Bionka and Daniel Finner have twins. Two sets of them, in fact. The Milwaukee couple has 3-year-old Daniel Jr. (Danny) and Aiden. Plus 1-year-old Bella and Sophie.
"I never expected to have even one set of twins," Bionka said. "When I found out the second pregnancy was twins too, I was shocked.
Bionka hears all the time that she has her hands full. But the double sets of twins aren't the only out-of-the-ordinary thing about the Finner family.
Because 3-year-old Danny also has severe hearing loss. When explaining what Danny can hear, Bionka described a chart his audiologist uses. "The chart has pictures of different things that make sounds," Bionka said. Things like people talking, a vacuum cleaner and a piano. "If a sound isn't as loud as a lawnmower, he basically can't hear it without his hearing aids."
While Bionka and Daniel have never gotten definitive answers on what caused Danny's hearing loss, Bionka said she was diagnosed with preeclampsia when she was 35 weeks pregnant with Danny and Aiden. When the boys were born, neither one was breathing on his own, and lack of oxygen can result in hearing loss.
Learning about hearing loss
Regardless of the cause of Danny's hearing loss, the thing that stands out to Bionka about the days leading up to her sons' births is a documentary she just happened to watch. "It was about infant hearing loss," Bionka said. "Before I watched that documentary, I didn't know anything about hearing loss, but then when Danny and Aiden were born, I had a better idea of what questions to ask and what things meant when we found out about Danny's hearing loss."
And they found out pretty quickly. Danny didn't pass his newborn screening test, and they took him to Children's Hospital, where he was diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss and given his first pair of hearing aids at just 3 months old.
Immediately after Danny's diagnosis, the Finners knew they had a lot to learn in order to help Danny the best they could — not only just to help him hear better, but also because, as they would discover, good hearing is usually a vital component to how children learn.
"The challenge with hearing loss is that hearing is how we learn language," said Christine Kometer, program director for language access services at HEAR Wisconsin, where the Finners received birth-to-3 services for Danny. "Language is our communication and our connection. You need a language in your head in order to learn other forms of communication, including reading and writing."
HEAR Wisconsin provides services to people of all ages who have hearing loss. Their goal for families with infants and children with hearing loss is to teach children and their parents language in a way the hearing-impaired children can take it in — such as sign language, auditory-verbal therapy (which emphasizes technological interventions like hearing aids or cochlear implants) or both.
One service the Finners took advantage of through HEAR Wisconsin was twice-per-week toddler communication groups. The sessions are similar to a structured play group, where young children play together and with their parents while teachers and speech-language pathologists lead them through activities using sign language and oral communication.
The play groups became a normal part of life for the Finners, as Danny was joined at them by his mom, brother and sisters, as well as other typically hearing children, since it's important for the children who are hearing impaired to see typical hearing modeled, and it's important for parents to be part of the process since they're the ones who are with their kids most often.
"We coach the parents, too, in order to teach them what they can infuse into their kids' routines, and how to do that," said Kometer. "That's because the kids don't just learn by coming someplace a few times a week."
Growing up with hearing loss
Now that Danny is 3, his preschool services and regular therapy through HEAR Wisconsin are over, as he transitions into the school system. Even so, Bionka said the friendships they've made, the therapies and strategies they've learned and the continued services (such as parent support groups, educational workshops and a summer camp for hearing impaired children) through HEAR Wisconsin have been life-changing for the Finners.
Danny now attends Neeskara School, which has a deaf and hard of hearing program, and which just so happens to be the Finners' neighborhood school. "They have an audiology system there so Danny can hear his teacher's voice," Bionka said. "He wears devices on his ears, and his teacher wears a microphone."
Bionka said she was discouraged at a recent doctor appointment to discover that Danny's hearing has actually gotten worse, and it's difficult to not know what the future holds.
But, on the other hand, the resources available to the family through therapy, education and technology have been amazing, and have allowed the Finners to live their lives pretty similarly to any other family. Well, any other family with four kids under 4 years old.
"Danny's hearing aids bring his hearing to a normal level," Bionka said. "What technology and education can do is so amazing. It's my goal that in the future, seeing a person wearing hearing aids will be just as normal as seeing someone wear glasses."