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How a Cochlear Implant and Effective Communication Skills Saved My Career

Thursday, November 4, 2021

My hearing loss journey began when I was only one month of age and had a high fever of 105 degrees for three days. I was very fortunate to have survived this illness, but I was left with severe hearing loss in both ears. In the early 1950s, I received my very first hearing aid at age three and started attending a special oral school for children with severe hearing loss in Phoenix, Arizona.

Because of the technology at that time, the first hearing aid I had was actually a body aid about the size of a large smart phone. Over time, as technology progressed, I moved on to wearing two behind-the-ear hearing aids which made it possible for me to continue my education through college. All of this led me to the career of my dreams, which is working as a counselor and advisor for college students with disabilities at Mesa Community College, one of the largest community colleges in Arizona (and America).

However, in 1999, at the age of 50, I lost my residual hearing in both ears, becoming totally deaf. Because my work required that I have the ability to hear and communicate effectively with students, college faculty and staff, as well as the public, I was devastated that I might no longer be able to work and help students determine their own futures.

A career-saving technology

I feel forever indebted to the technology of cochlear implants (CI). Through Advanced Bionics, I discovered that my sudden deafness actually turned into a positive because it made me the perfect candidate to receive a CI. Even though that meant I would have to undergo surgery, I was not nervous at all. In fact, I wanted to proceed as soon as possible, because not having the surgery meant I would remain totally deaf and I’d lose my career. So on April 17, 2000, I underwent surgery to place the implant just underneath my scalp, slightly behind my right ear.

Once I received my CI, the real work began.

— Jack Clevenger, who hears with an AB cochlear implant

There is no doubt that the CI has profoundly impacted my life. For the first time ever, I could hear birds singing as well as the sound of people walking on the sidewalk. The sounds of vowels and consonants were now more distinct, making communication with others so much more effective! I was now able to communicate with fewer mistakes and far less stress. Truly, the CI opened up up layers of sound that I had never heard before!

What I learned

I have consistently heard that even today’s technology cannot duplicate the natural hearing process exactly. This means that a person with severe hearing loss is not able to hear through hearing aids or a CI in the same way that a normal hearing person would.

That’s why once I received my CI, the real work began. The first thing I realized was that the sounds and speech I heard through my new CI did not sound the same as with my hearing aids. I had to re-learn how to hear with my CI. So I immersed myself in as many different listening environments as possible. I later learned that this process was called the adjustment period, which can vary from six to twenty-four months, depending on the individual.

I also learned that I can’t be afraid of making mistakes. I came to embrace my mistakes as learning opportunities. These mistakes helped me to understand the difference between what I thought I had heard and what was actually said.

For the first time ever, I could hear birds singing as well as the sound of people walking on the sidewalk. 

— Jack Clevenger, who hears with an AB cochlear implant

Communication skills

Most of all, I realized that ultimately, I have the responsibility for improving my own hearing. So I researched all kinds of information that would help me hear better. This was how I found guidelines and tools designed to teach any individual—with or without hearing loss—to communicate more effectively with others. More than just learning to hear more sounds, this is a broader set of skills. Some of the more important guidelines are as follows.

  • Make sure to face the other person directly when communicating. Do not cover your mouth with your hands or papers.
  • Listen to the other person with your undivided attention by removing distractions, such as turning off cell phones, televisions, computers, etc.
  • Use other clues or cues to help you better understand the emotional context of the exchange, such as reading another person’s lips, and noticing facial expressions or changes in body language.
  • Avoid making sudden topic changes without first announcing it to the other person. Use transitions between conversational topics such as “Now let’s talk about…”
  • For someone with hearing loss, constantly concentrating in order to hear and understand speech can be mentally and physically exhausting. This listening fatigue is also experienced by listeners with normal hearing who are trying to follow conversations for an extended period of time in very noisy situations, or when listening to speakers with an unfamiliar accent.
  • When you are starting to experience listening fatigue, suggest to the other person to continue the conversation at another time.
  • Take a break from listening to allow the body and brain to recover from the exhaustion.

Going forward

Some individuals reading this might feel that I have had a very difficult life compared to others. However, because of all of the support, encouragement, and different kinds of assistance I have received along the way, I actually feel quite the opposite! I honestly feel that my life has been blessed in ways that I could never have imagined possible.

It seems as if every time I started to experience uncertainty or worry about some kind of challenge, somehow, a solution, a person, or some resource would become apparent and help me keep going. Challenge by challenge, step-by-step, I learned whatever it was I needed to learn and then I would move on. Before I knew it, I was able to live fully despite my hearing loss!

If by reading this article, you are able to take anything away that makes a difference for you, it is my deepest desire that you will feel the inspiration of hope -- hope that there is impressive technology available, hope that there are licensed, skilled professionals ready to assist you, and most of all, the hope that you can do it, too!

Jack Clevenger
Written by Jack Clevenger

Jack Clevenger

Jack was born in Phoenix, Arizona and has lived in this state all his life. With a master’s degree in education and counseling with a human relations emphasis, he has devoted his life to serving individuals with hearing loss and other disabilities.

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