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OSERS: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
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Opening Doors: Technology and Communication Options for Children with Hearing Loss

Breaking the Sound Barrier

The discovery of your child's hearing loss brings with it a lot of decisions to be made. One issue that is likely to come up is technology and how it can help children with hearing loss. You'll learn about two technologies in particular—hearing aids and cochlear implants. Both can give children access to spoken language and the other sounds around them. Let's take a look at these two technologies.

Hearing Aids

Hearing aids make sound louder in the ranges needed, which are dictated by the individual's hearing loss. They operate on very small batteries, collect sounds, make them louder, and then transfer them to the ear canal.

When a child has a hearing loss, many health-care providers believe that it's important to fit the child with hearing aids as early as possible. Why? Because children begin identifying sounds and learning language in their very first months of life. Hearing aids can give many children the opportunity to hear and learn language like children with normal hearing. Even babies one month old can wear hearing aids.

Each hearing aid is selected for, and fitted to, a child's individual hearing loss. That's because not all hearing losses are the same. One child may not be able to hear certain pitches or tones of sound, while another child may not be able to hear others. A professional trained in hearing loss (called an audiologist) will use tests to determine how much to amplify sound for each child. The tests don't hurt. They are used because very young children can't reliably tell us when sound is too loud, too soft or unclear.

Once a child is fitted with hearing aids, it's very helpful for parents to work with the child's hearing health-care team and other professionals to identify the services the child will need to help him or her develop speech, language, hearing, and communication skills. For children under the age of three, these services may be available through the early intervention system. When eligible children with disabilities are three and older, the public education system takes over and makes special education and related services available. (Contact NICHCY for information about accessing these systems of services. See contact information under the "Where Do I Turn?" section.)

This is just the briefest overview of hearing aids. They're complex devices, and there are many features to consider. To learn more, visit the Web sites we've listed in the section entitled "Find Out More" at the end of this publication.

Cochlear Implants

If a child has not benefited from hearing aids after wearing them for several months, he or she may be a candidate for a cochlear implant. This is a device that is surgically placed in the ear. Unlike hearing aids, a cochlear implant does not make sound louder. It bypasses the damaged parts of the ear and sends an electronic signal directly along the auditory nerve to the brain.

A child using a cochlear implant will need help developing language, just as children using hearing aids do. He or she will need to be trained to interpret and use the sounds that are perceived via the implant. With this training, a child who is an appropriate candidate and who receives a cochlear implant early will likely learn spoken language at a level close to that of a child who has normal hearing.

Cochlear implants are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for appropriate children 12 months of age or older. What makes a child a good candidate for a cochlear implant? The following factors are usually considered:

  • The severity of the hearing loss. For children aged 12 months to two years, the hearing loss should be sensorineural and profound. For children over 25 months, hearing loss should be sensorineural and severe to profound.

  • The level of benefit from hearing aids. When a child has received little or no benefit from wearing hearing aids, the possibility of a cochlear implant may be discussed.

  • The level of the family's motivation about the child receiving a cochlear implant. For cochlear implants to be successful, family members need to be fully committed to making sure that the child receives follow-up services.

These follow-up services may include speech, audiology, and other services, which are intended to help the child learn to listen with a cochlear implant.

Services are provided by qualified individuals and may be available under various programs, including early intervention services or special education and related services. Parents play a part in identifying the services and seeing that their child receives them. The child and his or her family should be prepared to actively pursue a program of learning to listen with the cochlear implant.

Detailed information about this technology and what families can expect is available at the Web sites and in the publications listed in the section entitled "Find Out More" at the end of this document.

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Last Modified: 01/04/2007