If you ask 11-year-old Zoe Symons how her cochlear implants feel, she’ll say “natural.”
Symons, a fifth-grader at Newark Charter School, is profoundly and severely deaf. She received her first cochlear implant, an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear, at 2 years old.
“It was a huge decision,” recalled Zoe’s mother, Mia.
At first, Mia and Morel Symons thought any developmental delays they were seeing in their daughter were due to a congenital heart defect, especially after Zoe passed a hearing test. That test result turned out to be a false positive, as a few months later the Symons had another test done that revealed Zoe was profoundly deaf – meaning she could not hear anything – in one ear and severely deaf in the other.
“We were actually relieved at that point,” Mia said, “because then we knew all of the delays and everything we were seeing and the unresponsiveness was a hearing issue, and we could do something about that.”
Eventually, after seeing a classroom of profoundly deaf toddlers happily chatting thanks to their cochlear implants, the Symons decided their daughter should have the implant surgery.
It’s a story Mia and Zoe recently shared with other families contemplating similar decisions when they participated in a video series called “I Want You to Hear.” Filming took place last February during the Newark family’s biennial trip to Disney World for the Cochlear Celebration, which brings together cochlear implant recipients of all ages.
Although Mia had prepared something to say, the two learned once they got there they would be asking each other a series of questions. Last month, the series launched and several videos – ranging in time from one minute to five minutes – feature Mia asking such questions as “What’s your favorite thing to hear me say to you?” and her daughter asking, “How did you feel when you learned you were going to have me?”
Both Mia and her husband Morel have a background in medicine, which they agreed helped them communicate with doctors during Zoe’s early days in the hospital. However, they were not as prepared to deal with Zoe’s hearing loss. Informing others was part of the reason Mia said she participated in the video series.
“Neither one of us knew anyone who was deaf or hard of hearing,” Mia said. “I had never really heard of cochlear implants before. We kind of got what the brain does, but there’s so much about it that we learned.”
Early on, the couple was encouraged to think about what goals they had for their daughter. Getting the first cochlear implant when Zoe was young helped her attend “mainstream school,” listen and speak, the Symons said.
After receiving her first implant, Zoe attended the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech in Pennsylvania for a year before going on to Nathalie B. Hammond Preschool in Pike Creek. At age 7, Zoe made the decision to receive the second cochlear implant. Although Zoe knows sign language, the family rarely communicates through signing these days.
Morel, who stayed with the couple’s younger daughter while Mia and Zoe participated in the filming, said his favorite moment from the mother-daughter interview was the “unscripted honesty” when Zoe asked her mom what her hopes for her were. Mia replied that she wanted Zoe to know she could be anything she wanted to be.
Right now, that’s an average sixth-grader. Zoe’s favorite class is English and language arts, and she’s a big reader who also enjoys performing and singing. She said she sometimes forgets about her cochlear implants, which are mostly covered by her hair and easy to miss.
“If anybody out there has a disability or a quirk that makes them different than everybody else,” Zoe said, “just try to forget it’s even there and live your life as normally as you possibly can, like I do – most of the time.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Zoe's grade. She is in fifth grade.