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Equal Opportunities How CIs help deaf people around the world to reach their full potential

Read more Last updated: 2019-01-04
Reading duration: 5 minutes

Cochlear implants can help deaf people get a strong footing in school, university and at work, opening up the same world of opportunities enjoyed by those with normal hearing. While everyone’s chosen paths may differ, they all have one thing in common: they love to hear.

“Now I can go wherever I want and do what I like again, just like everybody else.”

Sheila Vieira

Listen closely

Take a look at Sheila Vieira’s Facebook or Instagram profile and you’ll see pictures of a confident young woman enjoying life to the full. The Brazilian likes to travel, spend time at the beach and go to concerts. Nothing unusual in that, you may think, but to her it’s something special – because at the age of, 13 Sheila lost her hearing as a result of meningitis.

Now, cochlear implants (CIs) help her to negotiate everyday life. She works as a speech therapist and has a Ph.D. in Human Communication Disorders. “Having the implant means I can listen to patients and colleagues,” she says. “My life would be very different without it. It means I can work in the same way as any hearing person.”

A few thousand kilometres further east, in South Africa, Magteld Smith has had a similar experience. She was born deaf and had to spend her school days in a school for the deaf, 2,000 kilometres away from her parents. Only in 2009 did Magteld, born in the 1960s, receive a CI. She describes the moment when the implant was turned on as a surreal experience. “I suddenly heard noises that I couldn’t perceive before,” she says. “Since then, my quality of life has massively improved.”

It also affects her working life – as a researcher at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa, she is currently working on a project on hearing loss and implantable devices for the World Health Organization. Part of this work involves meetings and presentations: “Without the implant, I could have never taken part in those, let alone given presentations myself,” she says.

Magteld Smith remembers very well each single sound being an incredible hearing experience.
© Magteld Smith

Starting young

While Magteld and Sheila clearly remember their time before the implant, other people – such as Max Röder and Emil Valenta – grew up with theirs almost from birth. Max from Germany, got his first implant at the age of two and his second at the age of four. Emil from Austria, received his first implant at nine months and his second at two and a half years. When asked how life is with the CIs, Max can only smile: “I don’t know how it was without them. Sometimes, after a long day, I even forget I’m wearing them,” he explains.

Neither of them has experienced any problems with learning. “I’m just like any other student,” says Max. “From a hearing point of view, it doesn’t matter if I sit at the front or the back of the lecture hall.” Emil prefers sitting at the back during class, but because of the extra-high rooms, a sound insulation was installed in his classroom to improve the acoustics. It’s not only Emil who benefits from this, but also the rest of the students and teachers.

Max in 1998
© GEORGE STEINMETZ

However, there are special examination rules for hearing-impaired students in many countries including Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. For example in an English exam, when Emil’s classmates have to understand and repeat spoken texts, Emil sits in the same room and works on a written text. “I don’t turn my CI off during the exam though,” he explains. “The silence would distract me.” Max, on the other hand, explains that in Germany CI users are allowed up to 50 per cent more time for writing in an exam. “I never use all that time though,” he says. “I quickly get bored.”

Love of sound

But hearing isn’t just important for school and work. It’s also important for everyday sounds such as the pattering of rain on the window or a conversation with friends. Magteld Smith remembers very well the first times that she heard birds tweeting, rushing water and footsteps, each single sound being an incredible hearing experience.
Sheila on the other hand was excited when, after a short time, she could use the telephone. “I, and my whole family, felt that our lives were complete again because of the CI,” she remembers. “It was as if a barrier that had kept me away from it all had fallen,” she says. “Now I can go wherever I want and do what I like again, just like everybody else.”

It was 10 years after her first implant that she decided to get her other ear implanted. And she doesn’t regret that decision: “Now, I wonder why I waited so long,” says Sheila. After all, when you can hear with both ears, you can understand many things better such as group conversations or music.

Passion for music

Every CI user loves to hear sound, but only a few live their love for music as excessively as Vanderson Marbelli. Born in 1981, the Italian is a dancer, teacher and choreographer. He dances every day, at every opportunity. For him, the lines between hobby and work are blurred because he earns his living through his passion for music. “Music has helped me to handle my life, my deafness, my shyness,” he says. Vanderson lost his hearing in both ears due to a genetic syndrome and has been benefiting from an implant since 1994.

“It’s a miracle! With the CI, I hear music nearly as well as before,” he enthuses. For this miracle, he has already had three operations because each technological upgrade has helped him to hear and dance even better. He shares his experience by teaching ‘tutting’, a particularly expressive form of hip-hop dance. “Deaf people are at risk of becoming lazy and letting themselves go,” he says. “This dance accelerates the brain and synchronises your own movements with those of your dancing partner.”

Hearing seems to have paved the way to a more fulfilling life for all of them: “My parents are proud of what I’ve achieved,” concludes Sheila. “And full of confidence about what is still to come.”

Vanderson Marbelli
© Tommaso Lomboni
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