Someone Natively Deaf Can Suddenly Hear and Speak?

39-Year-Old Deaf Woman Hears for First Time” headlined Yahoo, in one of the many gone-viral Deaf-can-now-hear videos.  Each depicts the compelling emotions of someone who, thanks to the activation of a new cochlear implant (CI), is said to be hearing sound for the first time—and (in this case) conversing in English!  Was this woman (Joanne) completely congenitally deaf as a result of Ushers Syndrome?  And did she immediately gain, as some media implied, the ability to understand speech on first hearing it?

As my brother said in forwarding this, it’s “an amazing story.”

The power of CIs to restore hearing is, indeed, amazing, as I can attest from meeting many people with CIs at hearing loss meetings.  As one who is tracking toward the complete deafness that marked the last dozen years of my mother’s life, I anticipate someday benefitting from CIs. 

Moreover, I appreciate the power of a compelling example, such as the video example I offer (here) of a child’s first experience of a home TV room hearing loop.  And who can suppress a smile when watching this boy’s first experience of a CI?

Without disrespecting the Deaf culture (which regards deafness and Sign language as not defects needing fixing), and without diminishing Joanne’s powerful experience, what shall we make of her ability to understand and to speak?  Does this video overturn what psychological science has taught us about the critical period for language development during life’s early years?  Is it not important that children receive CIs before language develops?  Haven’t experiments that removed cataracts and “restored vision” to natively blind people taught us that, for normal perceptual experience, the brain must be sculpted by sensory input in life’s early years?

I posed these questions to Dr. Debara Tucci, a Duke Medical Center cochlear implant surgeon with whom I serve on the advisory council of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.  Our shared questions:

  1. Was Joanne completely deaf from birth?  Has she heard no sound until the moment of this recording?  As I will explain in a future entry, in popular use “deaf” often conflates true and complete deafness with substantial hearing loss.  Some Usher’s Syndrome patients sometimes are born completely deaf, but others experience progressive hearing loss.  With hearing aids, they acquire language early in life.  Joanne’s use of spoken language suggests that she is not hearing speech for the first time in her life.
  2. A person who has been completely deaf from birth could potentially lip read.  When testing such patients with newly activated CIs, it would be interesting to know if they can “hear” speech when the speaker’s face is obscured.

 As a CI provider, Dr. Tucci nevertheless welcomes such videos:  

“Even though the history accompanying the video may not be entirely correct, and a little misleading, it is basically a positive thing.  I would rather have 10 people come in and be told they are not a candidate than miss one person who is.  Also, we are implanting long deafened people who don't have speech/language ability not with the thought that they will develop or understand speech, but to increase connectedness and for safety concerns.”