Health & Well-being18th July 2015

Cochlear Implants, Confidence and New Experiences

Excluded through people's ignorance and lack of interest in deafness growing up, I'm now determined to make the most of new opportunities

by Natasha Hirst

I’ve often said that I am a sporty person who was never given the opportunity to do sport. Looking back to my school days, I’m still astonished by how profoundly misunderstood deafness is. How did it not occur to PE teachers that I simply couldn’t hear and didn’t know what I needed to do? How was it that there was so little common sense or thought given to what could be done to include me and support my participation in physical activity and sport at school?

I’d enjoyed being active at primary school, although I don’t think I really learned anything. I arrived at high school not knowing the rules to any of the sports we played, unable to hear instructions in the gym or on the field and lacking the confidence to ask questions. I generally got more exercise getting changed and avoiding bullies then I did doing any sport. It doesn’t help to always be the last one picked for a team, to have other kids refuse to pass the ball, and to be shouted down and bullied for each mistake made. After a few weeks off school in year 9 with glandular fever, I simply never returned to PE lessons again.

Many people, hearing as well as deaf, will identify with the lack of confidence that my school experiences left me with. Despite a desire to take up sport at University, most attempts were short lived, largely due to apprehensiveness at trying new sports and also because the social environment that surrounds team sports was intimidating and hard to participate in due to my deafness. There were no opportunities that I was aware of then to get involved with sport in a way that was accessible for me. I did enjoy two seasons of playing ice hockey for my University team, largely thanks to the encouragement of a good friend. Much as I loved being on the ice, I was a terrible player, often the only woman and always the only deaf player on the team. The sport is fast and relies on quick verbal communication on the rink, which went beyond my ability to cope. Another attempt down the pan.

About 12 years ago I decided I wanted to make a real effort to improve my fitness but didn’t have a clue where to start. Believing that sport just wasn’t for me, I joined a gym and enlisted the help of a personal trainer. It was expensive but the one to one support with understanding how to build my strength and general fitness really set me up for the rest of my life. Although my trainer wasn’t especially deaf aware, he was able to demonstrate what I needed to do and supervise me until I was able to do it all on my own. Having the basic skills needed to understand how to exercise helped me reach the level where I felt confident enough to take part in classes with a friend.

Despite having been out of the habit of exercising for while, I’ve been able to get myself back into being active and fit again, simply because I have done it before. It’s so hard to take those first steps to improve your fitness, physically and mentally. Knowing that I’ve done it before and enjoyed it, motivated me to try again. It still took quite a few months to start going back to the gym on a regular basis, trying new classes with people I don’t know. It did help a lot that my old gym buddy joined at my new gym too. We can enjoy wreaking havoc in classes together again. 

Having my cochlear implant last year has been a catalyst for trying a lot of new things in my life. The overall confidence boost I have from being able to communicate more easily has made me much more independent. Funnily enough, I’m not sure I can hear much better in the gym than I did before, but the confidence I have in myself now carries me through those situations that I would have avoided before. When I wore a hearing aid, it would whistle when I exercised and the tube would get blocked with sweat and cut off the sound. I’d get frustrated and give up. The CI has its moments too. The processor falls off my head when I do yoga, it gets in the way when I try to brush my hair from my sweaty face in spin class. Those are just the practical issues I learn to live with. The sounds in the gym are so loud and distorted and drowned out by music that I don’t think hearing people can hear much in there either. Sometimes, being deaf has its advantages. I can focus on myself and my breathing and how it feels to work the different muscles in my body.  I can choose to disconnect from the rest of the world and create some headspace whilst I exercise.

The gym isn't for everybody though. Now that I feel fitter, I’m doing more outdoor activities all with the support of friends, including climbing and cycling. It’s definitely more fun.

One of my lifelong ambitions has been to learn how to surf, largely inspired by the classic 1991 film, Point Break. However, despite my Dad’s best efforts to teach me how to swim as a child, I’ve only ever been mediocre at best. Not being able to swim well is a bit of a barrier to surfing, but so too is not being able to hear in the water. Swimming lessons at school were useless because I just never understood what I was supposed to be doing, since I couldn’t hear anything without hearing aids. I always wondered what it would be like to hear in the water but never expected to be able to.

Despite being quite expensive for me, I bought myself the Aqua + Cochlear kit. It consists of a silicone sleeve for the CI processor and a cable to secure it to a swimsuit or wetsuit so it doesn’t get lost if it falls off the head. It feels a bit chunky on the ear, distorts sounds a bit and gets knocked off quite easily, but with the Aqua + I was able to walk into the sea and hear. I realised then, that was my true childhood dream, to be able to hear in the water. It was a dream that I never dared believe could come true. It was amazing. I had a go at body boarding and surfing for the first time. Being able to hear the sea was cool, but mostly I loved being able to talk to my friends whilst in the water. To be included and be able to participate means so much. I was used to feeling alone and disconnected in water and it wasn’t a good kind of solitude.

I could now chat but also listen to instructions on how to try to catch the waves best on the surfboard and so there I took my first paddles towards learning how to surf. I have since used the Aqua + in a swimming pool. I was able to take my friend’s kids swimming and hear them in the water. Although in an ideal world everyone would be able to use BSL, that isn’t the world I live in. To be able to communicate easily in environments I’ve not had access to before, is something that I will always marvel over.

In all likelihood, I’m never going to become an incredible surfer, but I had the confidence and encouragement to get into the water and give it a go. I loved body boarding, I’d love to get myself to the point where I can stand on a surf board and ride a wave. It is really fulfilling to be able to go out with a group of friends and just enjoy being active outdoors. It doesn’t matter if I’m not very good at it, I can’t wait to get out there and try it again.  

A little bit of confidence goes a long way into overcoming so many of the barriers that get put in the way when you are deaf. Those barriers are not our creation, they aren’t inevitable consequences of being Deaf or Hard of Hearing. I can achieve so much with friends around me who are inclusive and supportive (as friends should be!). The confidence I’ve gained from being able to hear better through my CI motivates me to include myself better and be more determined in breaking down those barriers that stand in front of me. It’s that attitude that I deserve equality and deserve to have the opportunity to do the things I’ve always dreamed of that makes all the difference in my life now.

Article by Natasha Hirst

posted in Deaf Lifestyle / Health & Well-being

18th July 2015