Is Hearing Device a Magic Wand?

When looking at people using hearing devices (hearing aids and cochlear implants), don’t assume that they can hear and understand everything. It’s not like wearing eyeglasses that gives you 20/20 vision – even eyeglasses are not beneficial to people who are blind or have some severe eye sight problems.

Just being able to hear is not same as being able to understand and interpret sounds, especially sounds of speech. It would be like seeing Chinese characters clearly, but not understanding what they mean unless you know Chinese. That’s why some hearing aid/cochlear implant users can discriminate speech to communicate freely on phone with many people or watch much of TV without captioning, while others may be able to recognize only environmental sounds and need to rely on additional visual cues. It depends on many factors such as when and how they lost hearing, their duration of deafness, how much they benefit from hearing devices, what communication methods they use, etc.

There are even some people with normal hearing who cannot understand aural information due to auditory processing disorder. It is like dyslexia for the ears. So it does not matter if you have normal hearing or use a hearing device – the key is being able to recognize and interpret sounds.

For example, I had normal hearing for the first two years of my life before I lost all of it from meningitis. I wore hearing aids that were a little of benefit for me. Even with a cochlear implant (that I received at the age of 20), I still have to rely on visual cues (lipreading, captioning, sign language) due to the long duration of my profound deafness.

There is difference between hearing aids and cochlear implants. Hearing aids just amplify sounds, but do not necessarily make speech clearer, so they are more beneficial to people with mild to severe hearing loss. Cochlear implants, on another hand, bypass hair cells of cochleas and directly stimulate the hearing nerve, and they are more beneficial to people with severe to profound hearing loss.

Hearing aids and cochlear implants are not meant to “restore” or “cure” hearing loss although they do improve hearing. Even cochlear implants cannot give 100% hearing back – their 16-25 electrodes cannot replace about 15,000 damaged hair cells.

The issue with the lack or absence of hair cells makes it especially frustrating for many hearing device users to communicate in noisy environments. Katherine Bouton explains that well in her article, More Noise, More Hearing Loss. People with normal hearing have certain hair cells that help them filter out background noises while those with even mild hearing loss and/or hearing devices lack them. For these reasons, they often complain about noisy places and ask to move to quieter places and/or use hearing loops to cancel out noises and visual cues (lipreading, captioning, sign language, cued speech, etc).

Hearing aids and cochlear implants are indeed wonderful technologies, but they do have certain limitations. That’s why not all deaf/hoh people benefit from them, and they are tested rigorously for cochlear implantation.

Following is a very informative video of a deaf college student living in UK describing her experience using her cochlear implant and its pros and cons.