There was a time when a child born deaf had few choices. For more than a century, the only option for parents was to send their son or daughter away to a boarding school for the deaf. There, the children and the schools thrived in the shadows, embracing a distinct culture of silent communication.
Recent advances in medicine and technology are now reshaping what it means to be deaf in America. Children who could never hear a sound are now adults who can hear everything. That’s having a dramatic impact on the nation’s historic deaf schools as well as the lives of people.
One of those people is 31-year-old Shehzaad Zaman, who was born deaf. Everyone else in his family could hear, and his parents worried — they wanted him to fit into a hearing world.
“My parents wanted me to learn how to speak and how to listen, despite not being able to hear,” Zaman tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan.
He went to a special school at first, but in third grade his parents changed their minds. They sent him to therapy to teach him to read lips and moved him to his neighborhood school in Long Island, N.Y. He learned to play sports and make friends, but it was never easy.
“All my peers were able to use the telephone and have conversations in noisy restaurants, and it was getting harder and harder for me to have a conversation outside of one-on-one or one-on-two,” he says.
The summer before his senior year, a small miracle happened. A new piece of technology, called a cochlear implant, was helping deaf people hear. Doctors surgically inserted an implant into one of Zaman’s ears. He woke up and the world was an entirely new place.
“At that time, I didn’t know what I was hearing. I was hearing so many different things that sounded so mechanical,” he says. “It didn’t sound natural to me. I was hearing the air conditioner, or running water or a bird chirping and I didn’t know what it was, so it really took some time for my brain to process.”
Zaman says he would have to sit in the backyard just to try to absorb all the sounds he could now hear.
More than half of all deaf children are now getting cochlear implants, and every year the number increases. One-in-four deaf adults also now have it, though it takes longer for adult brains to adapt to hearing sound.
For Zaman, it was practical as well as emotional. He wanted to go to medical school and he knew a doctor needed to hear.
“In medicine, it’s not acceptable to hear 70 percent of information, because that can make a difference in terms of quality of patient care,” he says. “So I was always trying to get up to 100 percent accuracy in terms of understanding the information.”
Today, he is a physician in Sacramento, Calif., and last year he received a second cochlear implant in his other ear, bringing his hearing close to 100 percent. He says he no longer thinks about not being able to hear. Only in rare moments, if there’s a lot of loud, competing noise, does he search for someone’s lips.
“We live in a hearing world, a hearing society, and I was just happy because I could have much more ease in terms of communicating with people,” he says.
Continue reading the rest of the story at NPR.