Tamsin Coates: Whatever equipment a deaf child uses, they are still deaf

Posted on April 15, 2014

‘Is there any such thing as a deaf child anymore?’

This was a question I recently overhead, spoken by an education professional who works with children who are deaf/have a hearing loss.

To put their question in context the lady was relating it to the different types of technology now available which deaf children can use to help them access sound.

These include cochlear implants, hearing aids, bone anchored hearing aids (Baha’s) and assistive devices such as fm systems which attach directly to the technology and to specific sources of sound with the purpose of further amplifying and isolating important auditory information – such as a teacher’s voice.

On the surface, to many, it may seem an innocent enough question, an interesting philosophical foray into the changes which have evolved over recent years and the many new choices open to deaf children, young people and adults.

It is a reflection on the technology now available and the potential of its use. Perhaps though, it is also a suggestion towards the perceptions of people who watch emotional ‘you tube’ clips of young babies who respond to sound for the first time as their cochlear implants are switched on, and who observe the sometimes astounding progress that many of our children are making with the aid of this amazing technology.

This is an expression of the assumption which many hearing people believe – that equipment such as hearing aids and cochlear implants ‘fix’ deafness.

The problem with the question is that in essence no matter what equipment a deaf child or young person uses (and for some children there is none suitable) to help them access sound, our children are still deaf.

This is not a statement I make for any gain but as a statement of reality. Whilst we have accepted cochlear implants for both of my sons, and they have been amazingly successful for them both, when they swim, shower, have water fights, go gorge walking, bathe, sleep and all the other numerous examples I could give of instances when my boys need to remove their equipment – they are still deaf.

At those times they cannot hear anything. Even with the equipment my older son struggles to follow tv programmes and films in the cinema without subtitles – to the point that he feels it is futile to go to the cinema without them.

Our search for family films to watch using Sky Demand at Christmas was a protracted process of not just checking age and suitability but which few we could actually find with subtitles.

Other deaf children I know still struggle to follow lessons in school, miss parts of conversations with friends and have difficulty in communicating with people they aren’t familiar with despite using equipment.

Deaf children, even with equipment, still rely on lip reading to follow what other people are saying, they still need people to face them when talking and struggle in shadows or noisy conditions.

The equipment has not made them hearing. The belief that this could be the case frightens me in terms of the understanding people have for the challenges faced by deaf children and young people (and adults). This question was posed by someone who is supporting deaf children on a daily basis and it worries me that on the surface they may not be aware of the remaining needs which equipment cannot fully meet.

I responded to this question silently in my own head but very strongly. Perhaps the depth of my reaction was tied to how I believe even in the asking of that question it implies a negativity towards being deaf rather than being a fully functioning member of a hearing world.

For our family being deaf is not negative. My daughter is four and hearing, yet from her experiences with her brothers and the wider deaf community we are part of locally she signs, she is used to interacting with deaf adults who only sign, and recently passed comment when we met a family friend who is deaf and is also teaching BSL to my older son that it’s really good that she can teach us all so we can be better at signing when we’re ‘bigger’ because she’s been good at it all her life.

Embracing the fact that my children are deaf does not mean we do not appreciate the independence and the skills which technology has given my sons in their access of sound but does mean we have gained so much into our lives through our awareness of deaf culture and the value of belonging to a deaf community.

The saying is ‘It takes a village….’ and for my children I know that is true. They need more than we as a hearing family can provide, the need older deaf role models, they need deaf peers, they need hearing peers who understand and accept them as deaf young people.

I worry that the perception of this technology and its amazing capabilities may disguise the need for everything else which ultimately are still key components of how a person perceives themselves as fitting in within the world around them, and that other deaf children, young people and adults will miss out on being part of such a culturally rich group.

Tamsin Coates trained and worked as a Speech and Language Therapist for over 10 years. Her training came in useful when she had two sons who are profoundly deaf. She now juggles being a mum to three lively children, writing (she has new book A Changing Skyline out now and you can buy her first book Meanwhile I Keep Dancing here), co-ordinating Teen Team events for the Wirral Deaf Children’s Society and raising awareness regarding deaf issues wherever she can.

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