As the voice actor for Cece Bell, the main character on Apple TV+’s El Deafo series, Lexi Finigan can relate to Bell’s struggles as the only deaf student in her school. And like Bell, who navigated the challenges of elementary school by creating an alter ego superhero, “El Deafo,” 12-year-old Lexi has empowered herself with the help of cochlear implants to excel academically and socially and land a starring role in an acclaimed children’s series.
“Kids and other people, like parents who may not have a child with cochlear implants, may not understand what it’s like to be the only deaf kid in class or possibly school,” Lexi said. “Young Cece, she felt like she was in a bubble at school. That’s what I felt like before. I think that’s what other kids might also feel like. This story helps show that they’re not alone.”
Lexi’s parents, Rosie and Mark Finigan adopted Lexi from an orphanage in China, knowing that Lexi had severe hearing loss. Lexi was already behind developmentally when the Finigans brought her to the U.S. at age three. Still, Rosie and Mark went to the UHealth - University of Miami Health System’s Children’s Hearing Program before the adoption to better understand Lexi’s options and to quickly get her the care she needed to develop and thrive.
Lexi is a bilateral cochlear implant recipient due to deafness in both ears, according to Fred F. Telischi, M.D., M.E.E., professor and James R. Chandler Chair in Otolaryngology at the Miller School, who manages Lexi’s care today.
“Though she received her implants later than we strive to provide children currently (prior to the first birthday), she has been a terrific example of what can be accomplished with determination and strong, consistent family support coupled with a dedicated, multidisciplinary cochlear implant team,” Dr. Telischi said. “Lexi joins an accomplished group of students and young adults who, thanks to comprehensive cochlear implant programs like the one at UHealth’s Department of Otolaryngology Ear institute, have gone on to lead not just normal lives but achieve extraordinary success.”
Ivette Cejas, Ph.D., associate professor of otolaryngology and director of Family Support Services at the Children’s Hearing Program, University of Miami Ear Institute, first met Rosie Finigan before the adoption.
“As soon as Lexi arrived from China, we quickly made sure that she got all the necessary treatments she needed for her hearing loss,” Dr. Cejas said.
Rosie Finigan said Lexi was eager to communicate even before receiving the cochlear implants.
“She is a very spirited, active child, so she wanted to engage,” Rosie said. “We got back to the States after adopting Lexi on a Friday and UHealth got us in that Monday.”
While being fitted with hearing aids is the first step of the treatment process, hearing aids typically do not help children with significant hearing loss enough to develop age-appropriate listening and spoken language abilities. After a trial with the hearing aids, Lexi became a candidate for cochlear implants.
Thomas Balkany, M.D., Hotchkiss professor and chair emeritus of the Department of Otolaryngology at the Miller School, implanted Lexi’s first cochlear implant a few months after her arrival, and right after her third birthday, she got her second cochlear implant.
“Lexi’s implant was first turned on about a month later, and they slowly programed it and turned it up. She just did great. She wanted to hear and wanted to communicate. We noticed things fairly quickly where she would point out certain sounds,” Rosie said. “I always tell people, it was like watching a miracle.”
Despite living in Key West, where resources for hearing loss patients are scarce, Lexi’s family would make the drive to UHealth often, especially during the first year, to manage Lexi’s care. And that dedication has paid dividends, according to Dr. Cejas.
“Lexi is fully mainstreamed in school,” Dr. Cejas said. “At this point, Lexi is on target with her peers, if not even ahead of them.”
Portraying Her Hero
When Dr. Cejas heard that Apple TV+ was looking for a voice for the main character of its El Deafo series, she let the Finigans know about the opportunity. Lexi auditioned for the part and got the role at age 10. El Deafo is based on the real-life story of author Cece Bell, who wrote The New York Times #1 bestselling children’s book by the same name.
A stark difference between Cece and Lexi is the technology that’s available today is much less bulky and visible than the backpack-like device Cece had to wear in school.
But Cece’s story about navigating friendships and being self-conscious, having to struggle to hear in a classroom and being the only deaf child in school ring true for Lexi, who plays not only Cece but also El Deafo.
“It’s really cool that I get to portray an amazing author like Cece, who worked so hard to get her story out. It’s so cool that I can help other deaf kids who probably deal with the same struggles as Cece and me,” Lexi said.
Today, Lexi said she feels pretty much like other kids in the classroom but recalls that going to a new school in sixth grade was “terrifying” because people didn’t know her, and she thought she would have to explain herself. But Lexi said her mom helped to teach her what Cece learned — that true friends will like you just the way you are.
“When Cece found this true friend, Martha, it made her start feeling more comfortable and push through challenges, you know?” Lexi said.
It Takes a Village
Most people who meet Lexi today might not realize that she is deaf, according to Rosie.
“When she takes the implants off at night or is in the shower, she cannot hear. So, she’ll always be deaf. But Lexi is a deaf child who can hear and speak thanks to the cochlear implants,” Rosie said. “I think shows and books like this help children and parents have empathy and maybe get a little glimpse of understanding of what other kids go through. Anytime you can have people gain an understanding, it helps everybody.”
Rosie, an occupational therapist, said that the staff at the Miller School helped make a potentially overwhelming situation possible.
“University of Miami really empowered me to feel like I could do this as a parent. They always made us feel like we were their only patient. They always were there for us,” Rosie said.