Lynn Shelton, Filmmaker and Mother of Deaf Child, Says Cochlear Implants Are Like "Bionic Ears"

Lynn Shelton.jpg
As this week's feature story relates, there are skeptics who doubt that the latest technology for the deaf, cochlear implants, are the miracle they're cracked up to be. For Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, best known for her movie Humpday, it took a few years to realize how important the devices were for her deaf son Milo.

Now 12, Milo lost his hearing when he was a little under a year old through a bout of meningitis, Shelton tells SW. Doctors pronounced him a good candidate for cochlear implants, which send electronic signals to the brain that convey a sense of sound. One assistant tried to explain this strange device by bringing up the Star Trek character Geordi, who has implants that you might think of as bionic eyes. Cochlear implants, Shelton recalls the assistant telling her, are like bionic ears.

Milo couldn't get their full bionic power, however. During his illness, the bone inside his inner ear ossified, making it impossible to hold a complete cochlear implant. His has about half the number of electrodes--the receptors that convey signals to the brain--than does a regular implant.

So he doesn't hear as well as, say, Tino Udall, the subject of this week's feature story, who has two regular cochlear implants. In part for that reason, Shelton and her husband chose to speak and sign to Milo at the same time, and that is the approach they picked for his education as well. He attends the private Northwest School for Hearing-Impaired Children, in Shoreline, which uses the sign language known as Signing Exact English. (Shelton says she at one time asked the Seattle Public Schools, which didn't offer the same kind of immersion in SEE, to pay for his tuition, but the district declined.)

When he was around 4 or 5, Milo suffered a head wound that made it impossible to wear his cochlear implant for a few weeks. "That's when I realized what cochlear implants did for him," she says.

With his cochlear implant on, Milo could not easily distinguish among similar-sounding words like "bag," "bat," and "back." But, she says, "he'd hear an airplane and look up and sign 'airplane.' Or he'd hear a dog barking and say 'Where's the dog?' "

Without his implant, not only did he fail to hear those noises, but the lack of aural engagement with the world seemed to change his personality. "He was so withdrawn," she says. Thinking back to the analogy of bionic ears, she says, "it really is true."

Will Milo ever be able to watch and understand Shelton's movies? She says she's been thinking about that lately as she finishes a new film, yet untitled, about the relationship between two sisters and a guy who comes between them. It's the first of her films she says Milo might actually want to watch. Unlike the racy Humpday, there's only one sex scene and "it's really tame," she says.

But she says Milo doesn't have the patience for movies unless they have captions he can read, and captions are expensive to do. "We might have to wait until it comes out in DVD."

Follow The Daily Weekly on Facebook and Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus