February 7, 2023

Our Origin Story

In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn topped the music charts, “The Exorcist” terrified its way to number one at the box office, and gas cost 39 cents a gallon. Historical movements and events were taking place in the U.S. and across the world. But in Williamsville, New York, a mother’s sole concern was teaching her son, who had severe hearing loss, to speak.

Nancy Harris’ son, Stefan, was born deaf. With few local resources available, she took matters into her own hands and began using the aural-oral approach. This technique teaches a child to use any remaining hearing using amplification and speechreading, natural gestures, and visual cues to aid the child’s understanding of language.

“Nancy was such a zealot about it, that when she was home with Stefan, she wore a ski mask to get him to focus on her lips,” said Bruce Goldstein, Esq., general counsel for The Summit Center Operating Board.

Bruce and his wife, Betsy, met Nancy in 1974 after their daughter, Lisa, had been diagnosed as deaf.

“The landscape for special education was very different in the 1970s. Special education laws didn’t come into play until 1976, and when they did, the focus was on school age students,” Bruce said. “If your child was birth to age 5, you had to petition family court to get the county to pay for services. And there were no preschool programs.”

Due to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in her early 20s, Nancy abandoned her love of dancing and earned a teaching degree instead. In addition to Stefan, Nancy worked with a few

other children in her home using the techniques that were helping her son. These other children also gave Stefan the opportunity to socialize and make friends.

“Nancy was all about children: helping them and advocating for them,” Bruce said.

During 1973, she established the Language Development Program (LDP), which would eventually become The Summit Center. Changes to special education laws, coupled with Nancy’s determination, fueled the program’s early growth. LDP was unique – partly because of the population it was serving, primarily children with speech language delays. But Nancy kept broadening the scope.

What began with one person’s desire to help her son, grew into an organization that has served thousands of children and adults across Western New York. Thanks to Nancy, so many lives have been changed in a meaningful way.