Lydia Denworth had concerns about her son’s hearing ever since he failed his newborn hearing screen. Subsequent hearing tests were reassuring but her son’s language development was way behind, causing more worry. Then:
On a cold January night, I was making dinner while my three boys played in and around the kitchen. I heard my husband Mark’s key in the lock. Jake and Matthew, my two older sons, tore down the long, narrow hall toward the door. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” they cried and flung themselves at Mark before he was all the way inside.
I turned and looked at Alex, my baby, who was 20 months old. He was still sitting on the kitchen floor, his back to the door, fully engaged in rolling a toy truck into a tower of blocks. A raw, sharp ache hit my gut. Taking a deep breath, I bent down, tapped Alex on the shoulder and, when he looked up, pointed at the pandemonium down the hall. His gaze followed my finger. When he spotted Mark, he leapt up and raced into his arms.
Initially, Alex’s hearing was impaired. By the age of two, the progressive disease that took out his right cochlea first — and then the other — left him deaf. Alex was suddenly a candidate for a cochlear implant — a device his ENT surgeon advocated before his third birthday in order to optimize his delayed speech development.
Cochlear implants are a recent technology; the first ones were approved for children in 1990. How they work is truly remarkable — some might say miraculous. But Denworth did not find universal enthusiasm for the device. In fact, the strongest opposition came from the deaf community itself:
The device sounded momentous and amazing to me — a common reaction for a hearing person. As Steve Parton, the father of one of the first children to receive an implant once put it, the fact that technology had been invented that could help the deaf hear seemed “a miracle of biblical proportions.”
Many in Deaf culture didn’t agree. As I began to investigate what a cochlear implant would mean for Alex, I spent a lot of time searching the Internet, and reading books and articles. I was disturbed by the depth of the divide I perceived in the deaf and hard of hearing community. There seemed to be a long history of disagreement over spoken versus visual language, and between those who saw deafness as a medical condition and those who saw it as an identity. The harshest words and the bitterest battles had come in the 1990s with the advent of the cochlear implant.
Some even likened hearing parents implanting cochlear devices in their deaf children (instead of accepting their differences and teaching them American Sign Language — ASL) as child abuse. As Denworth explains it:
Beyond the complaint that the potential benefits of implants were dubious and unproven, the Deaf community objected to the very premise that deaf people needed to be fixed at all. “I was upset,” Ted Supalla, a linguist who studies ASL at Georgetown University Medical Center, told me. “I never saw myself as deficient ever. The medical community was not able to see that we could possibly see ourselves as perfectly fine and normal just living our lives. To go so far as to put something technical in our brains, at the beginning, was a serious affront.”
Denworth did give her son the gift of sound by going ahead with the cochlear implant, even as she struggled to discover where and how Alex would fit in with the Deaf community. After a year with the device and speech therapy, Alex’s hearing and speech were reevaluated:
To avoid prolonging the suspense, the therapist who did the testing calculated his scores for me before we left the office and scribbled them on a yellow Post-It note. First, she wrote the raw scores, which didn’t mean anything to me. Underneath, she put the percentiles: where Alex fell compared to his same-aged peers. These were the scores that had been so stubbornly dismal the year before when Alex seemed stuck in single-digit percentiles.
Now, after 12 months of using the cochlear implant, the change was almost unbelievable. His expressive language had risen to the 63rd percentile and his receptive language to the 88th percentile. He was actually above age level on some measures. And that was compared to hearing children.
I stared at the Post-It note and then at the therapist.
“Oh my god!” was all I could say. I picked Alex up and hugged him tight.
“You did it,” I said.
Read Lydia Denworth’s essay “Science Gave My Son the Gift of Sound” here.