Being deaf in a hearing world can seriously limit life options, from education and career to hobbies and socialising.
Learning to hear from the beginning
It’s easy to take hearing for granted if it’s something you’ve always done naturally and effortlessly. But research shows that the absence or loss of this key sense is potentially far more impactful than most people could ever imagine.
Deafness is fraught with challenges at any age, and for children born deaf, those challenges start almost immediately. Because babies learn to speak by listening and copying sounds, not being able to hear changes their communication development from a few weeks old. If it remains untreated for too long, it can have a lasting impact.
Through listening, children learn to use words and sentence structure to express their thoughts, wants and needs. During the first few years of life, a child’s brain is primed to develop speech and language skills, which lay the foundation for communication used in mainstream society. But if the auditory pathways of the brain are not stimulated during this time, the capacity to learn through listening is greatly diminished.
Obstruction to learning
Language skills provide a gateway to education. Children with untreated hearing loss tend to show poorer performance across reading, writing, spoken language and maths because even mathematical concepts need to be explained using language. Sadly this is reflected in academic results, even in developed countries. Despite ongoing improvements, in 2016 UK government figures showed that nearly 59 per cent of deaf students failed to achieve five good GCSE passes – national exams taken by 16-year-olds – compared with around 36 per cent of hearing children.
And naturally, poor exam results limit career options. Several studies have found that people with hearing loss fare worse when it comes to employment and income. In 2015, national US research in medical journal Otology and Neurotology found that people with a mild hearing loss were twice as likely to be unemployed and one-and-a-half times as likely to have a low income than those with normal hearing. And in 2016, a US-American study revealed that throughout all population stratums and education levels there was an earnings gap of up to 40 per cent between deaf and hearing people.
Hearing implants can counteract this poor-performance-phenomenon
But there is some good news. Hearing implant surgery can help address the disparity in opportunities between deaf and hearing people. Many studies consistently show that the earlier a deaf child is implanted, the better their speech and language skills, with some suggesting that those implanted before their first birthday will be able to speak and use language as well as their peers who can hear normally. This probably goes some way towards explaining why implanted children are more likely to attend mainstream school, especially if implanted early. In a 2013 study on 175 children, Ear and Hearing journal reported that six years after surgery, eight out of 10 children given cochlear implants (CIs) before 18 months were in mainstream school compared with just over six out of 10 implanted after the age of three.
Hearing doesn’t just enhance opportunities for academic achievement, but also for quality of life. This includes being able to communicate with other children, aiding the development of social skills, as well as having the same freedom of choice when it comes to activities such as sport, drama and music. A 2016 systematic review published in Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery showed that implanted children scored higher on quality of life indexes than other deaf children.
CI users even have a career choice
Even more encouragingly, a 2004 study found that many children with CIs eventually achieve normal levels of employment.
Gemma Mole, a hearing therapist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in the UK has also seen the positive effects of implantation on the careers of recently implanted adults: “A lot of people who have lost their hearing as adults take roles that don’t involve contact with the public, telephone use or meetings. But once they can communicate better, they take on more responsibilities and may even change careers. One lady I treated followed her ambition of writing novels. Now she teaches creative writing courses all over the world – something she wouldn’t have been able to do before.”
This sounds familiar to police officer Chuckie Butler, from Evansville, Indiana, in the USA. Partially deaf since the age of one due to meningitis, Chuckie managed with hearing aids for many years, but shortly after joining the force, the hearing in his right ear deteriorated so much that it threatened his childhood dream of being a police officer.
“I joined the police 16 years ago but not long after being hired I started having problems understanding people on the radio and telephone. My department was very supportive but soon I had to be relegated to limited duty, which severely restricted my role. It was one of the worst feelings I’d ever experienced. I knew I had to find a solution or I wouldn’t be able to continue as an officer,” he remembers.
Chuckie had a CI fitted in his right ear in 2003 and after several months of rehabilitation was able to return to normal duties. He continues to use a hearing aid in his left ear.
Now he can hear exceptionally well on the radio, the phone and in noisy environments. "The implant has allowed me to flourish as a police officer. Since then, I’ve been selected as Officer of the Year seven times" he says. He is an instructor in firearms and emergency vehicle operations, plus he trains instructors. His CI means that he can confidently speak to large groups of people.
Higher quality of life
Straining to hear can be extremely tiring so it’s not surprising that many newly implanted users get a new lease of life once they have undergone rehabilitation. Mole, who is an implant user as well as a therapist, explains: “When you’re deaf, you’re constantly on alert visually. Only 30 per cent of speech is visible when lip-reading so you’re constantly filling in the gaps in your head. It’s stressful, and you often mishear and you don’t trust your judgment. But an implant gives you confidence to participate, whether that’s in work meetings or group social events.”
It’s well established that adults who lose their hearing are at a higher risk of isolation, loneliness and depression. However, several studies concluded that CI users had a similar level of psychological wellbeing – including mood levels and feelings of positivity – to the general population.
Much of this can be linked to the freedom and confidence that comes with knowing you can hear well and don’t have to rely on someone else to do everyday things.
“Once hearing is improved, people are able to deal with everyday situations themselves. They may previously have had to take someone to the bank or even the doctor’s with them for support. It restores a person’s autonomy, independence and freedom,” says Mole.
This appears to be the case, regardless of how old a person is. With many studies establishing links between deafness and ill health, including depression, falls and even dementia, restoration of hearing can go a long way to maintaining independence in later years – and with independence comes freedom.