The government should subsidise pupils with severe hearing impairments to ensure they receive a proper education, a concern group says.
The Association for the Rights of Hearing Impaired Students said maintenance of the external devices they wear after having cochlear implants could cost as much as HK$60,000, and is calling on the government to shoulder some of the costs.
While the Education Bureau provides hearing aids and earmould services for pre-school and schoolchildren, it refuses to subsidise the maintenance of the external devices related to a cochlear implant. It said these services should be provided by the Hospital Authority, which carries out the operations.
A cochlear implant involves fitting a small hearing device behind an ear in surgery to stimulate the hearing nerve. A person with impaired hearing will then carry an external device, which contains a microphone, sound processor, coil, magnet and wires, allowing the sound to be transmitted to the cochlea.
People who underwent the surgery were usually suffering very serious impairment and hearing aids alone could not help them, according to senior audiologist Ricky Wong Kin-wai.
Ng Wai-ming, the association's vice-chairwoman, said the external devices should not be treated differently. "The government is not giving students with serious impairment a fair chance to learn if it refuses to subsidise the maintenance fees," she said. "I cannot understand why the devices cannot be considered hearing aids."
An Education Bureau spokesman said the external device was a part of the implant and medical advice or input might be needed in some cases, he said. "Such services can be made available only by [the authority]."
The bureau said about 6,400 pupils had impaired hearing.
The Hospital Authority said the internal implant and external speech processor cost about HK$90,000. It said it would be difficult for it to subsidise the maintenance of the processor, but it would explore with suppliers the possibilities of extending the device's warranty period. Manufacturers offer a three-year warranty, but the association said that could hardly ease the burden on families as the devices had to be fixed regularly. The implanted part has a 10-year warranty.
In a survey the association conducted in March, 38 of 59 users had experienced breakdowns more than once. The most common fault was in the external sound processor, which costs HK$50,000 to HK$60,000 to fix. Coils, at HK$350 to HK$1,500, also need to be fixed regularly.
Thirty-one experienced problems with the processor and 29 with coils.
Pinky Lam Shu-ting, the first girl in Hong Kong to receive a cochlear implant, in 1995, said the devices had become an inseparable part of her life.
The 20-year-old clerk underwent surgery when she was three years old after a fever deprived her of her hearing when she was a baby. Without the device, she said, she could not work in her current job.
She borrowed HK$50,000 from a fund that helped in fixing the device when she was a student a few years ago. "It's difficult to imagine how my life would have become if I hadn't had the surgery," she said.