I know that some deaf people are against cochlear implants – but I am not one of them

The miracle of Joanne Milne gives me and thousands of others hope


I have just had a bit of a shock. Apparently, I only have just over 20 per cent hearing with my hearing aids in, and hear next to nothing with them out. (I was aware of the latter – having been the only person to sleep soundly through the evacuation of my entire street by the emergency services recently.) I am glad I didn’t know this, or I might never have had the courage to be a professional opera singer for many years.

Performing at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle years ago, I was quizzed by a small child in the cast. “Miss – what’s them things in yer ears?” I explained that they were hearing aids because I was deaf. “Oh,” she replied confidently. “That’ll be why yer sing so loudly!”

I inherited the deaf gene from my father’s family, and it began to manifest itself when I was 18 and at university. As a small child I had witnessed what deafness could do to people. My grandfather kept his hearing aid in the sideboard “for best”, but really because it was neither use nor ornament. I witnessed the terrible effects of his isolation. He was apart, cut off, excluded – and downcast.

To paraphrase the writer David Lodge, not being able to hear can seem like a “deaf sentence” for many. The concentration required to lip-read is utterly exhausting. We find it easier to stay at home and not socialise. Better that than be flailing around trying to guess what the topic of conversation is – or, worse still, miss the punchline of a joke.

So when yesterday I became one of the million-plus people who have now watched the video clip of Joanne Milne weeping as her cochlear implants were turned on, I wept too. I knew that those tears were for all that she had been missing out on over the 40 years of her life.

For many, hearing is the first sense we have in the womb and the last sense we lose at death. But deafness inhibits communication, the compelling need and longing of every human heart. Helen Keller, the deaf-blind author and campaigner, said that blindness cuts you off from things but that deafness cuts you off from people. There are no visual clues to our struggles, and so people conclude that we are rude or inattentive, or just plain stupid.

Fortunately, today’s technology is simply amazing. I am a trustee of Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf), and we believe that everyone should have full access to all the options so that they can make an informed choice. I recognise that cochlear implants – which have just transformed Joanne Milne’s life surely for the better – are not the choice of all deaf people. I have total respect for those who choose to use British Sign Language instead – those for whom deafness is a culture with its own unique take on the world, a culture that in their view stands to be dissipated by implants. Deafness is not a disease, runs the argument. It does not need “curing”. There are, however, millions who long to be cured.

I myself spent two years at night school learning to sign. It is a beautiful language. But I have also seen at first hand the extraordinary benefits of early, bilateral and simultaneous implantations in children just a few months old – the earlier the better, to take full advantage of the plasticity of their brains at this age. When this is combined with auditory verbal therapy, the results are startling. When I become patron of AVUK I couldn’t believe that these children didn’t need to lip-read as I did.

In so many cases parents no longer need ask: “Will my child ever be able to hear or speak?” but rather, “Will she be able to play a musical instrument, talk on her smartphone and learn foreign languages?” I believe in raising our expectations, and enabling children to listen, talk and participate fully in mainstream school and reach their true potential in life.

I function very well, all things considered, thanks to top-quality hearing aids. But I already meet the criteria for a cochlear implant, and it is very comforting to think that there is technology out there that will enable me to continue to participate fully in life as my hearing continues to deteriorate. I may have to choose between my beloved singing and communicating. Will I have a cochlear implant when the time comes? You bet I will.

Janine Roebuck is an opera singer and a trustee of Action on Hearing Loss

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