Although Aidan Whitehead was born profoundly deaf, he was fortunate to receive cochlear implants when he was two years old. Today, he is 19 and a first-year engineering student at the University of Stellenbosch.
“Life with cochlear implants is sometimes very noisy and sometimes very quiet,” says Aidan. “I find that classrooms and lecture halls are a challenge – it’s often difficult to follow what’s being said because of the background noise.
“I know this can be difficult for hearing people too but it’s twice as hard for me. I have to sit close to the speaker or lecturer so I don’t miss anything.
“Being in a conversation with more than two other people is also a problem for me. I struggle to follow what is being said.”
To overcome this Aidan often has to guide the conversation or take charge, especially in group projects.
“Sometimes it also helps to position myself in the best place to hear, for example, sitting with my left ear (my stronger side) towards the conversation.”
‘I’m treated no differently’
“I don’t think I’m treated any differently,” says Aidan. “It helps that I don’t think of myself as being hearing impaired. I see it more as a part of who I am – a part of my personality. This has helped shape the way people treat me – they treat me as a fully functioning hearing peer rather than a disabled individual.”
Understanding cochlear implants
A cochlear implant is an electrical apparatus that is surgically implanted into the bone behind the ear. It is made up of a microphone (receives the sounds), a speech processor (selects usable sounds) and a coil (decodes and sends electric impulses to the electrodes).
“Cochlear implants and speech processors have opened the world to me. They have allowed me to expand my potential far beyond what it would have been without them,” he says.
Unfortunately there are some restrictions that come with cochlear implants. Aidan can’t play contact sports because of the risk that a blow to the head could damage the implant.
The speech processors are also not waterproof – this hasn’t stopped Aidan though. “I rowed competitively for my school’s first crew and for the Western Cape. When I run, I put on special ‘plastic’ bags in the shape of the speech processor to prevent sweat entering the device.”
Aidan enjoys photography as a hobby. This photo was taken in the Thar Desert in December 2016.
Lessons I’ve learnt
“I had to learn to concentrate harder than my hearing peers in the learning environment. I occasionally miss out on bits of incidental information when the acoustics are poor, and background noise sometimes interferes with my hearing.”
Aidan does not sleep with his speech processor on as it needs to charge. “This is an advantage as the barking dog or neighbour’s music doesn’t wake me up!” says Aidan. “I have a special alarm clock which shakes my pillow to wake me up in the morning.
“I prefer to keep the devices off while getting ready for the day. This is my quiet time and I use it to think about the day ahead undisturbed.”
“Being deaf or using cochlear implants has not held me back. If anything, I think I have achieved more than I would have if I was a hearing child. It may seem strange but if I was given the chance to relive my life up to now with the choice of hearing, I would still choose to be deaf – it is a part of who I am.”
Integrating into a “hearing” world required a tremendous amount of hard work for Aidan, his parents and family, audiologist, speech therapists and friends.
“I am very grateful, every day, for such an amazing device and for all the people who have supported me.” Mandy Freeman