Abbi Keating is just like any other eight-year-old.
She loves teenage dance and singing star JoJo Siwa and classic pop band Maroon 5. She'd like to be a hairdresser and a school teacher when she grows up ("I could have two jobs," she says.) Her favourite colours are aqua and gold, and she loves maths at school. Her favourite foods are lasagna and grapes, and her favourite number is 16.
On January 25 she celebrated her eighth birthday with a "megafun" day of a visit to TimeZone to play games, followed by minigolf, bowling and then home to open presents.
After our chat, she tells her mum she needs to go for a run and stretch her legs before our photographer starts shooting. She races from the benches over to the fountain in Pacific Park and back again in a flash.
But there is something different about Abbi; she has a Cochlear implant in her right ear.
After suffering an illness as an infant, and at the behest of her mother, Amy, health professionals carried out tests that showed a significant hearing loss.
Dr Kelvin Kong installed the Cochlear implant for Abbi in September 2015.
She's also got a hearing aid in her left ear.
Weekenderwrote a story about Abbi's journey in July 2016. In the story, her mum described the difficult decision to get the Cochlear implant, and how teaching Abbi to communicate through Auslan sign language prior to the Cochlear implant had been a major breakthrough for them.
"I think she's going to go far. She's a smart kid," Amy said of her daughter, who was four at the time.
"Yes, she is delayed in her speech and language but she is making improvements every day.
"But the thing that I love, that puts a smile on my face constantly, Auslan is Abbi's stepping stone. Abbi learns something in sign and it so quickly is followed by something in speech. And when I watch her sign, she's got so much passion.
"It's her language. It might not be her language forever, but right now it is. It's her language and she loves it."
Four years later, Abbi has made significant progress in her life, but she still faces significant obstacles.
She's a year two student at Eleebana Public School.
And on a Friday every fortnight she attends Thomas Pattison School on the campus of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children at North Rocks in Sydney. One of her new best signing mates is Oliver, who makes the trip from the Forster area to attend North Rocks on the same basis.
There are 24 students in her classroom at Eleebana. There are five students in her class at North Rocks, where Auslan sign language is main method of communication.
"We're doing pretty good," Amy Keating says. "There's always bumps in the road. We find there's always another hurdle to get over."
Late in 2018, Abbi suffered further hearing loss in her left ear.
"It was a tale of unfortunate events," as her mother describes it.
Abbi's hearing loss is due to Large Vestibular Aquaduct Syndrome. The condition can be exacerbated by head trauma, and while Abbi lives a normal life - she does ballet and plays piano, her medical doctors have provided a list of activities (such as trampolining) to be avoided to reduce the chance of further ear (hearing) damage.
Abbi wound up on a trampoline. A subsequent hearing test indicated a further 15 to 20 decibel hearing loss in her left ear. A small window of time when treatment with steroids could have reversed the loss was missed.
While the event occurred away from home, it caused turmoil. "She [Abbi] got very upset because she thought it was her fault that she got on the trampoline," her mum says.
Amy Keating felt just as bad. "It took me a long time to get over it. It was one of those things where I had no control and I wanted to blame somebody," she says.
While mum says there is no question Eleebana is a good school, it's natural for Abbi to be sensitive about being the only deaf student. "She's very, very aware that people notice she's different," Amy says.
While Abbi has had student learning support staff, itinerant teachers and FM wireless technology (the teacher has a lapel microphone which produces a signal picked up by the Cochlear implant), she cannot hear background noise (like a question a student might ask a teacher or a classroom-wide discussion).
The inability to hear approaching sounds, like a trolley in a supermarket, or an oncoming vehicle, mean there's a need for constant awareness.
"The one thing I find, and it's the same, not just school, but across the board, is because she can hear, people just think she can hear," Amy says. "Like they think it's this blanket fix. Because she appears to be fine, they think she's ok. She's not this kid who chucks a fuss because she doesn't understand something, she's more likely on the side later on to go, 'What were you talking about? I didn't understand.'"
At the beginning of Term 2 in 2019, Abbi decided not to wear the implant to school for two weeks.
"She wouldn't wear the implant at all," Amy says. "Even though for most people that's seen as a down, for me that was not. Because I'm glad she has the confidence to go 'you know what, I have this choice', and even though it is a slight negative to school, she is slightly disadvantaged by what she is accessing... even though it was negative from society's point of view, to me it was a huge positive, because she finally went, 'I do get a say in this and my decision is I'm not going to wear it'.
"It only lasted two weeks and she put it back on and it's lasted ever since."
Abbi has continued to have speech therapy and Auslan mentors, in person and by Facetime, consistently in the last four years. She also visits a psychologist.
Abbi - through mum - is active on Facebook with signing and also on instagram (auslanwithabbi). Both have proven to be good networking avenues for Amy to increase her contacts with other families with hearing impaired children.
In 2019 she was contacted by Huawei telecommunications to be involved in an advertising campaign for the company's Story Sign app, which translates text from books into sign language. She did two days of filming in Sydney, working with Emma Watkins from The Wiggles, a star in the signing world.
Abbi is part of the Hunter Signing Choir, has participated in Starstruck and Eleebana School's Spotlight variety show.
It was a huge confidence boost for Abbi to attend the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind School's residential immersion camps (one week in each Term 1 and Term 2) and annual Auslan camp in 2019. It's been her first chance to communicate with her peers through Auslan. That has led to her attending the campus one day a fortnight this year.
It will never be easy, but Amy and Abbi Keating are determined to make the most of life. As Amy says, "I just feel like, stuff knocks us down, but there's always something else just around the corner."
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