THREE Nelson Mandela Bay families who never thought they would see their children entering mainstream schooling were this week brimming with pride when their youngsters started Grade 1.
Niamh Bruinders, 7, and Ashley Tennant, 8, started Grade 1 at Theodor Herzl Primary School, while Connor Edmeades, 7, began his schooling career at St Georges Primary this week.
The three, who were born with severe hearing impairments, have made such progress since getting cochlear implants that they were able to attend "normal" school this year.
The concerted team effort by their parents, grandparents, teachers, therapists and the community has paid off for these three lively youngsters.
To make their learning experience easier for them, the three use an FM system in class, where the teacher wears a microphone and her voice is channeled to their hearing devices from anywhere in the room.
Niamh's mother, Leizel, said her daughter had progressed tremendously since the implants – her left ear in August 2010 and the other in August 2011 – were done at Cape Town's Tygerberg Hospital.
She said while she and her husband, Kurt, had considered a good school for special needs pupils, she had lived in hope that Niamh would one day attend a mainstream school.
"She doesn't hear like a normal person, but has a different type of hearing," she said. "But since the implants, she has become more expressive and verbal, even greeting people first before they greet her."
Leizel said before her daughter started "uniform school" – as Niamh refers to primary school – she was filled with trepidation, but when the big day came she was fine. "I thought she'd cry because she had been nervous but on her first day she even told me to leave her.
"That hurt, but I'm very proud of her."
Connor's mom, Siobhan, said her little boy was born premature, at 27 weeks, with a condition called neuropathy, where a nerve "doesn't fire the words to the brain correctly. Even with a hearing aid, Connor could not hear properly.
"He didn't qualify for a cochlear implant because of his condition and doctors felt it might not help, but he had his first implant in one ear in 2011 to test it, and had the other ear done last year.
"The fact that he got into mainstream schooling is really something. I never thought this day would come, but through all the hard work and loads of therapy, here we are."
Ashley's mother, Karen, said she was "extremely proud" of her daughter, who was born profoundly deaf in one ear.
"By the time she was two years old she was deaf in both ears," she said.
She said their doctor had put them in touch with the cochlear implant section of the Tygerberg Hospital, where Ashley had a bilateral (both ears done at the same time) implant in November 2007.
"Ashley has the most positive disposition and I sometimes underestimate her," she said. "I doubt she even realises she is different."
The parents said the fact that their children had attended pre-primary at their respective schools made their transition to big school all the more bearable.
"We understand that there'll be challenges, but we take it one day at a time," Karen said.
The children's speech therapist, Janet Whitehouse, who has been working with them since some were still toddlers, said the parents' dedication had been key.
"Their diligence in attending therapy – not just speech, but other forms of therapy – has enabled the kids to be able to go mainstream," she said.
"There are still some backlogs in processing sounds and understanding what they're hearing, but with therapy there will be vast narrowing of the gap between their chronological age and their developmental one."
Niamh and Ashley are clearly taking things one step at a time, with neither of them thinking about their future careers just yet.
Connor, on the other hand, said he wanted to join the army and "drive the tank".