She plays the clarinet, sings, listens to music and chats on the phone, but Ruth MacMullen was born profoundly deaf. Catherine Scott finds out how.
Ruth Macmullen was 18 months old when doctors confirmed she was profoundly deaf.
“My parents were told I would never learn to speak or hear anything, but my parents pushed back and said they wanted to give it a go,” says Ruth now 28. “Looking back it was a bit like living your life under water. I could hear muffled sounds but that was it.”
Ruth’s mum taught her to speak and when she was eight and said she wanted to learn a musical instrument her ever supportive parents said ‘good idea’.
Her mum set about researching the best instruments for a profoundly deaf person to play and discovered that the clarinet was ideal because of the amount of vibration.
“I always loved music and really wanted to play an instrument,” says Ruth. “Some people might have tried to put me off but my parents really encouraged me. I really enjoyed the clarinet getting to grade six and even playing in an orchestra.
“I have been brought up to believe that if I want to do something then I should give it a go. Music has been no different.”
But growing up she did find being a deaf person in a hearing world at times very frustrating.
“I went to a mainstream school and I wore really high powered hearing aids ,but I was frustrated at not being able to do all the things that the other children could do,” she says.
“I do think it has had an effect on me. Growing up and getting through the teenage years is hard enough, but you don’t really want to be different, being deaf made me stick out.”
And so when Ruth was 13 she was given a cochlear implant.
“It was funny. When they turned it on I told my audiologist that she sounded like Mickey Mouse. It was all echoey.
“It is strange because you actually hear through the side of your head, it didn’t feel like hearing at first.”
Instead of making the sound louder, like a hearing aid, a cochlear implant directly stimulates the auditory nerve (the nerve that carries sound from the cochlea to the brain) using electrical signals.
The implant consists of an internal a receiver which is surgically implanted in the mastoid bone behind the ear, with electrodes inserted into the cochlea, part of the inner ear.
A microphone and speech processor which convert sound into an electrical signal that is sent to the electrodes in the inner ear is attached to the outside of the skull. These then stimulate the auditory nerve sending a signal to the brain, where it is perceived as sound.
The cochlear implant changed Ruth’s life, even more so when at the age of 23 she was successful in getting a second implant.
“Ten years was a long time to wait between getting the two implants which was frustrating again. I think it was partly funding and then NICE changed its guidelines and I was eventually able to get a second implant which has been incredible. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I didn’t have two implants.”
Ruth works full time in the Information Learning Services department at York St John University.
“I hold a lot of meetings and do a lot of teaching work,” she explains.
And for the first time Ruth has been able to full fill her musical ambition of having singing lessons and is even considering joining a choir.
“I would never have been able to sing in tune if it hadn’t been for the cochlear implants. I am able to tune my voice to a piano and I can tell if I’m in pitch or not. It should be impossible for a deaf person to sing in tune, but with cochlear implants it isn’t. It is a wonderful feeling.”
She still struggles sometimes if she is in a pub or a busy area when everyone is talking at once.
“Being deaf is an invisible condition most of the time, especially when you have implants as you can’t see them like many hearing aids. There is a fantastic campaign at the moment by Action for Hearing Loss which says everyone struggles to hear when they go into a crowded pub with music playing imagine what it is like for the 10 million people with hearing loss.
“My dad is losing his hearing a bit now and for the first time he can understand what I have been going through all my life.”
Ruth works closely with a number of charities including being mentor for HearPeers an online community where she supports and advises people with or have children with profound or severe hearing loss in the lead up to and following their hearing implant surgery.
“It is my way of giving something back,” says Ruth who lives in York.
“I feel extremely lucky and I am in a unique position of being able to talk to parents or others with hearing loss, especially those who might be interested in music or playing an instrument.” Ruth is also urging people who think they may have a hearing problem to get tested.
“It is really important to get your hearing tested
Ruth says since she had her second ‘bionic ear’ her taste in music has also changed.
“I was always in to rock music. I don’t know whether that was all down to my deafness or just because of was a bit alternative. But since the double implant my tastes have definitely changed. I am more in to more mellow acoustic music and Bob Dylan. It’s really quite strange.”
Talking top Ruth on the phone you would never know that she was born deaf.
I was a bit nervous about interviewing a deaf person on the phone even one with cochlear implants.
She explains that she is testing a new telephone being pioneered by cochlear implant manufacturer Medel which connects directly into both of her cochlear implants.
“I’ve had it for three months and it is amazing.”
HearPeers is a community of hearing implant users who are dedicated to sharing information and providing educational and emotional support to individuals considering or living with a hearing implant.
For more information visit HearPeers.uk