Thursday, May 07, 2009

From silence to sound

I became a Teacher of the Deaf in 1971, at a time when techniques for diagnosing deafness in babies were crude and inaccurate, when few people recognised the distinction between speech and language development, when hearing aids were cumbersome and offered little more than basic amplification and when deaf children were often separated from their families and hearing peers.

During my career, I saw real changes in every area. All babies in UK now have routine hearing screening at birth and early intervention and support offers the greatest hope of good language development, whether through speech or sign or a combination of the two. (Back in 1971 we were not allowed to use sign language.) Hearing aids have been digitised, computerised and minimised. The most common cause of deafness in babies in the 1970s was rubella in pregnancy and, thanks to the vaccination programme, that has been virtually eradicated. The smaller number of deaf children in the population, plus the improvement in hearing aid technology and teaching methods, led to the closure of many traditional residential schools for the deaf and the majority of deaf children now attend their local mainstream school or a specialist class within a mainstream school.

The most thrilling development in recent years has been the cochlear implant programme. The first of my pupils to be given an implant is now 12 years old. He was diagnosed as profoundly deaf when he was 7 months old and he was the only child I ever worked with who had absolutely no response to sound. He was a very bright toddler and quickly became proficient in the use of British Sign Language. Then, when he was 3 years old he was offered a cochlear implant: the first local child to be treated by the newly formed team at Bristol Children's Hospital. I sat with his parents, tears pouring down our cheeks, as he heard sound for the first time - it was just a beep from the computer but his expression of wonder was truly wonderful to behold.

In those early days of the technology, the switch-on process took several months but Kingsley was so eager to hear more that he refused to leave the hospital until he was too exhausted to carry on. In his case, the switch-on took only two days! Then his mother and I spent several hours every day helping him to recognise the new sounds he was hearing - his most common signed phrase, which soon became a spoken one, was, "What that noise?" At first it was the vacuum cleaner and washing machine, the doorbell and telephone but my personal favourite, privileged moment was when his mother and I were sitting chatting over a cup of coffee and Kingsley was playing near the open patio doors. He stilled, then tapped my knee and asked the usual question but I couldn't hear anything unusual. His mother and I puzzled over it then realised that he could hear a bird singing in a tree outside the window. More tears, of course.

After a year in a specialist unit, where he had intensive language therapy, Kingsley moved to his local primary school and now he is making excellent progress in the mainstream comprehensive school. His spoken and written language skills are very good, he plays in the school soccer team and is a keen member of the drama group and choir. His mother gave me permission to use his story and here is one of my monitoring clips from when he was about 7 or 8 years old, that is about four years in terms of hearing:

Most of the children that I worked with were deaf from birth, just a few had lost their hearing as a result of meningitis or trauma. Those who had already acquired language before losing their hearing were usually able to make normal progress in school, with appropriate support. Children born deaf or pre-lingually deafened have a much more difficult time because language is the key to learning as well as to communication.

Yesterday on BBC Radio 4, I heard a programme about Tim Barlow, who lost his hearing fifty years ago when he was in his early twenties. He certainly didn't let that hold him back in his chosen career as an actor and this programme, available for a while on BBC iPlayer, is worth listening to for that aspect of his story alone. What is even more amazing and uplifting, is the fact that he has just been fitted with a cochlear implant and can hear again. Isn't science marvellous?


  1. I loved this post, Monix. I taught a boy with a cochlear implant a few years ago, this was in mainstream secondary. He made really great progress, most amazingly in his language skills...he had the implant comparitively late, I think.

    I'm applying for a post in a local special school atm, but the few children with HI there have other and more profound learning difficulties, so it's more of a Macaton (sp?) rather than a BSL environment. I have my doubts if I'll get the post, as I've been out of teaching for six years, but ya never know!

  2. What a fascinating and moving post, M. Your work must have been perpetually rewarding. Will catch up with that programme on iPlayer as soon as I can.

  3. Good luck with the job interview, DD. While the numbers of deaf children born have decreased, the ability to save the lives of very prem babies has resulted in many more surviving with complex needs. Makaton is a great tool to help them to communicate and is much easier to learn than BSL. If you want to mug up on it prior to interview, you can probably go on a 6 hour course (3x 2hour sessions) run by your local Speech and Language Therapy Dept.

  4. Juliet, I did love my work. I hope you get chance to listen to the programme, it is really inspiring.

  5. Great post, M, and a subject very close to my heart so will make a point of listening.

    Was reminded, today, of how my own tiny, computerised and digitised hearing aids have transformed my life. One of them has stopped working so, until it is replaced or repaired, my world has become very much quieter again - and not in good way.

  6. Wonderful post!
    We once had a deaf girl in our scouts (guides) but she didn’t stay very long – I think she felt like an outsider. She was 13 years old and couldn’t sign – she lip-read and could speak even if it was rather hard to understand what she said. Her parents wanted her to grow up as a ”normal” child – but I’m not so sure it was a good choice to put her in an ordinary school where she was bound to be an outsider. The other girls were very considerate and tried to involve her but it never worked out. I have wondered many times what became of her.

  7. Margaretha
    There is still a lot of misunderstanding about the benefits of using sign language. Many people feel that using sign with young children will prevent them from developing speech, but my experience is the opposite. I found that children with a good language base acquired early through the use of sign, were eager to learn how to express that language in speech.

    I have mixed feelings about mainstream schooling for profoundly deaf children. It can work well if the level of support is good enough but too often children are left to struggle with little help and their social and educational development suffer.

  8. D, I hope your hearing aid is fixed soon. The down side of technology is that it goes wrong!

  9. We have friends with a Down's Syndrome daughter. She was taught Makaton from an early age to help with communication, as she had poor control of her tongue although her hearing is fine. Everyone picked up a bit,it's easy and good fun to learn. Whenever she saw my husband she always made the sign for "pig".

  10. RattlingOn
    What can I say? I collect pigs, so it can't be a bad sign-name!

  11. You collect pigs too?!!
    My nickname is Nasse which means Piglet.

  12. Nasse - (I like that, Margaretha, and I shall find an opportunity to use it when I next see my daughter's Swedish friend.) Yes I have quite an interesting collection of pigs. You can see some of them if you click on the "Pigs" label in my sidebar.

  13. How very interesting, and indeed uplifting. It so happens I know a family where half the members are deaf. I suppose implants are not suitable for all.

  14. Susie
    The technology is new and improving all the time. At present, only those who get no benefit from hearing aids are considered for assessment.

  15. My cousin, until she got involved with autism, taught the profoundly deaf. I suppose today she would not be allowed to tell me how her pupils became deaf, but 40 years ago, she did.

    The most revolting behavior I ever heard of. Worse than Nazi death camps, some of it.

  16. Harry
    It is not uncommon for teachers of the deaf to work with children with autism because we are deeply concerned with communication. Autistic infants are sometimes mistakenly diagnosed as deaf initially.

    I have encountered a few cases where the cause of deafness was sinister or suspicious but, thank goodness, they are very rare.


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