary list goes on and on. Every content area requires an extensive amount of vocabulary.”

Through this rigorous, word-by-word approach to oral intervention, Julie helps the students of OVV establish a foundation upon which a lifetime of learning will be built. “If the students don’t master the vocabulary and articulate it well, they will struggle academically,” she insists. “This is the reason that early intervention is absolutely critical.”           

Julie Carter with her piggyback pal Noah Davidson

Not surprisingly, Julie’s firsthand experience with hearing loss has made her a role model—some might say “rock star”—among the kids of OVV.

“There is almost always an instant connection between myself and a student when I show him or her my cochlear implants,” Julie remarks. “Often, I am the first adult the students have ever met who has hearing loss.” The fact is, Julie understands the kids’ experiences from the inside to a degree that few others do.

“My students like to check and make sure I am wearing my cochlear implants,” she says. “We talk about the things that only people who wear implants really understand, such as when your magnet sticks to your umbrella if you hold it too close to your head or when your processors fly off your head when you pull your shirt off.”

With Julie as their role model, the kids in DC2 develop the courage to accept themselves and the motivation to strive for excellence, qualities which open up a world of possibility. “My hearing loss allows me to form relationships with my students that helps them become confident in their abilities to listen and speak,” she says. “Once they develop that confidence, everything else becomes easier.” After all, if Julie has flourished as a cochlear implant user, then why shouldn’t they?

While the stakes of early intervention are high, Julie’s classroom is far from being a dour, humorless place. Among the teachers and staff of OVV, Julie has a reputation for her warm and infectious spirit, her boundless imagination, and her silly sense of humor. She helps maintain the outdoor classroom and is known for putting on outrageous events, many of them involving animals:

“We have had two guinea pigs (Pippa and Peppa), a rabbit (Pepe), and a hamster (Rooster) as classroom pets in the Discovery Center. Pippa and Pepe were married on Valentine’s Day. We invited families and staff. The students were part of the wedding party. The wedding was such a unique, language-rich experience for the students. I still enjoy looking at the pictures from the ceremony.”  

Outside of OVV, Julie enjoys spending time with her husband, Bryan, and their three kids, Petr, 27, who works in sales, Zac, 26, who is earning his degree in finance, and Anna, 23, who studies law. She has one grandchild, Maya, and a dog, Ruthie. Pre-pandemic, the Carters loved traveling abroad, but over the past year and a half they have taken up outdoor activities like hiking, cycling, and rafting.

Amidst the joys and demands of family life, Julie remains an impassioned spokesperson for Ohio Valley Voices, determined to share its pedagogy with every child born deaf or hard of hearing in the region.

“There are approximately 250 children born each year in the Greater Cincinnati area who are deaf and hard of hearing,” she explains. “We are currently only reaching a small percentage of those potential students. It pains me when I meet a child who is not able to reach his or her full potential. The clock is already ticking before a child with hearing loss is even born.”

For Julie, this desire to help others is inextricably linked to her own hearing loss journey, specifically OVV’s influence on her decision to get cochlear implants. “OVV has completed me,” she says. “If I had never observed at OVV, I would have never been inspired to seek out cochlear implants. I would truly be a different person.”

Though she’s too humble to acknowledge it, Julie has paid forward her debt to OVV tenfold. Thanks to her outsized love and tireless dedication, so many of Ohio Valley Voices’ students have become different—and better—people.

This piece was originally featured in our September Newsletter. You can read the entire newsletter and become a subscriber by clicking here.

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