Andy Palmer: BBC Alba’s The Switch On tells cochlear implant stories you don’t see in viral clips

Posted on January 8, 2016

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Andy Palmer - Deputy Editor

“It took weeks for Kris to even look and say ‘I heard that,” says a mother of a deaf boy as she sits in the kitchen having a cuppa. She’s cautioning another mum of a deaf boy not to expect miraculous results when her child gets his cochlear implant turned on.

Miraculous results like those gone viral on Facebook showing babies and pretty women hearing for the first time and either breaking out a cute smile or breaking down with tears of joy have come to stand in the public psyche for what cochlear implants do. And of course, sometimes that is what happens.

But the reality for most is, as the mum continues to tell us: “It’s a lot of therapy. A lot of speech therapy. It’s a long slow process.”

That may come as a surprise to many people who have seen the numerous viral Facebook or You Tube videos; but what you don’t see in those clips are the times when maybe it doesn’t go so well, or the years of therapy; the tears or the or occasional deep disappointments that follow a switch-on that has failed expectations.

The Switch-On, a documentary by BBC Alba, the Gaelic language channel, follows five patients at the Scottish Cochlear Implant Unit at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock through the process of getting a cochlear implant from consultation to surgery and a bit beyond.

You’ll see what happens when a cochlear implant is switched on and it definitely isn’t material that would go viral on Facebook.

The first myth this documentary blows away is that cochlear implants are just for deaf babies and American women in their 20’s.

In fact, so the doc claims, most patients at Crosshouse have a progressive hearing loss and are adults. Another interesting fact is that only 5% of people who could benefit from an implant get the chance to be assessed for one.

The first patient we meet is a 75-year old gent named Craig. He could have been killed on account of his hearing problems. His wife explains how once, as they were waiting to cross the road, she said ‘don’t go’ but he only heard the ‘go’ part and stepped out. The oncoming car somehow missed him.

Profound deafness is “horrific” he says, before we see his two grandchildren asking him questions in the garden while they stare directly at the floor, rather than at his face, so he can’t to look at their lips for clues about what they’re asking him.

The biggest loss, he says, is losing the connection to his grandchildren.

When the time comes, the first words Granny speaks to him at the implant switch-on are: “What would you like for your tea?” But maybe what she is really saying is that she just wants her husband back; she just wants to be his wife again and ask him what he wants for tea. Just like normal; just like it used to be. Normality restored.

But we see that he still can’t understand her. This is as far from the Facebook viral video you can get.

Next we meet Mark, a man who has clearly smiled so much in his lifetime that he even looks happy when he’s sad. I read last week that people who smile a lot have better developed smile-creating facial muscles. That means that they can still look a bit happy even when they’re not. I think Mark is one of those.

He lost all his hearing in the space of ten months and is now on the verge of losing a whole lot more.

He cheerfully tells us that his social life has gone, he can’t listen to the music he loves, he’s on medication and now his job is on the line.

He’s a sign fitter and a colleague says (ridiculously) that he might have to be fired because he can’t hear the machinery in the workshop.

If I hadn’t become accustomed to this kind of nonsense I’d have thrown the remote at the TV so hard it would have flown out the other side, pentrated the living room wall, blasted into the garden and then remained in low level orbit.

The very notion that a deaf man can’t be sign maker is as ridiculous as an orbiting remote control. I mean, it cannae be that hard to figure oot! Use your heads lads.

I know a retired deaf sign writer and sign fitter who was self-employed and British Sign Language user. He ran his own business for 35 years and completed 7,000 jobs for his clients.

Who is that that man? My dad.

If there was a job that I grew up knowing for sure that a deaf man could do, it was making signs. Luckily for Mark the implant is a success, so as far as his boss is concerned, his job is safe and the Scottish Employment Tribunal Service won’t be troubled for the time being.

We meet three other patients of Crosshouse, each with their own interesting journey, and through their stories, The Switch-On gives viewers more of the truth about cochlear implants than a teary Facebook video clip ever can.

So the truth turns out to be that it’s not always celebration time when cochlear implants are turned on. For some people its just easier to make sense of the sounds that are being transmitted by electrode to the brain than it is for others.

Another thing you won’t see in a Facebook video is the reality of how Mark the Sign Maker’s cochlear implant will probably help him off the meds and keep him in a job.

Now, that’s got to be worth a like.

Watch The Switch On here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06sx1cb/cluinneamthe-switchon

Andy Palmer is the hearing father of a Deaf son, and is also a child of Deaf parents. He is Managing Director of the Cambridgeshire Deaf Association, runs Peterborough United’s deaf football teams and is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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