Breaking the sound barrier
This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail in August 2005. Its details have stayed with me since.
Ryan James cranks his head around to look at two leggy blondes passing on his left. They are wearing loose summer dresses and upswept hair, but Mr. James isn’t checking them out — he is following the sound of their voices.
“I heard that,” he says, unable to keep the excitement to himself. He can hear for the first time in his life after a digital device was implanted in his left inner ear.
Cochlear-implant technology is not new, but for 27-year-old Mr. James, who was born with profound hearing loss, the world of sound is.
“The sound of rain hitting the roof or [car]windshield is cool,” he says.
“I didn’t know people talk so fast on the radio. The first song I ever heard the words to was U2’s Beautiful Day.”
During a weekend at the cottage, Mr. James, his family and friends are astounded that he can hear someone playing guitar across the lake.
“I didn’t know sound travels on water,” he says.
The rhythmic groan of a bullfrog fascinates him. Chirping birds and singing crickets are new to him too.
He can now distinguish between the timbre of a man’s voice from that of a woman’s.
He is delighted to discover people sound different when they have a cold.
“I got on my bike and heard the wind in my ears. I didn’t know the wind made noise.”
Instinctively, he cups his ears as a fire truck roars by.
Sirens instill a sense of urgency and the squeal of smoke detectors riles him.
“They are so loud,” he says.
In fact, a smoke detector emits a high-frequency sound that Mr. James could not have heard before his operation even if it had been held beside his ear.
Other high-frequency sounds such as birds tweeting, sirens trumpeting, whistles signalling and the phone ringing meant silence for Mr. James.
When he played hockey in high school, he had to pay extra attention to the coaches and referees so he wouldn’t carry on with the play after the whistle had sounded.
“I am part computer, but I feel more human,” Mr. James says.
The phrase, he admits, is poached from the title of a book he wants to buy.
He thinks that the title, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me Fully Human, captures his experience perfectly.
His hair has grown long enough to disguise a cable that travels from a processor hooked on his left ear to a plastic quarter-sized disc stuck to the side of his head.
It is magnetically attracted to an oval-shaped electronic device under his scalp. The processor picks up sound from the outside environment and converts it into digital information.
The cable, about the diameter of a cellphone antenna, transfers the information to the implant, where it is converted into electrical impulses.
An electrode array, threaded down from the implant to the inner ear, picks up these signals and stimulates the hearing nerve.
The brain interprets the stimulation as sound.
Mr. James can program the implant with digital music and is excited to try it as soon as he buys the necessary wire.
“Talk about getting a song stuck in your head,” he says.
Always a good dancer because he could pick up the low-frequency sound of the bass, he enjoys clubs more because he can hear different instruments, rhythms, melodies, tones and words.
He can adjust the sound to his comfort level by turning down the volume on the processor.
With hearing aids, he says, the bass sounded like thumps and music at clubs was a mere buzzing sound, like “when you get a bad signal on a radio and you hear the distorted fuzziness as you change stations on an old radio clock.”
Yet as his daily activities are transformed by new sounds, Mr. James’s status as a cochlear-implant user has launched him deep into a controversial world of hearing impairment.
Beginning at the age of 17 months, when he was diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, he learned to listen and speak with the help of an audio verbal therapist.
He says he has met people who think that the deaf-culture population should continue to exist without pressure to conform to a hearing world.
They argue that the hearing-impaired should be accepted as they are and not be forced to adapt to a hearing world.
Mr. James enthusiastically rebuffs such an argument and points to the thousands of Canadian children who are afforded new opportunities because of cochlear-implant technology.
He was inspired to get the implant by a seven-year-old girl who had undergone the surgery.
Mr. James’s mother had taught the girl in kindergarten.
After the girl’s operation, he could see her doing all the things little girls do, with ease — she could hear a whisper, stop when the ref blew the whistle in one of her soccer games, listen to her mother without reading lips and talk on the phone.
“She inspired me because she was doing so well and was very happy with it.”
As Mr. James’s list of sounds grows, so does his ability to pronounce. “Moon” and “bird” were among the first words he spoke, but distinguishing between the “ch” in “church” and “ch” in “machine” proved difficult.
Even now, he finds himself saying “witch” when he means to say “wish” — a mistake he attributes to habit.
Another triumph came when Mr. James encountered his friend Steven.
Before the operation, Steven had joked that his name was not “Deevan,” as Mr. James pronounced it.
“When I got my CI, he came to visit me . . . and I called out his name, ‘Sssteven.’ He was so pleased and exclaimed, ‘You just said my name perfectly!’ ”
Mr. James says he is relieved not to use the closed-caption function when he watches TV, but has to discipline himself not to read lips.
Driving is also easier because he can hear the cars around him and no longer leaves the turn signal on accidentally.
Until the cochlear-implant operation last summer, he wore a hearing aid on each ear to amplify sound.
Doctors estimate that he was taking in only 23 per cent of peripheral noise without visual clues in speech.
Mr. James returned to Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre five weeks after the operation to have the implant activated by computer.
As his family looked on in anticipation, he began to hear what he can now accurately describe as “coronets sounding off everywhere in a random and sporadic way.”
His first impressions of voices were arresting. “My research had somewhat prepared me for this, but the reality was terrifying, disappointing. I wanted to hear clear voices, not the sounds of breaking glass every time my mother spoke.”
Over a period of six months, he learned to associate sounds with objects. His mother’s flip-flops slapping on the pavement was the first connection he made.
The jingling of car keys was new to him and the flicking of a light switch startled him.
The snap of keys on a keyboard still distracts him when he writes e-mail messages.
For a time, he couldn’t figure out that the incessant hum in his kitchen was the refrigerator.
The ‘ZZZZ’ was irritatingly similar to the sound his hearing aids used to make.
Mr. James recoiled at dishes clanging as they came out of the dishwasher and he says the high-pitched wail of crying babies is too much for him to handle.
At first, he was overwhelmed and exhausted from trying to absorb the soundscape. He despaired and worried that he had made the wrong decision until a friend who also has a cochlear implant told him that in another six months he would be talking on a cellphone.
Growing up with two hearing aids didn’t phase him.
“I’ve always been happy for who I am, I’ve never hated who I am,” he says, but a visible disability made him vulnerable to at least one bully.
In Grade 9, a locker-room scuffle left him with a severe concussion. The perpetrator abandoned Mr. James slumped at the foot of a locker, only to be discovered by another student who carried him unconscious and bleeding to the school infirmary.
He says he wasn’t picked on because of his hearing aids, but because he lacked the confidence to stand up to a preppy brute.
“I feel I now have more control over situations. I have the confidence to participate and the self-esteem to accept whatever comes my way,” he says. “Every day is loaded with opportunities.”
He says he feels pity for the high-school bully, whom he later discovered has a disabled brother.
After completing a bachelor of arts in sculpture and installation at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto and living in London, England, where he finished his bachelor of fashion design at Istituto Marangoni, Mr. James, now a designer, is living in Whistler, B.C., where he is focused on incorporating environment into his design.
At his first annual checkup in July, doctors confirmed that he could hear 89 per cent of the soundscape.
They expected he would be able to speak on the phone, but were careful to guarantee nothing.
Mr. James now tools around Whistler Village talking on a cellphone.
An avid snowboarder, he is looking forward to blasting down the hills with a heightened awareness of the skiers and boarders around him.
It helps that a lot of the women in Whistler are foreign, he says, because he loves the sound of an accent.