July 2019 The Courier-Express

Tyler Manuel was born deaf but in a conversation with him you would never be able to tell that.

Manuel was born in 1991 with bilateral hearing loss, meaning he is deaf in both ears, but at just 18 months old, he received his first cochlear implant which gave him the ability to hear out of the ear with the implant. He was one of the youngest people to receive a cochlear implant in the Pittsburgh area at the time. He received only one implant because doctors at the time were not sure how two would impact a child as young as he, since his head and skull were still growing. For the next 27 years, Manuel only heard from one side. About a year ago, he underwent the surgery for a second cochlear implant in his other ear.

Since having the second one added, Manuel has noticed a great difference in his ability to hear. He didn’t realise how much sound he was missing, or what being able to hear from both sides was like, he said. “You don’t realise how much you miss when you haven’t ever had it before,” Manuel said of the hearing he gained. He explained with only one implant, he couldn’t tell where people were while talking to him if he couldn’t see them. He was only getting sound from one side, so everything sounded like it was coming from that side, regardless of where the speaking person was located. Manuel described adding the second implant as upgrading to surround sound. The implant gave him more spatial recognition, a greater ability to tell where sounds originated.

“After 27 years of only hearing from one side, I had to train my brain to hear sound from the other side,” Manuel said. He had to spend time with only the new implant active, until he was used to it.

Tyler Manuel

Tyler Manuel shares his experience growing up with a cochlear implant with the sign language class 

When Manuel was just a baby he was sent to the DePaul Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. DePaul teaches Listening and Spoken Language Education with the goal of students being able to transition back to neighbourhood schools with typical hearing and speaking children. Manuel said there is not much deaf culture in Pittsburgh, and his parents felt there were better opportunities for him if he learned how to work with hearing people rather than learn sign language. This school began preparing him for the implant from the time he started attending as a baby. He was taught lip reading and touching his throat to feel how different letters sounded through vibrations. He attended this school until he was in the second grade, and then transitioned back to a regular public school.

When he received his first implant at 18 months of age, it was a seven-hour long surgery and he spent the next three days in the hospital. After four weeks of healing, the implant was turned on for the first time. “Usually people’s instant reaction is to cry because it’s so shocking, suddenly having sound where there was none before,” Manuel explained. When he underwent the surgery to get the second implant, the procedure took only two hours and he went home the same day. Manuel said having the second one helps to round out words when hearing them now. He explained that when people say a word like “about,” he can hear more of the “a” and “t” sounds now, whereas before he did not even realise he was missing some of them. “You start to wonder, how much was I actually missing over the years, and didn’t realise it,” Manuel said.

At 6 years old, Manuel was taken for testing, along with about 50 other children, to see how well the implant worked. The theory was that children with implants could not hear as well as normally hearing children. Manuel and others like him in the study group proved that theory wrong. He was brought back when he was 16 to test again, and it was determined that having two implants instead of one was the better option. Today, it is recommended that children be implanted with both at the same time.

The internal technology of the implant, the part attached to the skull, never changes, and the implants have a lifetime guarantee. The outside technology is always being updated and changed to pick up more sound. Manuel said each new upgrade brings a noticeable difference in sound.

“Oh, it’s noticeable... Every time I go into a tune up I hear everything after, until I tune it out,” Manuel said. He explained each upgrade enables him to hear more background noise like machines and lights humming, until his mind is able to filter it out. He likened the change brought about by each upgrade to listening to someone talk through a halloween mask, and then listening to them talk without it on. He never realises the sounds are muffled or could sound better, until he receives the upgrade and hears even clearer.

Manuel said he is also grateful for other advancements that have been made, like being able to use rechargeable batteries for his implants. There is also a car charger available for the implants now, which is helpful so he never has to worry about his batteries dying while out someplace. With the older models, he couldn’t even walk through a sprinkler.

Manuel’s experience is unique to him, and even unique among other members of the deaf community. There is a stigma surrounding cochlear implants within the deaf community, and a stigma surrounding the deaf community from the hearing community, Manuel said. Some deaf people feel the implants are a way the hearing community is trying to force them to “fix” something not all of them see as a problem. For others who have not lived their whole lives deaf, the implants are a miracle that allows them to continue their life without having to experience drastic changes. Educating both communities, and sharing viewpoints is the only way to fight those stigmas, and that’s what Tyler Manuel does by sharing his story and experience

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