South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind: Beyond Words

At three months old Theo was fitted for his first hearing aids. “He actually looked like an Olympic swimmer,” explained his dad, Michael Ritch. “At that age, he had to wear a cap to prevent him from pulling at the hearing aids.” Now at two, Theo is a happy toddler who understands how important it is for him to wear these life-altering devices. They allow him to experience this wonderful, noise-filled world. With his hearing aids, he can hear the things that most of us take for granted – birds singing, the voices of his favorite cartoon characters on television and his brother, Tobi, calling his name.

Theo was identified as hearing impaired soon after Merrissa and Michael adopted him as an infant. Fortunately for the Ritches, they were immediately introduced to the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind (SCSDB) and its Early Intervention Program (EIP).

The SCSDB, founded in 1849, has a main campus in Spartanburg where more than 300 students are enrolled in Pre K – 12 educational programs. An additional 1,400 children, like Theo, are served by the SCSDB’s Outreach Services across the state. Those from birth to 3 are eligible for the School’s EIP that provides a vast array of resources to help families navigate their child’s needs. This program, which is at no cost to the families, partners with South Carolina First Steps and BabyNet in compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Without EIP many parents would be left in the dark. The program’s specialized team travels across the state to empower families to make educated decisions about their child’s care. The team starts by making home visits to determine each child’s needs. They then design individualized service plans, which likely include specialized therapies and referrals to a variety of service providers. Ultimately EIP assists with a child’s transition from home to school.

Since Theo was adopted, the Ritches don’t know his medical genealogy. They worry about whether his hearing impairment will progress as he gets older. For this reason they decided to be proactive and teach him American Sign Language. “We want to be sure that Theo has all of the necessary tools to overcome his disability for the long-term,” shared Merrissa.

With the support of SCSDB and BabyNet learning sign language has become a reality. For the past year, every two weeks Patty Manigo, an Early Intervention Specialist, spends time with the Ritches.  It is truly a family affair. Merrissa, Michael and Tobi along with grandparents, Bert and Brenda Young, gather in the Young’s living room to learn together and support young Theo.

As one of those strange twists, Merrissa had always had an interest in sign language and had studied it earlier in life. One of her friends had deaf parents so she had decided it would be a great second language. Little did she know that later as a parent, sign language would bring her family together.

At their first lesson, the family was surprised to learn that Miss Patty, herself, is deaf and American Sign Language is her primary language. “Initially it was hard to communicate,” reflected Merrissa. “So we started with a pad of paper and vocabulary cards. But today we can actually have conversations in sign language. We may make some mistakes, but we have come a long way.”

Theo is also making great strides too. Both his speech and his signing vocabularies are progressing at about the same rate. “ I use sign language when I speak with him to reinforce both languages,” said Merrissa. “This morning when we were getting ready he signed ”Mommy” and then “socks.” And like any typical two year old he knows the word “mine!”

When Theo celebrates his 3rd birthday later this year, he will transition out of EIP and will attend 3K. SCDSB will assist with this transition and its outreach services will continue to be available to the Ritches.

“It is truly beyond words to explain how helpful SCSDB has been. Knowing that there is a whole network of folks that are here to support Theo is a blessing. Many thanks to SCSDB and The Walker Foundation for providing my family with so many resources to ensure that our son will achieve his highest potential.”

For more information about the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind visit or call 864-447-2732. For information about how you can help visit or call 864-577-7583.

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