This is not a simple question. The answer is yes… and no… and mostly it depends. It definitely depends on how you define ‘cure’ and even how you define deafness. Let’s explore some of these issues and also look at Michael’s experience with his hearing aids.
How do Hearing Aids Work?
Modern hearing aids are small, generally digital electronic devices that amplify sound. Hearing aids basically work by making sounds louder. They have four basic parts:
A microphone that picks up sounds from the environment and converts them into electrical signals, which are sent to the amplifier. In a typical behind-the-ear hearing aid like Michael’s, this is part of the external, behind-the-ear part.
The amplifier increases the volume of the sound and sends it to the receiver. This is part of the electronics inside the hearing aid.
A receiver or speaker changes the electrical signal back into sound and sends it into the ear. A small plastic tube is connected to the ear mold – the part that is actually inserted into the ear. This carries the amplified sound into the ear.
A battery provides power to the hearing aid.
Hearing aids do not work for everyone because the severity of hearing loss varies greatly from person to person. There are also many causes of hearing loss. Some types of hearing loss cannot physically be restored by a hearing aid. You may recall from my previous post, How Hearing Works, that one important part of hearing is the tiny hair cells in the cochlea of the inner ear. There are literally millions of these tiny hair cells that are moved by sound waves and stimulate the auditory nerve. In many cases of sensorineural hearing loss, these hair cells are damaged. This makes it physically impossible for the sound waves to be transmitted to the brain to be interpreted as sounds.
So Do Hearing Aids Cure Deafness? – It Depends
It depends not only on the type and degree of hearing loss but how you choose to define ‘deafness’ and ‘cure’. If curing deafness, to you, means making it go away, turning a deaf person into a hearing person, then the answer is a definite NO. Even if a person’s hearing loss is moderate enough to be restored by hearing aids, their hearing is only restored while wearing the hearing aids. Once the ‘hearing-restored’ person removes the hearing aids, they are still deaf. No cure has taken place. So, while hearing aids can restore some hearing for some people, they cannot cure deafness.
If the hearing loss is severe to profound, as in Michael’s case, the hearing aids only amplify the sounds enough for him to hear background, or environmental sounds better. Due to the severity of Michael’s hearing loss, his hearing aids are only able to amplify some of the frequencies loud enough to be recognizable as speech sounds. However, he does not hear a full complement of speech sounds in order to make out the words that are being spoken. He does hear sounds when you are speaking to him, as long as you are close enough to him. However, the sounds he hears do not sound like the words that I hear. So, for Michael, and others with similar types of hearing loss, hearing aids also cannot ‘cure’ deafness (as in restore hearing) due to the severity of the hearing loss.
Before I explain some more about how hearing aids help restore hearing, I thought I would share this video of Michael from the day he received his hearing aids. You will see his reaction to hearing sounds for the very first time.
Now, you may need to go get a tissue to wipe your eyes. Go ahead, I’ll wait…..
Here is a picture of Michael’s audiogram from October of 2010 (you can click on the picture to view it larger), about eight months after he first received his hearing aids. You can see the ‘x’ and ‘o’ lines at the bottom of the chart which represent his level of hearing in his left and right ears respectively without his hearing aids. As you can see, he has very little hearing. The gray, shaded area towards the top represents the area where hearing the sounds of speech occurs. There are ‘A’s marked there that indicate his “aided” hearing at various frequencies. You can see that, as the frequency increases, his level of hearing perception decreases. When Michael is sleeping, I am able to vacuum the floor in his bedroom or even run the blender without him being disturbed one bit. Even when he is awake and not wearing his hearing aids, he does not realize that these activities are occurring unless he sees them.
This is an audiogram showing a comparison of frequencies and environmental and speech sounds. You can see Michael’s level of ‘unaided’ hearing indicated by the red and blue lines at the bottom. So, if he is very close to a lawn mower, a loud truck or an airplane, he may hear their noises without his hearing aids. However, without his hearing aids, he does not pick up on any speech sounds.
It is a common misconception that hearing aids cure hearing loss and deafness. While hearing can improve the quality and increase the intensity of sounds, they do not give hearing to a deaf person. So hearing aids do not cure Deafness. Even when hearing is able to be amplified high enough that a deaf person can hear speech sounds with hearing aids, they are still deaf. Understanding hearing loss, deafness, and how hearing aids work has certainly helped us better understand how Michael sees life. This has helped us learn to better communicate with him. We continue to invest time in learning and practicing sign language. Michael has learned to communicate very well with ASL and I love the conversations that we get to have with him. He may be Deaf but he is not limited in any way. Other people may not know how to communicate with him but that does not make him any less important or any less valuable. If you learn to communicate with him using his language, you will have the wonderful opportunity to get to know a sweet, amazing, precious little boy. He will most certainly lead you to see life differently!