Hearing – But Not as You Know It


Although we seldom stop and think about them, our five senses, sight, smell touch, taste and hearing, are amazing.  Only when we damage or lose one of our senses, do we realize just how amazing these senses that help us navigate the world are. That said, the technological and medical advances that  help us compensate for the loss or impairment of one of our five senses, are also often amazing.

I have an aunt who has a cochlear implant. Deafness runs in her family; her mother was described as becoming “stone-deaf.”  For many years,  the only way my aunt could engage in conversation with anyone was for both parties to shout – almost at the top of their lungs.  When at last she consented to be evaluated for an implant, and later received one, it was as if the world around her was reborn. The cochlear implant reconnected her with her husband, my uncle, and the world around her.

Still  I’d never thought much about how the world might actually sound to her now –not until I watched this video.My aunt and  Helen Willis, a St. John’s College, Oxford (UK) student, inhabit wholly different worlds but the cochlear implant gives them back the ability to hear — albeit not as perfectly as someone with undamaged hearing.

Helen was one of the first in the UK to receive a cochlear implant, allowing her to hear the world around her albeit through impoverished sounds. Now she is flourishing at Oxford University, and despite difficulties in everyday tasks, she hopes to continue into research into the science of hearing.

Helen’s story began in the early days of the cochlear implant technology. My aunt received hers within the last five-six years. Surgical techniques have now changed such that stitches and hair shaving are no longer required, and technology has improved to such an extent that people who received cochlear implants more recently are now able to perceive sound much more accurately so I expect my aunt’s experience is much better than Helen’s.

This is a good explanation of what life is like for individuals with cochlear implants.  However, it is important to keep in mind that the simulations of the cochlear implant provided in the documentary are only an approximation, as it is very difficult to know what people actually hear. And, as shown in the video, users still find it useful, even necessary to use ASL and other supports.  If one doesn’t understand the limitations of cochlear implants it can be very puzzling to see an implant user successfully using a smart phone but still needing interpreters or other supports in the classroom.

PepNet2 has a tip sheet “Serving Deaf Students Who Have a Cochlear Implant” which provides a nice overview of what cochlear implants are, and how they work. The tip sheet also provides helpful tips for the postsecondary classroom.  Several of the tips are also applicable when working with the student at a service counter.

(PepNet2 is an organization whose mission is to increase the education, career and lifetime choices available to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is funded by the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education.)




WINAHEAD is made up of representatives from thirty institutions. Our members are professionals employed by two- and four-year colleges and universities who work directly with students with disabilities to ensure equal access to higher education. WIN indicates the geographic area we represent: Western Iowa and Nebraska. AHEAD is our national parent organization, the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
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