Olivia Wee (middle), Senior Auditory-Verbal Therapist, Singapore General Hospital
The arrival of a newborn is often a joyous occasion. However, about 5 in 1,000 of these babies may have some degree of hearing loss from birth. At the SGH Centre for Hearing and Ear Implants where I work as an Auditory-Verbal Therapist (AVT), I face parents who grieve over this imperfection in their babies. Moreover, more than 90% of babies born with hearing loss have hearing parents and parents cannot fully comprehend the world their babies are in. They feel isolated from their child and they grapple with many uncertainties especially about whether their child can ever lead a normal life.
Fortunately, more than 30 years ago, pioneers in the field of Auditory-Verbal Therapy stood firm in their belief that even the most profoundly deaf children can learn to listen, develop spoken language, go to mainstream schools and be contributing members of society.
Today, with the advent of universal newborn hearing screening and advancement in hearing technology, clear acoustic signals can be sent to the auditory centers in the brain as early as in the first few months of birth. There is potentially sufficient time for infants with hearing loss to close the gap with their hearing peers before school-going age.
Children speak the way they hear and it is especially critical for sounds to reach and stimulate the brain in the early years for development of age-appropriate speech and language.
I help parents to learn techniques and strategies to teach their children develop listening, speech, language, cognitive and communication skills through the aid of technology.
In my work as an AVT, I help parents to learn techniques and strategies to teach their children develop listening, speech, language, cognitive and communication skills through the aid of technology. Children with hearing loss have to be taught to listen with their hearing technology.
Through playing, singing, reading and doing art and crafts, children learn to focus, listen and speak words meaningfully and clearly. The therapy sessions are often filled with joy and laughter but also peppered with tears of frustration. In my therapy room, we celebrate every little step achieved by the child and family. Each small step forward is the result of much commitment and sacrifices put in by the family.
Thriving, even with hearing impairment
One of the most impactful memories I had in the early years of my career was with a family of a 2-year-old girl. I found the parents looking lost in the corridor outside the therapy rooms. I approached the mother to have a chat with her. I learnt that they were waiting for the hearing test results of their daughter.
I listened as they shared about how they had tried for a long time to have a baby and how when their first-born arrived, they had nurtured her with much care and love. They described her as a happy but very quiet child. As she got older and her speech was not developing, the parents’ anxieties grew. When the hearing test results were confirmed, the girl was diagnosed with severe-profound hearing loss. I found myself at the start of the listening and spoken language journey with this girl and her family.
Her family was fully committed to teach her to listen and develop spoken language all day, every day. She excelled in an elite mainstream primary school and completed her secondary school education as one of the top students in her grade
She was first fitted with a pair of hearing aids and later had a cochlear implant. Her family was fully committed to teach her to listen and develop spoken language all day, every day. She excelled in an elite mainstream primary school and completed her secondary school education as one of the top students in her grade, and she has now decided to pursue her ‘A’ levels at a boarding school overseas. It has been an arduous journey, but her family continues to support her and persevere in the belief that she will thrive wherever she chooses.
This early experience reinforced my conviction that my work as an AVT can make a difference in the lives of individuals with hearing loss and their families.
As Singaporeans become more aware of help available for treating hearing loss, I started seeing patients who lost their hearing in adulthood and received cochlear implants. The hearing journey for an adult patient is different from that of a child, but just as challenging. Adult patients with hearing loss have to learn to listen and make sense of the electrical sound signals from the cochlear implants. During therapy sessions, their caregivers learn skills to practise listening with them at home.
Hearing loss had isolated them socially from friends and families, and often when they can hear again with their cochlear implants, they become happier and more confident in their daily living.
Hearing loss had isolated them socially from friends and families, and often when they can hear again with their cochlear implants, they become happier and more confident in their daily living. Some, however, despite being able to use the telephone and engage in active discussions at meetings using their cochlear implants, still face discrimination for work advancement. The oldest patient I’m seeing now is 80 years old and he continues to enjoy good quality of life, being able to listen to his favourite ABBA music again.
Every day a miracle
I liken my role as an AVT to that of a signpost; guiding families to connect first with their children with hearing loss and then to connect their children to the hearing world and pointing those who lost their hearing in adulthood towards the hope of returning to the lifestyle they had before hearing loss.
I have been enriched as a person on their hearing journeys.
Although I cannot fully understand the grief and struggles my patients and their families face on a daily basis, I can help them to develop listening and self-advocacy skills and be their cheerleader, taking baby steps with them to overcome each obstacle they face (re)connecting with the hearing world. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with these patients and families and the trust that they put in me. I have been enriched as a person on their hearing journeys.
Elizabeth David said that “everyday holds the possibility of a miracle” and each day in my little therapy room, I look forward to new sparks of miracles.
Join us at the SGH Audiologists’ and Auditory-Verbal Therapists' Day celebration on 10 October! Come and watch a special screening of "THE LISTENING PROJECT", a short documentary featuring 14 individuals sharing their stories about growing up deaf in a time of rapidly improving hearing technology. (Watch the trailer here.) You'll also get to hear from one of our patients. Open to all staff from SingHealth institutions. To register, please contact Nur Jannah Binte Zainal by 5 October as admissions are limited.