Making Sense of the Senses

Making Sense of the Senses

by Katherine Webb  Photography by Beau Gustafson

Ryan Cato says his “listening and hearing age” is “in [the] 2-1/4-year-old ‘toddler’ level with my 31-year-old body—rather impassable to most strangers.” Cato explains the general rule of thumb for communication “passability” among strangers is a “listening age” of 4-years-old.

Three years ago, Cato underwent cochlear implant (CI) surgery. The electronic implant functions as a supplier of sound to those with severe impairments. While the sound is not what a hearing-able person would deem “normal,” the enhanced levels of speech and environmental noises make possible verbal communication for those once incapable of making sense of sound.

Recently, Cato had LASIK surgery so that the arms of his glasses would no longer interfere with the implant, located just above his right ear. “The result of LASIK [courtesy of Dr. Price Kloess],” Cato says, “is perfect 20/20 vision.” Now, he says he may enjoy activities like swimming or simply resting his head on a pillow, relaxing.

“I first met Ryan when I did LASIK surgery on his dad, Chris.While watching them sign to each other in my office, I knew there was a special bond that one sees when their children face extraordinary challenges. At his young age he was driven to succeed but he faced two major obstacles: deafness and blindness from near-sightedness.

“Years later when Ryan was old enough for LASIK, I could hardly wait for his screening exam. The surgery was successful and his vision is now perfect. I believe God gifts us to bless others. God has a bright future for Ryan. To see his smiling face now without glasses is an incredible sight.”

Since both surgeries, Cato, a natural-born scientist with great curiosity and spirit, has logged the progress of his senses—“to share my experience and examples [with] somebody else”—on a blog. Cato is excited to “share the news on my progress, especially my quality of ‘growing’ voice on video samples.”

Cato aptly titled his blog: “Deaf Adults Can Learn to Speak: Cochlear Implant Journey for Prelinguistic Deaf Adult.”

“I’m deeply motivated and dedicated,” he says, “because I desired to hear and speak for more than two years before getting implanted,” Cato says. “That’s not an impulsive decision.”

While CI offers great benefits to the hearing impaired, the surgery does not come without drawbacks: the cost, which according to the American Speech Language Hearing Association may exceed $40,000 including post-surgery therapy, and the potential medical complications.

For Cato, the advantage of “bionic ears” was clear. After a lifetime of encumbrance, Cato was ready for change.

Cato came into this world like most of the lucky ones—into the arms of loving parents, a healthy baby boy with 10 fingers and toes, his senses intact. Before his first birthday, Cato suffered a series of high fevers that damaged his ears and rendered him deaf.

Born an only child in Texas, Cato moved with his folks to Alabama in the mid-1990s where they settled into a normal life of work, school, and for the hearing impaired Cato, speech therapy.

As for friends, Cato said he had “rather few due to extremely mild autism. I tried to be outgoing and squash the autism. It requires a lot of time. At age of 27, I began to ‘blossom’ and have a lot of friends.”

Still, Cato was a good student and enjoyed education. Now, pursuing his master’s in electrical engineering at UAB, Cato better understands the complexities of language and its learning curve.

Cato is considered “post-environmental” in that he was, due to high-powered hearing aids, able to detect environmental sounds as a boy. “I don’t have to learn environmental sounds over again,” Cato says, “but [it takes] a while to remember.”

Because the hearing aids were insufficient in aiding Cato to perceive sounds of speech, he “is ‘prelingustic’ deaf.’” Cato says this is because, “I became deaf before acquiring language at 10 months old.  Let me ask you a rhetorical question to establish an example:  how old were you [when you] started to learn to speak/acquired language? Unfortunately, I had no chance to learn spoken English during early pediatric age. Instead, I learned American Sign Language. I finally began to learn to speak at 29-years-old.”

Dr. Dennis Pappas Jr. implanted the cochlear devices for Cato in November 2010. “Then, the CI was activated (powered on) December 23, 2010.  I heard only beeps for a daylong. Then, I remembered the ‘environmental’ sounds such as faucet running, dryer chirping, dog barking, engine running, TV, footfalls, etc.  I do detect the presence of speech but don›t interpret speech yet because my brain treats speech as white noise.”

The difference between the implants and hearing aids was immediate. “I enjoyed the CI much more than hearing aids.  More decibel ranges… and sound fidelity.  For example, I didn›t appreciate daily elementary school speech therapy because it›s dreadfully difficult to hear, and how could I say the word back? It›s virtually impossible. I now enjoy speech therapy with the CI because it is more doable than hearing aids.”

To practice at home, Cato says, “[I] follow the audio books with my parents holding the paper novels and stylus. Patience is the hardest part because I can›t wait to perfect my mistakes or finish ‘growing,’ because learning a new language is rather difficult.”

As for talking with strangers, Cato says, “not very much for right now because my voice isn›t passable enough… it›s passable enough to just say, ‘I’m good,’ or ‘Diet Coke,’ or ‘I›m deaf’ with the gesture ‘write a note.’”

Still, he says, “I feel so excited to chat very little to the strangers because I wished for a long time to relinquish my shyness.”

Cato says although some folks in the deaf community frown upon CI, he’s enthusiastic about the technological advancements and the possibilities those advancements afford him.

“I never had any deaf pride,” Cato says. “I did frown before because the older generation CI [did not] provide the folks a higher sound fidelity, enough to understand both speech and appreciate music… today, I can do better with the latest generation CI.”

Finally, Cato says, he’s not coping with the limitations of being a twenty-something without speech.

Cato is excited about his progress and the possibilities of communication in the future—“to join the telephone culture because video chat or video relay service on the mobile phone is far too awkward.  I prefer laptop or desktop computer, period. Also, sign language has a very limited vocabulary size [compared to] English, good for everyday talk only, so it›s not appropriate for technical chat with engineers or school.”

After grad school, Cato hopes to work for a utilities company. Until then, he’ll continue to study and continue to log his progress, gaining insight about our senses.

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