Ciwa Griffiths, Ed.D.: Pioneer of equal opportunities

by Peter Aebersold

The education of deaf or of hearing-impaired people as a specific discipline within the general area of special needs education is a niche area of pedagogy, because the developmental steps that it requires to be taken have usually been completed before the child enters school. The completion of these steps tends therefore to have been taken for granted. Anyone therefore who is interested in the exploring the necessary conditions for human development stands to learn from this discipline.

In the second half of the 20th century, Ciwa Griffiths made ground-breaking discoveries in the field of hearing education and speech acquisition. Simultaneously and against significant resistance she innovatively harnessed for her purposes contemporaneous rapid developments in hearing aid technology. With her help, ‘deaf and dumb persons’ began for the first time to enjoy equal opportunity with people of normal hearing. 

One person can move mountains, to help their fellow human beings

She began her ground-breaking work in California in the 1950s. Back then, hearing-impaired children were left to vegetate in deaf-mute institutions. They were considered to be “stupid” and no one wanted to adopt them. It was believed that ‘deaf-mute’ children were born as such and there was nothing much anyone could do to change it. In similar fashion many people to this day believe that geniuses are born brilliant. Until Ciwa opened up the field the world was either unaware or had forgotten the work of the Viennese ear specialist Viktor Urbantschitsch who had tried as early as 1900 to physically improve the existing vestiges of hearing in so-called deaf-mute children. For his purpose he had promoted and developed ‘hearing gymnastics.’ (They were part of the first hearing education movement).

New findings about the development of the human beings

Even in the professional world, few understood of the crucial connection between hearing and speaking. Few realised that babies thought to be deaf actually possessed residual hearing who, if taken in hand and ‘trained’ in the first months of life, could go on to develop normally. The so-called ‘mute’ child can go on to master language. Both hearing and language acquisition when taken together allow a child to evade being designated ‘stupid’ or ‘deaf-mute,’ to go on to enjoy normal cognitive development. Before Ciwa’s contribution it had never occurred to anyone to make sure that all newborns underwent a hearing test. Her contribution was copper-fastened by the improvements in audiometry in the 1980s. It was scientifically proven that 97% of students in schools for the deaf retained enough residual hearing to benefit from hearing aids and speech education.

Advances in hearing aid technology open up unimagined opportunities

Starting in 1952, miniaturised transistor-based hearing aids, no bigger than a cigarette packet, were introduced to the market. But although they could have been used to treat smaller children, their use was confined to children over the age of six. When Griffiths, on the basis of her observations, began to question the prevailing opinion, she found herself opposed by – of all people – philanthropists and experts. She had indeed to search the world over to find potential fellow campaigners who shared her experience and understanding. In 1954 she trained in child audiology with Edith Whetnall at the Audiology Unit of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London. There for the first time she was able to observe how deaf children could be brought to learn to speak normally by means of both hearing amplification and education in spoken language (auditive-verbal education). Success was contingent upon beginning therapy in the child’s first three years.
In the 1950s, she began to use bilateral (two hearing aids) full-time amplification for deaf babies and infants she provided hearing aids for babies as young as one month old. Her observations and experience demonstrated that residual hearing could be optimised sufficiently to make possible full integration into the natural environment and the regular school.

A sensational discovery

In 1956, when providing deaf babies with bilateral hearing aids, Griffiths discovered to her amazement that the aids could be discontinued after only a few months. The babies had by then developed normal hearing ability and no longer wanted or needed to wear the hearing aids.
The first of these babies was four-month-old Glen, diagnosed as deaf, whose sleeping periods had typically never lasted more than 15 minutes, either by day or by night. When he received his hearing aids, he slept through the entire night for the first time. Next morning, he refused to take his milk bottle until he had been fitted with the hearing aids. He went on to speak his first word at six months At nine months of age he could hear normally.
To gain certainty about the sensational discovery, she conducted a clinical study on 21 deaf babies between 1969 and 1973. It showed that 67% of those infants who had been fitted with hearing aids before the age of 8 months had gone on to develop normal hearing, whereas none of those who had received their hearing aids after reaching the age of 8 months had achieved normal hearing. There remained exceptional children, who still required to be fitted with hearing aids due to neuronal defects such as rubella, meningitis, heredity.
The otologist (ear specialist) Arpad Götze replicated the study at the Janos Hospital in Budapest between 1978 and 1981. He conducted his study with 68 deaf infants, 51 (75%) of whom went on to able to develop normal hearing, the remaining 17 of whom had had deaf parents or had received their hearing aids only after 8.5 months. Thus, contrary to his expectation, Götze had actually confirmed and even exceeded Griffiths’ results.

New-born hearing screening enables early successful intervention

When Griffiths realised that the first months of life were crucial for normal hearing development, she began in 1964 to campaign for the introduction of general hearing tests for all new-borns. She created the blueprint for California’s first new-born hearing screening test in 1966 and continued her campaign until the State of California went on to pass legislation in 1984 (Legislative Mandates) and in 1998 had introduced mandatory screening at birth. Deafness is one of the most common of birth defects, affecting about 3 in every 1000 infants.
Griffiths developed various tools and techniques for testing new-borns for hearing deficiency. She obtained United States patent for them in 1975. These testing procedures were particularly valuable for deaf infants under eight months of age, as they enabled hearing aids to be fitted before the elapse of that critical period, enabling the majority of them to go on to develop normal hearing within months. New-born hearing screening has now become routine in many countries.

Learning to listen and speak like other children

In the Hearing Centre that she founded in 1954, Ciwa had concentrated not only on individual speech sounds, but also upon the development of speed, rhythm and language. She knew that if a deaf child could learn to hear with the help of hearing aids during the maturation period of speech development, i.e. up to about 3.5 years, that child would then learn to hear naturally just like normally hearing people. She discovered that the practice of early hearing screening and the immediate use of the newly available improved hearing aids, with their strong and adaptive amplification, allowed deaf or hard-of-hearing children to take their place in the hearing world. She also favoured and encouraged the constant involvement of parents. They needed to be informed, committed and consistently on hand to help with their child’s hearing education. The use of Griffith’s ‘Auditory Approach’ – although for a time ridiculed as ‘charlatanism’ by the medical establishment – went on to become a standard application in American hospitals. The Hearing Centre received international recognition for its innovations and extensive testing and therapy programmes.
Griffith’s introduction of early hearing education and speech acquisition for deaf and hearing impaired infants and toddlers, facilitating their full integration, with the help of their parents, into the speaking world, has opened the door for countless deaf children to learn and participate in the world of the healthy through normal language acquisition.
“Deaf children remind me of butterflies: at first encapsulated in a cocoon of deep silence that they have not made themselves, and then, when sounds and cadences of love reach them, they unfold in all their individual colours, in soft or brilliant shades.”

About Ciwa Griffiths

Ciwa Griffiths was the ninth (her first name means Nine in the Fiji language) of ten children. Her mother, a feminist and pacifist, was born in Texas, her father in Fiji. Her father-in-law, George Littleton Griffiths (born 1844 Woolwich, England, died 1908 Suva, Fiji) had founded the ‘Fiji Times’ in Levuka in 1869, where her mother had been employed as a reporter and wrote editorials. The family lived at first in Suva, subsequently in Sydney, Brisbane, Texas and California. They experienced the hard times of the two world wars and the Great Depression. Ciwa received her Bachelor of Arts degree from San Francisco State College in 1932.
In 1937, she started out on a career of teaching in a one-room school in Monterey County, where a deaf child gave her the initial impetus to turn to education of the deaf. From 1940 – 1941 she studied at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts and received her Master of Science from the University of Massachusetts. In 1954 she continued her education in pedaudiology with Edith Whetnall at the Audiology Unit of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital in London. In 1954 she established the H.E.A.R. Foundation in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, California. In 1955, she received a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California. In the 1970s, she organised the world’s first two international conferences on the use of hearing technology for deaf children. This resulted in a new organisation, Auditory-Verbal International (AVI) (today: the AG Bell Academy). Credits: 1978  The World Who’s Who of Women. To the present day the Hear Centre continues her work.  •

Sources: Introduction to the Hear Center in Pasadena, CA

Griffiths, Ciwa. HEAR: A Four-Letter Word. Autobiografie und Geschichte der Gehörlosenerziehung. Wide Range Press 1991, ISBN 0963070908

Griffiths, Ciwa. One out of ten. Autobiografie, Wide Range Press 1993, ISBN 0963070959

Löwe, Armin. Hörgeschädigtenpädagogik international. Geschichte – Länder – Personen – Kongresse. Eine Einführung für Eltern, Lehrer und Therapeuten hörgeschädigter Kinder. HVA Schindele, Heidelberg 1997, ISBN 3-89149-183-2

Tibussek, Daniel. Einfluss frühkindlicher Hörstörungen auf die Reifung der Frühen Akustisch Evozierten Potentiale (FAEP). Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung der Doktorwürde der Hohen Medizinischen Fakultät der Universität zu Köln, Klinik und Poliklinik für Hals-, Nasen- und Ohrenheilkunde, Köln 2002 (Inaugural dissertation for the acquisition of the doctorate of the High Medical Faculty of the University of Cologne, Clinic and Polyclinic for Otolaryngology, Cologne 2002)


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