By Jane E. Brody Oct. 8, 2018
Jane R. Madell, a pediatric audiology consultant and speech-language pathologist in Brooklyn, N.Y., wants every parent with a child who is born hearing-impaired to know that it is now possible for nearly all children with severe hearing loss to learn to listen and speak as if their hearing were completely normal.
“Children identified with hearing loss at birth and fitted with technology in the first weeks of life blend in so well with everyone else that people don’t realize there are so many deaf children,” she told me.
With the appropriate hearing device and auditory training for children and their caregivers during the preschool years, even those born deaf “will have the ability to learn with their peers when they start school,” Dr. Madell said. “Eighty-five percent of such children are successfully mainstreamed. Parents need to know that listening and spoken language is a possibility for their children.”
Determined to get this message out to all who learn their children lack normal hearing, Dr. Madell and Irene Taylor Brodsky produced a documentary, “The Listening Project,” to demonstrate the enormous help available through modern hearing assists and auditory training.
Among the “stars” in the film, all of whom grew up deaf or severely hearing-impaired, are Dr. Elizabeth Bonagura, an obstetrician-gynecologist and surgeon; Jake Spinowitz, a musician; Joanna Lippert, a medical social worker, and Amy Pollick, a psychologist. All started out with hearing aids that helped them learn to speak and understand spoken language.
But now all have cochlear implants that, as Ms. Lippert put it, “really revolutionized my world” when, at age 11, she became the first preteen to get a cochlear implant at New York University Medical Center.
“Suddenly when I was playing soccer, I could hear what my teammates were saying,” Ms. Lippert, now 33, recalled. “My mother practically cried when I heard a cricket chirping in the house. I couldn’t talk on the phone before. Now in my job at the Veteran’s Affairs Hospital in Manhattan, I’m on the phone all day long. The implant has been a wonderful gift.”
She told me, “The earlier you get the implant, the more successful it is because the more auditory input the brain gets at an early age, the better the auditory skills you will develop.”
Dr. Bonagura, 34, who lives in Alameda, Calif., didn’t get a cochlear implant until she was 22. She said it made medical school a lot easier and enabled her to work in obstetrics, a field that involves emergencies, loud operating rooms and the use of face masks that make lip reading impossible.
“No other field of medicine compares to the joy of delivering babies,” she said.
Mr. Spinowitz, a 27-year-old guitarist living in San Francisco, was born with profound hearing loss and used hearing aids until age 15 when suddenly they no longer worked because there was nothing to amplify — he had lost all residual hearing.
Once he got his implant, he said, “I began listening to music — all kinds of music — trying to make up for lost time.” He played in bands throughout high school and college and now works at YouTube helping music labels get their work represented.
“The implant made it easier to communicate in all kinds of situations. It made college and my job possible,” Mr. Spinowitz said. His message to the parents of children with profound hearing loss: “Sound makes the world a better place, so if you can have it, go for it.”
A cochlear implant bypasses the nonfunctioning hair cells of the auditory system and transmits sound directly to the auditory nerve so that the brain can process it. Implants can be inserted in babies before they can walk. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, children with profound hearing loss who receive implants before 18 months of age “develop language skills at a rate comparable to children with normal hearing.”
As Dr. Bonagura says in the documentary, “The ability now to put implants in babies is incredible. They grow up with sound; they grow up hearing everything. Sound is a gift — laughter, voices, nature. How can you take that away from anyone?”
Still, many deaf people resist the current technology and insist that children with profound hearing loss should learn only sign language. They reject the idea that deafness needs to be corrected.
But, as Dr. Madell points out, only 0.1 percent of the population knows sign language, and 95 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, who then have to spend a long time learning to sign, during a period when children are normally learning to speak.
“Deafness today is not what it was 20 years ago,” she said. “Technology is so much better that virtually every child with hearing loss will be able to hear with the right devices — hearing aids and cochlear implants.”
Every baby born in the United States is supposed to be screened at birth for hearing loss. One baby in 1,000 of those screened will turn out to have moderate, severe or profound hearing loss that, if not promptly and properly treated, can delay their ability to learn to speak and understand speech.
Today’s auditory technology makes it possible for these babies to be fitted with a device that enables them to hear and, with auditory training, develop language skills as good as those of their normal-hearing peers.
Without newborn screening, critical months for learning spoken language can be lost. Children with serious hearing loss who are not screened at birth or soon thereafter often do not get their hearing checked until many months later when parents realize that they don’t respond appropriately to sounds and speech, or even later when they don’t start to speak at the usual milestones.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has established what are known as 1-3-6 guidelines that state that every baby should be screened for hearing by 1 month of age, a diagnosis of hearing loss made by 3 months and entry into early intervention services by 6 months. Yet currently only 67 percent of babies with profound hearing loss receive appropriate intervention by 6 months of age.
Jane Brody is the Personal Health columnist, a position she has held since 1976. She has written more than a dozen books including the best sellers “Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book” and “Jane Brody’s Good Food Book.”