In a Hearing World

How a Bethesda teen with cochlear implants is navigating high school life




Photo by Edgar Artiga

When one of Sarinah Wahl’s teachers at Walt Whitman High School is explaining a concept or giving details on homework, the teen listens, but not in the same way the other students do. A microphone worn by the teacher links to Sarinah’s cochlear implants—small devices that send sound to her brain through the auditory nerve. One-on-one in a quiet setting, Sarinah can hear pretty well with the implants, but it’s harder for her to capture a teacher’s voice in a room peppered with noise from other students. The rising senior sometimes asks classmates to snap photos of notes they’ve jotted down and text them to her, or to send her their typed notes. “They can type the information and all I have to do is just listen, because doing two things [at once] is hard for me,” she says. 

Sarinah’s parents asked a doctor to check her hearing when she was 2 years old because they were concerned that she wasn’t talking. They tried hearing aids, which helped a little, and at 4 she had cochlear implant surgery on her right side. At the time, doctors weren’t performing bilateral implant surgery, but research eventually supported it and Sarinah got an implant for her left ear nine years later. Her hearing aid-like attachments—which connect to the implants under the skin behind her ears—run on batteries, and she takes them off for sleeping, swimming or “[when] I don’t want to hear my parents,” the 18-year-old says with a laugh. Twice they’ve stopped working simultaneously. Both times she was playing tennis, which she decided to focus on after doctors advised her to stop playing soccer and other contact sports. “It was so weird because then I can’t hear the ball being hit...I don’t know how to process without noise—it was dead silent,” says Sarinah, who won a state championship in 2016 with her Whitman doubles partner.  

Sarinah’s cochlear implants have helped her hear well enough to learn how to speak clearly. She’s always spoken and read lips, an approach known as oralism. “I never immersed myself into deaf culture,” she says. “I’ve been raised as a child in a hearing world.” She didn’t know any American Sign Language until she took a class during her junior year at Whitman. She had watched the TV series Switched at Birth, which features a deaf character, and it struck Sarinah that she should find out more about sign language. While taking the class, she volunteered at an event at Gallaudet University in D.C., where almost everyone was signing. “It was a totally different experience,” she says.

The Bethesda resident describes herself as introverted and says group projects at school and being in certain settings can be challenging. “During lunchtime, surrounded by people, I want to be involved in the conversation, obviously, but it’s so noisy I can never really hear what they’re saying,” she says. “So most of the time I [just eat] my lunch quietly, and it’s really hard.”

Still, Sarinah’s found ways to build her confidence—she loves acting and has taken several years of classes at Imagination Stage. The busy teen, whose course load last year included four Advanced Placement classes, devotes time to volunteer work and to helping coach younger tennis players. Her day-to-day life rarely includes interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but she feels a connection to the culture.  

“Whenever I tell people that I’m deaf, they don’t really say, ‘Oh, but you can hear.’ They just accept it,” she says. “I had one person that said, ‘Can’t you also identify yourself as hard of hearing?’ But for me, I always identify myself as being deaf. It’s been part of me. It’s who I am.” 

Associate Editor Kathleen Seiler Neary can be reached at kathleen.neary@bethesdamagazine.com.

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