One common question I hear about children who are deaf but listen and speak with the help of hearing technology is, “But what will he do when the cochlear implant [or hearing aid, or Baha] is off?” What about bath time, swimming time, night time? What if a battery dies or equipment malfunctions? Are those reasons enough to learn sign language?
Part of this question is based on entirely outdated information. All three FDA-approved cochlear implant brands offer waterproof solutions for swimming and bathing, so the “not able to hear in the water” argument can be forgotten. For children who use hearing aids and Bahas, waterproof solutions are not as forthcoming, but those children generally have some degree of usable residual hearing (if they don’t, they should be considered CI candidates) that is suitable for safety purposes.
For families who follow Carol Flexer’s “eyes open, technology on” motto for optimal brain development, the hearing technology is really only off at night when the child is sleeping. Some will ask, “What if your child wakes up in the middle of the night in the dark? What will you do then?” Well… sign language doesn’t do you much good in the dark. It takes just as long to put on a hearing aid for listening and talking as it does to flip on the light switch for signing, and the first option allows your child to communicate in the language(s) of your home. Which would you pick?
Those who ask about times the equipment breaks down or the batteries die or the child “just doesn’t want to wear the device” are coming from a completely different mindset than an auditory verbal family. If a child uses listening to learn to speak, connect, and communicate with the world, hearing technology is essential, not optional. We keep batteries and spare parts on hand the way an insulin-dependent diabetic would never be without insulin shots. Children wear bilateral amplification, so even if one ear is down, they’re still on the air. Families keep tackle boxes of spare parts on hand, stay in close contact with their audiologists, and cochlear implant and hearing aid manufacturers offer overnight shipping to send replacements for problems that can’t be fixed at home. The idea that a child/family would “just not wear” the technology or not take care of it to ensure it is functioning properly at all times, is not the perspective of someone who is growing an auditory brain.
And if the hearing technology is off for a brief moment (though, as I outlined above, there are very few reasons and situations why this would happen, even for a short period of time), children can rely on their knowledge of spoken language and naturally acquired lipreading skills. Children with an intact spoken language system will still be able to use expressive verbal communication when their technology is off, and they will have an excellent internal representation of language to match to lipreading and natural gestural cues that we all use to understand speech. Most children raised with hearing technology and Auditory Verbal Therapy communicate entirely in the spoken language(s) of their homes and do not use any sign language. After all, knowing sign language for situations like this is only helpful if you have communication partners who also sign, a minuscule percentage of the overall population. Learning a few signs for the rare and increasingly nonexistent times when hearing technology cannot be used is like asking if the average man on the street should learn Polish just in case he is ever teleported to Poland without warning. But at least in Poland, he’d know there would be someone there who understood him.
There are many variables families must consider when making choices about technology and communication modality for their children who are deaf or hard of hearing, but these choices should be made with accurate, up-to-date, research-based information, not “what ifs” and “devil’s advocates.” With properly functioning bilateral hearing technology and a family commitment to making listening essential, there is no reason why a child with hearing loss should be on the sidelines.