The Misconception of Deaf People’s Hearing Perception by Daniel McManus

In response to this article in the Independent of the moment deaf woman Joanne Milne is overwhelmed as she hears for the first time after having cochlear implants switched on and;

Additional links for your info Why You Shouldn’t Share Those Emotional ‘Deaf Person Hears for the First Time’ Videos and the Daily Mail’s article which shows Joanne Milne wearing hearing aids as a child, also here are the subtitled versions of the BBC broadcast, part 1 and part 2 which William Mager and Craig Crowley take part in a discussion about cochlear implants sparked off by the emotional video of a woman who had her cochlear implant switched on.

While this, luckily, is clearly a very positive experience for Joanne Milne, it’s most likely that she HAS heard sounds before but with a pair of analogue hearing aids (as is standard practice for all deaf people), and this is the piece of information that many news publications seem to conveniently omit and so this misleads the audience into thinking that she had never heard any sounds before whatsoever [only the ITV News mentions this, it seems]. The quality of the analogue hearing aid, however, was low since this was first designed in the ‘80s and ‘90s as an improvement from the much older versions of hearing aids decades before. Hearing sounds for the very first time would actually require Joanne Milne to gain natural acquisition of speech and environmental sounds during the critical period of her life which would be between 0 and 2 years. And most people who have been deaf since birth do not have that privilege. Instead, they are introduced to hearing aids and are taught to recognise sounds through speech therapy at school—this is why Joanne is able to understand the nurse’s speech with little difficulty in the video and why she is able to recognise that the nurse’s voice is high-pitched.

The analogue hearing aids are analogous to a blurry photo lens and the cochlear implant a clear lens. When you have a CI you hear much clearer and more detailed sounds – like the rustling of shirts, the gentle scrape of a hairbrush as it runs through your hair, certain speech sounds (especially the sibilants, like the s, sh, ch, ts) – all the “small” sounds that cannot otherwise be picked up by analogue hearing aids. This is why Joanne Milne is overwhelmed.

Her experience of hearing sounds for the first time isn’t the first. Many deaf or deafened people who have cochlear implants have had varied experiences of hearing sounds for the first time after having had low-quality analogue hearing aids for a while, some positive, some negative. CIs (cochlear implants) don’t always work for some people because the severity of their deafness varies from person to person and medical professionals use criteria tests to determine whether CIs are suitable for you. For example, I’m deaf with significant residual hearing so this means that CIs are not suitable for me so I only wear a digital hearing aid (this is the modern version, an improvement from the analogue one), but for some people who are deafened as a result of trauma or disease, CIs may be suitable for them if they wish to have them.

In the deaf communities worldwide, CIs are actually an extremely sensitive subject. Some people view them simply as a way of making big profits for medical professionals – CIs are jaw-droppingly expensive (but free on the NHS in this country) while the outcome of this for deaf patients is not always positive or beneficial. Potentially fatal complications following operations can occur, such as the tragic case of an infant who died following an operation in Germany, and there is an increased risk of contracting pneumococcal meningitis if you are not immunised against it. For some people, CIs simply fail because medical professionals overestimate the benefits in term of language acquisition where this depends on the patient’s ability to learn to understand speech sounds—remember that learning new sounds much less distinguishing them is much harder the older you get, or social inclusion where some medical professionals and opponents of sign language believe that only speech and not sign language would benefit the patient’s language and social development when in fact this is not always the case. Furthermore, some people strongly object to medical professionals who advise parents to have CIs on their infants because at this age infants cannot make their own decisions and as a result when they are adults they may be resentful.

From my point of view, it is interesting to see Joanne Milne’s not-so-unique case in the media spotlight much to the curiosity of the hearing majority (and I can clearly see why – she took a huge gamble on CIs because if the operation had failed then she would NOT have been able to use her old hearing aids again and the double whammy of both complete deafness and the progressively worsening blindness as a result of her incurable Usher syndrome would be devastating) because for us in the deaf communities getting a CI is nothing more than simply statistics, and, at the same time, it is also interesting to see how we never, ever seem to see deaf patients’ bad experiences in the media spotlight because CIs have always been dished out to deaf patients for decades, and with very mixed outcomes…

By Daniel McManus.



4 thoughts on “The Misconception of Deaf People’s Hearing Perception by Daniel McManus

  1. I was certainly surprised and puzzled why the video went viral after BBC included a clip on the national news. It was annoying for me that BBC heavily edited and cropped the contents as to confuse viewers much more. I knew this woman is similar to mine as to lifelong residual hearing and recently implanted. Apart from her Usher Syndrome her speech and perception is on par with me so I wonder why her mother referred to the world of silence of which BBC made a big play for their edition. All misleading so congratulations for an excellent blog.

Comments are closed.