Breaking down barriers for children with hearing or vision loss

Kelly and Stephen were not expecting to have two daughters with hearing loss.

This is what they’ve learnt.

For Kelly and Stephen, a couple from Sydney’s Blue Mountains, finding out that their daughter Sarah was born with hearing loss came as a big surprise. With no family history of hearing loss, it was even more unexpected when, two years later, their second daughter Emily was also found to be hard of hearing.

“When I found out about the girls’ diagnosis I was confused, unsure and sad. I wish I had known back then that while they will always have hearing loss and wear hearing aids, there isn’t much that is different about our lives than a typically hearing family”, said Kelly.

From the outset, the family was committed to giving their girls the best start in life. Both were fitted with hearing aids within months of being born and their parents immediately connected with services to support their speech, language and social development through not-for-profit organisation NextSense, which works with children and adults with hearing and vision loss.

NextSense has been breaking down barriers for children, adults and families of people with hearing or vision loss for 163 years. It supports family choices, including sign language and spoken language for children with hearing loss and works closely with families on meeting their own goals.

Evidence shows that the earlier you intervene with speech and language development for a child with hearing loss, the better their outcomes will be, with many children who are born deaf or hard of hearing going on to reach or exceed the same milestones as their hearing peers.

Emily is now 13 years old, and Sarah is 15, and both girls are thriving. An avid reader of adventure-fantasy novels, Sarah also has a passion for 3D puzzles, while Emily loves dancing and spending time with her friends. Both are also active in their local church.

Stephen and Kelly say they work well as a team and have made small adjustments in their home to support their daughters, like limiting background noise and music and using microphones that stream to their hearing aids while out.

Stephen says the couple gained a lot from meeting other parents of kids with hearing loss, as they would swap tips and tricks for best supporting their children. “You learn as you go, and you learn from others. It was great to meet other parents and chat about what life looked like with hearing loss further along in the journey, which was particularly helpful since we had no history of that in our families”, said Stephen.

Kelly says putting in the hard yards early has reaped so many rewards. “Early intervention gave Sarah and Emily support, and it meant that they could go into school without a language delay, with confidence and at a place where they only had to be focused on learning like everyone else, rather than having to catch up first”, said Kelly.

Emily and Sarah have both attended the same community school since preschool. Kelly teaches there, and Stephen also attended as a boy. During Sarah’s early years, a NextSense Teacher of the Deaf visited the school to make suggestions on inclusive teaching strategies for the classroom and provide guidance on assistive technology and accommodations, which it was happy to take onboard. Small changes like putting felt on tables to dampen harsh sounds made a big difference. The girls have found it to be a wonderful, supportive environment and they also feel empowered to advocate for themselves.

“I make sure all my teachers know I have hearing loss and I sit in the right place to be able to hear best and see people’s mouths when they speak”, Sarah says.

The one thing Emily wishes other people knew about her hearing loss is that it doesn’t mean she can’t hear or understand anything – her aids just help her to hear better – and she has the same opportunities as everyone else.

Kelly said her perception of hearing loss has changed dramatically with the knowledge and experience she has gained. “It isn’t something that is scary or unknown or completely life changing. It is a manageable part of normal family life”, she said.

World Hearing Day is Sunday March 3rd 2024. It’s an annual global advocacy event for raising awareness regarding hearing loss and promoting ear and hearing care, and calling for action to address hearing loss and related issues. Each year, this event is celebrated on 3 March, covering a specific theme on which the World Health Organization and its partners carry out activities based on this theme.