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?