Rhianna Rashid wants nothing more than to be seen as “just an ordinary kid” who loves going to school and playing sports.

“Even though I need my cochlear implant to help me hear, I am an ordinary girl. I enjoy going to school and playing with my friends. I like to swim, read and play badminton. I also like to craft,” says the shy but precocious 11-year-old who is in Year 5 at SK Seksyen 2, Bandar Kinrara in Puchong, Selangor.

Rhianna was born with profound hearing loss in both ears, diagnosed when she was a-year-and-a-half. However, because her mother, Ruziyanti Mokhtar, is a speech and language therapist, intervention to help Rihanna hear started early.

Rhianna received her first cochlear implant when she was two and her second one at four, which along with years of speech and language therapy, has enabled the youngster to hear.

In fact, it’s hard to keep secrets from her, says her mum, because she “eavesdrops very well”.

One reason that Rhianna has adapted so well, says senior audiologist at the Sunway Medical Centre Saravanan Selanduray, is because her condition was diagnosed early.

Rhianna (here with her mum Ruziyanti) got her first cochlear implant when she was two and another at four years old. Because of the device and unwavering support of her family, Rhianna is thriving at school.

Early diagnosis is very important. For children, detecting and treating hearing loss early allows them develop their speech faster and better.

“The American Pediatric Association recommends a hearing diagnosis by the time a child is six months old. We are still not there yet in Malaysia where most children are diagnosed when they are about two years old.

“Research shows that if children are diagnosed before they turn one, their speech development will be on par with other hearing children. The later the diagnosis, the longer the delay in their speech and language understanding,” explains Saravanan.

Rhianna is enrolled in a national school where she has learnt to not only adapt, but thrive.

“She came out third in her recent exams,” says Ruziyanti, beaming with pride at her firstborn’s achievements.

Early diagnosis is key

Early detection is also crucial for adults with progressive hearing loss. Unfortunately, he says, most adults resist getting hearing aids, even though their lives have been impacted by their progressive deafness, because they fear how they will be perceived by society.

“Most adults put off getting diagnosed and treated. The most common question we get asked by adults is how visible hearing aids are. They are embarrassed and worry about how their family, friends and colleagues will view them. The thing is, in most cases, the people around them have long realised that a problem exists and when they finally get an aid, everyone is relieved,” says Saravanan.

Saravanan: If kids are diagnosed before they turn one, their speech development will be on par with other hearing children.

For adults, delaying treatment can also lead to other medical and cognitive complications such as early onset of dementia, warns speech and language pathologist, Dr Basyariatul Fathi Othman.

“Local research conducted on a large group of the geriatric population compared adults with visual deficits with those with hearing deficits and the latter displayed other deficiencies as a result of their impairment such as early dementia, difficulties in learning new things and so on. Those with visual deficits had only visual deficiencies.

“The loss of hearing eats into your memory and everyday processes. The longer you wait, the worse it becomes because the brain forgets. Our ears do the listening but the processing of sounds is the job of our brain. If the ear shuts down, the brain stops getting stimulated and after some time, the brain gets used to this restive state and getting better becomes exponentially more difficult,” she explains.

A family affair

Even with the help of hearing aids and devices, a hearing impaired child will need the support of his family to cope and adjust.

“It takes a lot of hard work. A hearing aid or an implant is not a miracle cure. Your child doesn’t automatically hear like other hearing children just because they have on a device that can help them hear.

“Some parents send their children for therapy and expect us to do all the work. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t drop them off and expect them to pick up speech and language after a 45-minute or hour-long session in therapy once a week. Parents need to do a lot of work with their children,” says Dr Basya.

Hearing loss is hard but Bryan Ng (centre) is lucky to have the support of his parents and younger sister Bernie. Photo: Suki Cheong

When Suki Cheong’s son, Bryan, was diagnosed with moderate hearing loss at age two, she quit her job in advertising to be a full-time mum.

It’s been an arduous journey for Suki and her husband Bernard Ng, who spared no effort in helping Bryan, now 17, cope with his hearing issues.

“We worried about how he would cope? Would he be able to learn and grow up as normal, hearing children? Would he be bullied and teased in school? Would he be able to learn in school? What about when we were no longer around?” shares Cheong.

But, instead on dwelling on their fears, the couple went on a crusade to find out all they could about hearing impairment as well as research treatments that were available to him.

They fitted Bryan with a hearing aid when he was two. They also considered a cochlear implant but Bryan wasn’t keen and so they didn’t force it on him.

“I think he was afraid. We do tell him that because his condition is progressive, he may one day lose his hearing. But the decision is his. Maybe one day he will decide to do it,” says Bernard.

There are different degrees of hearing loss – the most common categories of hearing loss are mild, moderate, severe, and profound.

Bryan Ng says that being hearing impaired means that its sometimes hard to follow conversations with friends.

Bryan’s parents have fully supported him through his rehabilitation – from being active in his schooling to supporting him in his interests and passions outside school, which include sports, robotics and drawing.

Bryan’s younger sister Bernie, 14, has also attended his therapies, lending him support and learning how she can help him cope.

Bryan’s hearing impairment is now rated severe to profound.

Without his hearing aid, he can only hear if people talk “very loudly”. Even with his hearing aid, he cannot hear when people talk behind his back. He can read lips though, which he says may make him a good spy.

“Hearing loss is not easy. It’s hard for me to follow conversations and I have to ask my friends to repeat what they say sometimes. Some of them do but some are impatient and don’t,” shares Bryan.

With the support and encouragement of his parents though, Bryan has gained confidence and is doing well.

He came out fourth in the Federal Territory MSSM Golf Tournament in February and his robotic’s team at school won the “Innovative Solutions Award” at the Lego League Malaysia competitions recently.

Ruziyanti recalls how difficult it was getting Rhianna adjusted to her implant.

“Rhianna rejected the implants at first. She’d pull out the processor (tucked behind her ear) out and throw it. She’d scream and cry and we had to try all means to get her to wear it even enlisting the help of other people to help persuade her.

“I know it wasn’t easy for her. After all, she’d been used to silence all her life, and all of a sudden she had these sounds in her ears. The hard part was getting her to accept the implant. And, being a toddler, it was harder but she eventually got used to it. After that, it’s been smooth sailing,” shares Ruziyanti.

For Bernard and Suki, a large part of supporting Bryan is giving him the confidence to try new things.

“We have to build his confidence to face the world. We must also get rid of the stigma attached to hearing impairment. We never back away whenever people ask us about his hearing aids. Hopefully one day there will be an invention that can help hearing impaired children hear like normal children,” says Suki.

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month. For more information, go to http://mash.org.my/ or www.facebook.com/mash.org.my