Lisa Baldock lives in Portsmouth, England, with her family and her dog. She’s funny and bright. She has also been deaf all her life.
“I have a congenital defect,” Lisa explained over Skype. “It’s called sensorineural hearing loss.”
Lisa is still able to hear a little bit, hence the hearing aids, but she doesn’t have the full range of hearing that most people have.
Around the world, about 360 million people live with some form of hearing loss. Many people lose some of their hearing as they get older. But some people, like Lisa, are born without the full ability to hear. Other people lose their hearing due to an injury, infection, or condition.
For some, hearing aids help; for some they don’t. In Lisa’s case, they helped for a while, but when they started to fail, she began looking at other options.
There is an option beyond hearing aids for those who are interested — it’s called a cochlear implant.
Cochlear implants are neurological devices that can augment a person’s hearing beyond what hearing aids are capable of.
But just because cochlear implants work for some people doesn’t mean every person who is hearing impaired wants one.
“I was very anti-cochlear implant at first,” Lisa said. She thought they were a kind of unusual idea for one thing, and they require surgery.
Many people in the larger deaf community also dislike them for cultural reasons. Many feel that cochlear implants, especially in children, discourage the use of sign language, which is a cornerstone of deaf culture. Besides, nobody should feel forced or pressured to alter their body if they don’t want to.
But for Lisa, her old methods ultimately just weren’t working. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll cope,'” she says. “But in reality, I was struggling.”
Cochlear implants aren’t the same as hearing aids.
Up until about six years ago, Lisa used hearing aids to augment her sense of hearing. But after years of use, they started to fail.
Unlike hearing aids, which amplify noises and make things louder, cochlear implants talk to the brain directly. This makes them a great option for people whose ears can’t pick up on noises in the first place.
The outside part of the cochlear implant, the part you can see, captures and transmits sounds to the internal components of the implant, which sit in the cochlea — a snail-shell-shaped organ beyond the eardrum — and use electricity to send signals to the brain.
Implants like these are known as neuroprosthetics — that is — a neurological (brain-related) prosthetic.
Cochlear implants are basically super-cool cyborg stuff straight out of comic books and science fiction.
In fact, Marvel Comics created a superhero called Blue Ear after receiving a letter from the mother of a young boy named Anthony Smith who was resisting his cochlear implant, which the family called “blue ear,” because he didn’t think that heroes could wear hearing aids.
But this isn’t science fiction — right now, thousands of people are using cochlear implants in the real world. As of 2012, over 300,000 people worldwide were using cochlear implants.
And cochlear implants are just one of many different types of neuroprosthetics that are helping people every day. Others, like deep brain stimulation devices, can offer pain management and help treat disorders like Parkinson’s.
Lisa ended up deciding to get a cochlear implant after seeing some of her peers try them.
The process of getting one is intense, Lisa says, explaining a journey involving a long assessment to see if the device is a good fit (some types of deafness aren’t compatible with cochlear implants), followed by a long learning process after the implant is fitted.
Once the cochlear implant was fitted, Lisa had to learn to get used to having the device in her ear, and her brain had to learn how to interpret the new signals it was sending.
“It’s been hard because you have to learn to hear again,” Lisa explains. Some people do well with the implant and some don’t, but for Lisa, things began to pick up.
“It’s an amazing journey. It’s emotional.”
After the training process, Lisa’s range of hearing expanded to an incredible extent.
“I still get emotional now when I hear things like the birds or I hear things like a car going by outside,” she said.
She’s still getting used to hearing sounds she hasn’t ever been able to hear before.
“You known when you were a kid and you went ‘Mum, what’s that?'” she asks. It’s just like that. “They think you’re trying to learn the word but it’s not, it’s the sound.”
Of course, Lisa is still deaf (she joked that sometimes, after a stimulating day, it can be a relief to come home and turn the implant off) and still part of the deaf community. But cochlear implants have given her a new tool for experiencing and interacting with the world around her.
Now, six years on, she’s gone from being a person looking for support to the person giving it to other people considering trying cochlear implants.
Making the decision to get hers is one of the best things she’s ever done, she says.
“I’m really proud of it now.”