Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

I'm deaf and I'm proud... but give me those ear implants

Handout photos taken from YouTube footage of Joanne Milne, who was deaf since birth and having never heard a sound, as she hears for the first time
Handout photos taken from YouTube footage of Joanne Milne, who was deaf since birth and having never heard a sound, as she hears for the first time

I have just had a bit of a shock. Apparently, I only have just over 20% hearing with my hearing aids in and hear next to nothing with them out. I am glad I didn't know this, or I might never have had the courage to be a professional opera singer for many years.

Performing at the Theatre Royal many years ago, I was quizzed by a small child in the cast. "Miss, what's them things in yer ears?" I explained that they were hearing aids because I was deaf. "Oh," she replied confidently. "That'll be why yer sing so loudly."

I inherited the deaf gene from my father's family and it began to manifest itself when I was 18. As a small child, I had witnessed what deafness could do to people. My grandfather kept his hearing aid in the sideboard "for best", but really because it was neither use nor ornament. I witnessed the terrible effects of his isolation. He was apart, cut off, excluded – and downcast.

To paraphrase the writer David Lodge, not being able to hear can seem like a "deaf sentence" for many. The concentration required to lip-read is utterly exhausting. We find it easier to stay at home and not socialise. Better that than be flailing around trying to guess what the topic of conversation is.

So when, I became one of the million-plus people who have now watched the video clip of Joanne Milne weeping as her cochlear implants were turned on, I wept too. I knew that those tears were for all that she had been missing out on over the 40 years of her life.

For many, hearing is the first sense we have in the womb and the last sense we lose at death. But deafness inhibits communication; the compelling need and longing of every human heart.

Fortunately, today's technology is simply amazing. I am a trustee of Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf) and we believe that everyone should have full access to all the options so that they can make an informed choice.

I recognise that cochlear implants are not the choice of all deaf people. I have total respect for those who choose to use Sign Language instead – those for whom deafness is a culture with its own unique take on the world, a culture that in their view stands to be dissipated by implants.

Deafness is not a disease, runs the argument. It does not need "curing". There are, however, millions who long to be cured.

I myself spent two years at night school learning to sign. It is a beautiful language. But I have also seen at first hand the extraordinary benefits of early, bilateral and simultaneous implantations in children just a few months old. When this is combined with auditory verbal therapy, the results are startling.

In so many cases, parents no longer need ask: "Will my child ever be able to hear or speak?"; rather, "Will she be able to play a musical instrument, talk on her smartphone and learn foreign languages?" I believe in raising our expectations and enabling children to listen, talk and participate in mainstream school and reach their true potential in life.

I function very well, all things considered, thanks to top-quality hearing aids. But I already meet the criteria for a cochlear implant and it is very comforting to think that there is technology out there that will enable me to continue to participate fully in life as my hearing continues to deteriorate.

I may have to choose between my beloved singing and communicating. Will I have a cochlear implant when the time comes? You bet I will.

Janine Roebuck is a trustee of Action on Hearing Loss

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