Channel 4 (UK) premiered a new documentary “Extraordinary Teens: School of Life and Deaf” this week. The documentary follows the life of three deaf teenagers at Mary Hare School – Lewis, Fae, and Andrew.
This blog post focuses on Lewis and his cochlear implant journey because I wanted to share my thoughts – especially how there are some similarities with my journey with my cochlear implant.
Lewis is a 15 year old teenager who has been profoundly Deaf since birth. He uses BSL (British Sign Language) to communicate with his family and friends.
Mary Hare is a boarding school for deaf children in the United Kingdom. It is the largest specialist school for deaf children in the UK. Teachers do not use BSL with students at Mary Hare; they are primarily focused on speech and listening. However, students use BSL outside classes to communicate with their friends. There are a few students who do not use BSL at all.
We use the oral communication method so no use of BSL in our classes – our pupils thrive on learning to use their voice and the use of English is really important! Mary Hare School – www.maryhare.org.uk
As mentioned earlier, Lewis uses BSL to communicate. He also uses different methods of communication to communicate with people outside school and family. For instance, he asks for a train ticket to Newbury by writing it down on paper, which is then handed to the train station staff.
BSL is not encouraged in classrooms at Mary Hare, as the Principal stated that deaf children have residual hearing, and said “I see it as my job to maximise to use that little bit of hearing, and that capacity to speak, to give young people as much independence as possible”
While students do use BSL outside classes during recess, lunch, and after school hours, I find it frustrating that sign language isn’t used during classes. Research has shown that sign language really does enhance learning opportunities for deaf students as well as written and spoken English. There are so many benefits to being bilingual in both sign language and English, especially in the classroom.
Lewis stated that he has difficulty communicating with his teachers using spoken English. There was a scene in the documentary where Lewis was trying to say softener but his teacher didn’t understand him. His teacher then tried to teach him how to say hardener yet he looked away.
It can become frustrating for deaf people like Lewis when sign language isn’t used in the classroom. I’ve experienced this myself on a few occasions when I was at school where there wasn’t a teacher aide available to interpret for me. It is rather exhausting lipreading your teacher for more than 15 minutes. Lipreading isn’t easy to master; the majority of it is guesswork as you can only catch approximately 30% of what is said.
Lewis’s parents supported his decision to get a cochlear implant – they always thought it was up to him whether he wanted one. When Lewis was a baby, his mum was too scared to put him through the ordeal for a cochlear implant, because to her, he was already perfect. His mum doesn’t believe the cochlear implant is a fix for deaf people. This reminds me a lot of my mother – she left it up to me to decide if I wanted to get a cochlear implant. She trusted me to make the right decision for myself, and she’s glad she left the decision to me. As a mother, she was simply following her instincts.
One of many reasons why Lewis wanted to get a cochlear implant was to hear his own name, as he had never heard it before.
Getting your cochlear implant switched on is an emotional rollercoaster. It’s rather overwhelming. Lewis’ switch-on was very realistic – nothing like those perfect YouTube moments that has been shared everywhere on social media.
It hit home for me, as I remembered exactly how I felt at my switch-on. All those emotions. How I felt when I heard sounds for the first time. How different it sounded compared to hearing aids. I still remember it like it happened yesterday.
I loved how Lewis’ audiologist was very considerate of his reaction to the switch-on. She asked him if he needed another minute, if he was okay — she simply put him first. Lewis said he felt dizzy after the switch-on, and he asked his audiologist for permission to take his cochlear implant off. After taking it off, he said he felt better.
It’s switched on, and I cannot identify any sounds apart from a faint robotic beep. ~Lewis
Lewis did not respond well to the switch-on, so he has been told it could take years for him to fully adapt to the cochlear implant. He’s also been told he requires intensive speech therapy in order to teach his brain how to understand different sounds.
Lewis is frustrated because it’s taking him a long time to get used to the CI. Because Lewis is struggling with his hearing and speech, his behaviour becomes a problem in classes.
He caught up with his Mum on Facetime, and admits that it’s very hard and frustrating with his speech. There’s the pressure of learning new sounds, on top of being a teenager in general.
This is one of many reasons why sign language is beneficial in the classroom, particularly for deaf students. If Lewis was able to access information and communicate in BSL within the classroom, he wouldn’t have struggled so much especially with his cochlear implant.
At Lewis’s end of the year appointment, the school audiologist shows him how hard he has worked since January. There’s a vast improvement in his hearing levels, and Lewis is in disbelief. He’s happy he’s doing well.
At the Mary Hare School Leavers Prom, the Principal said: Mary Hare is about believing that you can have everything that your hearing brothers and sisters, cousins, friends and family can have too. That you’re not different. That you’re the same and you want the same thing.
In a way, I felt the principal’s statement was slightly patronising. It’s almost like he was saying if it wasn’t for Mary Hare, deaf children wouldn’t have been able to access same things as their hearing brother and sisters, cousins, friends and family can. Granted, there’s barriers everywhere in the wider community but we are more than capable of finding strategies to overcome these barriers – especially for those who primarily use sign language to communicate. There’s nothing wrong with having sign language as your preferred language. At the end of the day, we are more than capable of doing same things as everyone else.
We shouldn’t feel bad if we’re unable to speak because at the end of the day, we have a language, and that is sign language – be it Auslan, BSL, ASL, etc. There are times when I feel shit about not having the ability to speak like a proper hearing person, yet I remind myself that I have excellent English skills – and it’s all because of my mum’s commitment to making sure I had access to sign language and written English before I started school.
The documentary draws to a close with Lewis wanting to try asking for a train ticket to London Paddington without using pen and paper. After a few practices, he achieves this.
“I started this journey because I wanted to hear my own name, and now after months of work, I’m hearing new sounds every day” ~ Lewis
Like Lewis, I am learning new sounds every day. Lewis also shared his delight in being able to hear the birdsong, which is an amazing achievement! Hearing new sounds with a cochlear implant is a journey, not a race. We need to remind ourselves that we don’t need to push ourselves to learn new sounds. Just let the sounds come to you in your own time, and at your own pace. I wasn’t expecting to hear the birdsong until maybe a year after my switch-on, yet I heard it at around the 2 month mark. I was SO surprised, considering I hadn’t heard anything out of my left ear for more than a decade – and I was unable to hear high frequency sounds prior to being implanted.
All in all, I thought the documentary was fantastic. I loved how it showed Lewis’s emotions throughout his cochlear implant journey. Well done to the team at Flashing Lights and Channel 4 on a fantastically made documentary!
If you’re not in the UK, you will need to bypass the geoblock to be able to view the documentary.