Learning to hear and sign


Runtime - 7:08

Skylar Mitchell, aged 6 months, is about to have an important operation.

“Skylar’s getting her cochlear implants put in tomorrow,” Skylar’s mum, Sophie, tells Frank Film. “The following day, they’ll be switched on so she can hear.”

Both Skylar and her brother Oscar are profoundly deaf.

Oscar, 2, received his own cochlear implants at 5 months. Both children’s implants were provided by the Southern Cochlear Implant Programme (SCIP), a not-for-profit charity.

Today, the Mitchell family are relaxing by the Avon River with their two kids. Sophie jogs Skylar on her lap, while Oscar searches excitedly for ducks.

“It was a shock when we found out that Oscar was Deaf,” recalls Robbie, who, like Sophie, is hearing. “We don’t have any Deaf family members.”

Soon afterwards, the Mitchells decided to proceed with cochlear implant surgery for their son. And they began to learn New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) as a family.

These days, Oscar can hear and talk well. “His conversation will be the same as any hearing child, because he got the cochlears at such a young age.”

“Ducks,” Oscar calls out. “Yay!” He sprints in the ducks’ direction – but his parents call his name, and he runs back.

“Oscar is learning two languages at the moment: spoken English and sign language,” says Sophie. “Oscar is Deaf, and if he can sign, he can be part of the Deaf community.”

Liz Kay – Child and Youth Team Leader at Deaf Aotearoa, and parent to three Deaf children – supports the Mitchells’ decision to raise their kids using both spoken English and NZSL.

“I believe that Deaf children don’t need access to spoken language to have a full life,” says Kay. “They’re perfect the way they are. Nonetheless, we chose to give our Deaf children cochlears, as well as teaching them NZSL. Raising Deaf kids bilingually means they can communicate in the way that they choose.”

Sophie and Robbie are, understandably, nervous about the operation tomorrow. Cuts will be made behind Skylar’s ears to insert the internal components of the implant .“But the complications that can happen in cochlear implant surgery are so minimal,” says Robbie.

The surgery goes without a hitch, and the next morning, Skylar and Sophie recuperate in St George’s Hospital. Despite a bandaged head, Skylar is as smiley as ever. “This afternoon, she will get her processors on, and then she’ll be able to hear for the first time,” Sophie says.

That afternoon, the Mitchell family meet audiologist Pip Wilding at the SCIP clinic. Wilding attaches Skylar’s “ear,”, and switches the processors on.

Sophie and Robbie gently call their daughter’s name. She peers around. Can she hear them?

Wilding claps lightly, and Skylar’s eyes dart in her direction. Her parents make approving sounds – and Skylar beams.

It’s clear her new ears are working.

Oscar comes over to touch his sister’s implants.. “Just like yours,” says Robbie. Skylar burbles away to her brother, and Dad jokes: “Now we have two babies that like the sound of their own voice.”

A week later, the Mitchells are back home in Ashburton, waiting for their NZSL teacher – Debra Jamieson, from Deaf Aotearoa. They’ve had a lesson a week since discovering Oscar was Deaf, and he’s learning fast. He points to a toy tractor and signs ‘Grandad’s tractor.’

Regardless of whether a Deaf child has cochlear implants, says Kay, they are still Deaf and won’t be able to hear in all environments. Therefore, they have the right to learn NZSL. “Having access to NZSL is about celebrating who Deaf children are. It’s about identity. We’ve got a long way to go to get NZSL recognised and funded where it should be, especially in schools.”

“It’s cool,” Sophie says (and signs), “to see Oscar signing and talking.“

“It’s great that they have cochlear implants, but we’re always going to need sign with our kids,” says Robbie. “We just try to make it part of our everyday life.”


You can donate to the Southern Cochlear Implant Programme here: https://scip.co.nz/make-a-donation/

Donate to Deaf Aotearoa here:

Get involved with Loud Shirt Day on October 27: https://www.loudshirtday.org.nz/


Producer/Director: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Tracey Jury
Researcher/Writer: Nicole Phillipson
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Online Editor: Andy Johnson
Sound Design and Mix: Chris Sinclair