How can technology help deaf children?

By admin
20 June 2014

Imagine a world where technology enables deaf children to sit in the classroom alongside their hearing schoolmates or run around with them on the playground, shouting and screaming. This isn’t science fiction, experts say. It’s something that’s already doable – if only we could afford it, and plans that have been internationally tried and tested could be implemented.

YOU recently reported on how technology can help deaf children. Here’s expert advice for parents with hearing-impaired children and more about the latest developments in technology for the deaf.

Who can be helped?

Early detection of deafness and sophisticated new technology enable audiologists and doctors to teach deaf children to hear and speak, even if they have less than one per cent hearing. If hearing impairment can be diagnosed before the age of six months parents can be taught to develop their baby’s brain and teach them how to talk before the brain loses its ability to learn a new language, says ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist Dr Derrick Wagenfeld of Somerset West. He’s involved with efforts to help deaf children to speak and with the Carel du Toit Centre for speech development in Cape Town.

At what age can children be helped?

According to Lida Müller, an audiologist at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, early detection is vital as there’s only a short window period during which a baby can receive optimal help. Studies show infants who are given hearing aids before the age of six months and are included in rehabilitation programmes can speak just as well as their hearing friends. The sooner the brain centres for hearing and language development are stimulated the better a child can learn to hear and speak normally.

How are children tested for auditory problems?

The tests to establish if a baby is hearing-impaired are quick and simple – so no wonder it’s compulsory for parents in America to have their newborn babies screened for hearing problems. If hearing impairment is diagnosed at an early stage the child can be given a cochlear implant or other hearing aid while still a baby. These aids are now so sophisticated they enable children to hear nearly completely normally.

In South Africa most children’s hearing is tested when it’s too late. Now a group of ENT specialists and audiologists are campaigning to make screening of all newborn babies for hearing impairment compulsory, but their efforts haven’t yet been successful in all state hospitals.

Most private hospitals conduct a simple screening test on newborn babies provided parents consent to it. Most medical funds pay for the test.

Where can parents get help?

A compulsory hearing test can be the first step to making permanent disability due to deafness something of the past, says the former head of the Carel du Toit Centre Laurette du Preez.

Carel du Toit centres, which are found countrywide, have a comprehensive habilitation programme – the programme doesn’t restore hearing but teaches deaf children or those who are hard of hearing to hear as well as possible.

The support team includes ENT specialists, audiologists, speech therapists, teachers, social workers, psychologists and parents.

What do tests and further steps cost?

According to information supplied by the Ear Institute in Pretoria a comprehensive screening test costs about R600. Du Preez says the cost of the tests plays a role but the main stumbling block is the lack of good primary care services, especially in rural areas. “The government won’t easily make the test compulsory because primary-care services have not yet been established,” Du Preez says.

The second major stumbling block for many deaf children’s parents is the high cost of cochlear implants. While the implants cost a fortune they enable deaf children to eventually learn to speak normally and attend a mainstream school.

According to surveys done in 2012 the cost of cochlear implants for children is about R250 000.

Impact of cochlear implants

Several young South African children who were given cochlear implants as babies or toddlers can now hear. Some of them attend mainstream schools, speak with normal inflections, call their friends on cellphones and can hear conversations in noisy clubs where they dance to the beat of the music.

Were it not for the relatively unobtrusive hearing aid at the back of their ears it would be hard to believe they have a hearing problem and even more incredible that some of them have less than one per cent hearing.

Nearly all the children YOU spoke to have a bigger loss of hearing than thousands of South Africans who communicate with sign language and lip-reading. But how is it possible for a deaf baby to learn to hear?

The pioneering work performed by the late Professor Carel du Toit, former head of the ENT department at Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Hospital, proved nearly every deaf child has a little hearing.

He also believed if you could amplify this available bit of hearing with a hearing aid you could teach a deaf child to hear and speak normally.

He proved this in the era before cochlear implants and digital hearing aids. Now cochlear implants make the process easier but it’s still imperative the procedure be done during the critical window period.

What is a cochlear implant?

During the procedure a receiver is implanted in the skull behind the ear. It receives impulses via an antenna that’s also implanted under the skin.

A group of electrodes runs from this apparatus through the skull to near the auditory nerve.

The outer part of the apparatus consists of a microphone that picks up sound, a voice processor that analyses sounds and codes them, and a device that transmits this information to the receiver.

Cochlear implants are partially or fully covered by medical funds.

The most common causes of hearing loss in children:

  • Most cases of permanent deafness are hereditary. Studies done in 2011 show about 7,5 per cent of South African children suffer from some form of hearing loss.
  • Inflammation of the middle ear is the most common cause of a type of deafness called conductive hearing loss. Regular ear inflammation can affect a child’s hearing permanently.
  • German measles during pregnancy can cause permanent deafness. If a pregnant woman has German measles during the first eight weeks of pregnancy there is an 86 per cent chance her baby will be deaf.
  • Other complications during pregnancy that can cause loss of hearing in the unborn baby are: cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection, Rhesus Incompatibility (when the mother’s blood isn’t compatible with her baby’s), thyroid problems and diabetes in the mother.
  • If the baby suffers a lack of oxygen during birth or is linked to a respiratory apparatus for more than five days.
  • If the baby weighs less than 1,5 kg at birth.
  • Injuries during birth, especially to the head, and jaundice in babies.
  • Viral and bacterial infections such as meningitis in babies and toddlers.
  • Certain medication such as some antibiotics and TB medicines.

The latest developments in hearing technology

Powerful hearing aids Hearingaids can amplify sound so effectively you can communicate even if you have less than one per cent hearing. Digital technology is a huge improvement on analogue sound and has led to massive advances in sound quality. Prices vary from R5 500 to R80 000.

Cochlear implants This technology is so effective that people who theoretically have total hearing loss can hear. An implant costs about R250 000.

3 Cordless FM systems This system cuts out background noise and is designed to help children with hearing aids or cochlear implants in a classroom setup. A microphone attached to the teacher’s collar receives their voice and transmits sound waves cordlessly directly to the child’s hearing aid or speech processor. The child hears the teacher’s voice directly through the FM receiver in their ear. Prices range from R9 964 to R21 750.

4. Voice recognition Some digital hearing aids are equipped with this function and can distinguish between speech and noise. Speech is recognised and the interference from background noise is diminished.

5. Directional focus Some hearing aids and speech processors can be set to receive sounds from the direction in which the person is looking. This program in the cochlear implant’s speech processor can distinguish between foreground and background sounds.

How to prevent inflammation of the middle ear

Inflammation of the middle ear is one of the most common preventable causes of hearing loss. Children are prone to inflammation of the middle ear because their Eustachian tubes which let in air and allow moisture that builds up when they have flu or colds to drain away, are too narrow and easily become blocked. Bacteria and viruses can move from the nose and throat to the middle ear unhindered. Fluid that builds up in the middle ear is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Earache develops as a result of the inflammation and pressure on the tympanic membrane.

You can prevent inflammation of the middle ear by not allowing your baby or toddler to go to bed with a bottle because milk that runs into the ear can lead to infection. Don’t let children with grommets swim or bath without good-quality plastic or silicone earplugs. Water containing bacteria that ends up in the middle ear could also lead to ear infection and deafness.

Checking if your child can hear

If your child can’t do the following, have their hearing tested:

Birth to six months – your child must:

  • Get a fright when they hear loud sounds.
  • Wake up when they hear a loud noise.

Six to 12 months – your child must:

  • React when you call their name.
  • Turn their head in the direction of the sound.
  • React to toys that play music or make a noise.

12 to 18 months – your child must:

  • Be aware of and react to music.
  • Be able to use at least 10 words.

18 months to two years – your child must:

  • Be able to string words together to make short phrases.
  • Recognise the names of family members.

Three to five years – your child must:

  • Enjoy listening to songs and stories.
  • Use either ear when speaking on the phone.

Did you know?

  1. Up to two thirds of procedures to insert grommets, which can damage the eardrum and lead to deafness, are performed unnecessarily.
  2. If you’re exposed to noise of 100 decibels for longer than 15 minutes at a time it can damage your hearing.
  3. Carel du Toit centres in South Africa offer a special habilitation programme that helps deaf children and those who are hard of hearing to hear.
  4. On the programme each child is given individual attention that’s adapted to suit the child’s needs.
  5. The programme always involves a hearing aid and often a cochlear implant.
  6. Speech therapists and parents play a vital role.

Get help at these Carel du Toit centres:

  • Tygerberg 021-983-5303
  • Pretoria 012-361-4710
  • Bloemfontein 051-405-2712
  • East London 043-709-1227

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