The day my silence ended
As the deaf son of hearing parents, Stuart McNaughton was a lonely child. Then a cochlear implant in his twenties filled his world with sound for the first time
Tuesday 19 March 2013
Sometimes, I look back at the photos of myself as a young boy. Scanning the images, I recognise my mother, my father, even the distinctive features of my two elder sisters. I vaguely remember the cousins whom we have lost contact with over the years, but I do not recognise, or relate to, the photos of myself.
I was born with hearing, but when I was 18 months old, my parents noticed an enormous change. Suddenly, after suffering from a fever, I simply stopped "responding". I had also stopped using the very limited vocabulary I had learnt by this young age. It was a scary time, and imagine my mother's response when one medical professional casually supposed that I was "either very deaf or just incredibly stupid".
It wasn't until 1981, aged four, that I was finally fitted with hearing aids. By this time, I had grown incredibly close to my mother. She was my lifeline. Without her, I couldn't do anything. From what I can remember of my earlier years, I would not describe it as living. I was merely existing, very dependent on others for the slightest thing. If I wanted a biscuit, I would grunt and point at the biscuit jar, much to my mother's frustration. If I wanted something, but could not make myself understood, I would get more frustrated and enter into fits of kicking and screaming. In later years, my friends and family would order my food and drink for me in bars and restaurants – anything to avoid having to read a set of unfamiliar lips and risk public embarrassment.
Arriving at a diagnosis took an extraordinary amount of time, but fortunately screening methods are much more sophisticated these days. When I was diagnosed as profoundly deaf, the many health professionals clamoured to organise speech therapy, hearing-aid fittings, home visits from teachers for the deaf, etc. In the meantime, the time for me to start attending school was nearing and, unable to secure a place in a mainstream school due to my disability, social services insisted that my parents go to visit some schools for the deaf. It was that, or I would be taken into care.
These visits had a very profound effect on my mother. She told me in amazing detail how a classroom of pupils simply mimicked each other, grunting rather than speaking, using their hands to communicate with one another. There seemed to be no focus on teaching the children speech, and my mother had grave concerns. How would a school for the deaf, which didn't promote speech at the time, prepare her son for the real world? In haste, she pleaded with the headmaster of the school my two sisters attended. After consulting with his colleagues, the headmaster agreed to a trial period. This decision was not taken lightly, but it was a decision that changed my life. While I appear to have performed to a satisfactory level, I had in effect been placed in an environment that you could say was beyond my capabilities. Each day, I read the lips of the teachers, determined to do well. At the end of each day, I was exhausted.
Everyone knows that most kids hate school, but I detested it, even feared it. My fellow pupils would taunt me, flicking the hearing aids off my ears, chanting "deafy duck, deafy duck". There were a couple of harrowing incidents of extreme bullying, and after careful consideration, I decided to write about these. At the time, my teacher for the deaf was an amazing support for me. While my family and I moved several times during my teenage years, she was a constant, someone who understood what I was going through.
When I left school, I thought things would get better. But instead they went wrong and this is why I stormed into my audiologist's room, demanding to be helped. I didn't want tea and sympathy, I wanted a solution. I didn't belong in the deaf world – for my parents had not raised me in the deaf world – and I was losing whatever grip I had in the hearing world, where people pitied me. Someone calls after you, you don't respond. People try to explain something to you, but they tire of having to repeat everything. The end result is that these people have someone better to hang out with, someone they can communicate with at speed, someone they can laugh with.
The day I demanded to be helped changed my life, and would change the lives of those around me, too. After many tests, I was told that I met all the criteria for a cochlear implant. Just over a year later, it was implanted. A cochlear implant consists of two parts, internal and external. Sound enters the microphone, and travels to an external mini-computer called a sound processor. The sound is processed and converted into digital information. This digital information is sent over a transmitter antenna to the surgically implanted part of the system, the internal component. The implant turns the sound information into electrical signals that travel down the electrode array, which is inserted into the tiny inner ear, or cochlea. The electrodes directly stimulate the auditory nerve, sending sound information to the brain. Bypassing the damaged inner ear, cochlear implants provide an entirely new mechanism for hearing.
When my implant was "activated" a few weeks after the electrode was surgically implanted, I was told by my audiologists to keep my expectations low. Within minutes, however, I could tell where sounds were coming from, something I had not been able to do before. Over the following weeks and months, my brain had to process so much new sound: the sound a plane makes as it descends into a nearby airport; the sound of the crows down the common; the rapid "clunk" of a woman's high heels as she walks by; the "whoosh" of the coffee machine as it prepared a serving; the trill of a mobile phone; the clinking of cutlery; the "crr-crr-crr" of a pepper mill; the repetitive hum of a dishwasher, and the ominous gurgling of the pipes.
I never thought I would be so thankful for even being able to hear my own name when someone wanted my attention. There was no need for my parents to switch on the upstairs light any more to get my attention. There was no need for colleagues to throw a paper clip from the other side of the office if they needed me. And I could now listen to music, and order my own food and drink with confidence.
I was recently asked why I wanted to write a book about my cochlear-implant experience. My answer is resolute: out there is a lonely child who need not be. Out there are worried parents who may not know what to do for their deaf child. There are so many people who do not know about this life-changing technology and, knowing this, it breaks my heart to think that deaf people out there might still be suffering at the hands of the bullies. Indeed, some may even be missing out on amazing opportunities. Cochlear-implant technology is developing so rapidly that we are now seeing children today do things that I could not do when I was young.
I wish I could travel back in time to tell a younger me that everything is going to be OK, that your life is not going to be as hard as you think it's going to be. I can honestly say that I didn't start living until I was 23, the day I got my cochlear implant.
Stuart McNaughton's book 'He Is Not Me' explores themes such as childhood bullying, discrimination in the workplace and the conflict between the deaf and hearing worlds. For further information, go to heisnotme.com
HOW IT WORKS
Cochlear implants work by sending signals via an external microphone and speech processor to a receiver implanted surgically under the skin, using digital signals. The implant converts sound energy into electrical energy that stimulates the auditory nerve so that sounds are recognised in much the same way that normal sounds are.
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