Leader Staff Writer
Water polo brings to the ears such sounds as water splashing, the roar of the crowd, the referee’s whistle, teammates conversing during plays and end-of game celebrations.
Now imagine if you could not hear any of those sounds, but had to focus on what you would feel and see.
Riley Burwell, was born deaf. For him, water splashing around him as he swims to make a play or battles for the ball is something he can only feel. He looks quickly for signs of movement and signals to pass the ball and he only sees the emotions on individuals’ faces as they cheer and celebrate.
Riley, 19, the son of Tami and Rick Burwell of Elwood, also has cytomegalovirus (cmv) and is visually impaired in his right eye, which continues to get worse with time. His vision is narrowed and he does not have all of his peripheral vision.
Tami said they first found out Riley was deaf when he was about a year and a half old. Tami and Rick’s parents watched Riley for about a week while they were on vacation. When the couple got back home the parents said, “We think Riley is deaf, he is not responsive when we talk.” They did not realize this before because they were used to getting his attention. When they heard this, however, Tami and Rick knew it was true. Tami said, “It was devastating at first.”
A deaf mentor taught the family sign language. Later Riley attended a preschool class for early intervention called “Kids on the Move.” Tami said, “We are still trying to pick up sign language, he (Riley) surpassed us a long time ago.”
Tami said, “We were worried at first when we found out. But he has such a positive attitude and puts things in perspective for us all the time. I do not worry about his future at all. I know he will accomplish everything he sets his mind to because he already has. We just stand back and let him do whatever he wants.”
When Riley was eight years old he got a cochlear implant and began learning speech. This device allowed him to hear sounds. Several people might look at this as a cure for being deaf, however, sounds can be loud and confusing. The individual must learn to make sense of it all.
Riley did not like trying to hear. Hearing took a lot of work and sound was overwhelming. He wore the device until he was about 14 and then decided he didn’t want to use it anymore.
Tami said, “Maybe he got the implants too late in life because by that point he was used to the quiet. Sounds drove him crazy and gave him headaches.”
When asked about the challenges he faced growing up, Riley said, “I did not have a lot of friends, which was a struggle and I did not know how to interact with hearing kids. When I played soccer and football for the first time I did not know what to do, I could not hear the rules. I didn’t know how to compete and sports were a challenge.”
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