Facts appear to prove the point. Jane R. Madell, a pediatric audiology consultant and speech-language pathologist in Brooklyn, wants every parent with a child born hearing-impaired to know that it is now possible for nearly all children with a severe hearing loss to learn to listen and speak as if their hearing were completely normal.
“Children identified with hearing loss at birth and fitted with technology in the first weeks of life blend in so well with everyone else that people don’t realize there are so many deaf children,” she told me.
With the appropriate hearing device and auditory training for children and their caregivers during the preschool years, even those born deaf “will have the ability to learn with their peers when they start school,” Madell said. “Eighty-five per cent of such children are successfully mainstreamed. Parents need to know that listening and spoken language is a possibility for their children.” Determined to get this message out to all who learn their children lack normal hearing, Madell and Irene Taylor Brodsky produced a documentary, “The Listening Project,” to demonstrate the enormous help available through modern hearing assists and auditory training.
Among the “stars” in the film, all of whom grew up deaf or severely hearing-impaired, are Dr. Elizabeth Bonagura, an obstetrician-gynecologist and surgeon; Jake Spinowitz, a musician; Joanna Lippert, a medical social worker; and Amy Pollick, a psychologist. All started out with hearing aids that helped them learn to speak and understand spoken language. But now all have cochlear implants that, as Lippert put it, “really revolutionized my world” when, at age 11, she became the first preteenager to get a cochlear implant at New York University Medical Center.
“Suddenly when I was playing soccer, I could hear what my teammates were saying,” Lippert, now 33, recalled. “My mother practically cried when I heard a cricket chirping in the house. I couldn’t talk on the phone before. Now in my job at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Manhattan, I’m on the phone all day long. The implant has been a wonderful gift.”
Pollick, 43 and deaf since birth, lives in Washington with her husband and two young children, all with normal hearing. Her deaf parents determined that she learn to speak, got her a hearing aid at 6 months along with years of auditory therapy. A graduate of New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School and Wesleyan University, Pollick was in graduate school researching primate vocalizations when she got a cochlear implant.
She told me, “The earlier you get the implant, the more successful it is because the more auditory input the brain gets at an early age, the better the auditory skills you will develop.”
Still, many deaf people resist the current technology and insist that children with a profound hearing loss should learn only sign language. They reject the idea that deafness needs to be corrected. But, as Madell points out, only 0.1 per cent of the population knows sign language, and 95 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, who then have to spend a long time learning to sign, during a period when children are normally learning to speak.