Her Palm Microphone - The Story of Joanna Nichols【Parent-child Reading Guide】



Joanna Nichols (1954–2001) of California travelled a lot with her parents growing up. As an adult, she continued accruing her mileage and knowledge of different cultures and tongues. Enthralled by the Sinitic languages in college, she came to Taiwan to learn Mandarin. She found love in this foreign land as well: She got married, helped her husband Kenny Cheng (Chin-Ming) start a business, and had two daughters.


The Discovery

Pretty Alana (Ya-Wen), the Chengs’ younger daughter, was born in 1991. She deserved all the love as the newest member of the family; however, she did not seem responsive enough to her parents’ fondling. Joanna took Alana to a hearing test when she was eleven months old, and found that the baby was congenitally and severely hearing-impaired.

The news almost gave Joanna a heart attack. After consulting with Kenny, Joanna relinquished her duties at the business she helped bring on track to focus on caring for Alana, while he would become the sole provider of the house. The couple wished for Alana to talk someday, and Joanna knew Alana must have hearing first before she could learn any spoken language.


Hope Lost and Hope Found

None of the hospitals Joanna visited in Taiwan gave an encouraging answer. Desperate, Joanna took Alana to House Ear Clinic in California as the last resort. The otologist there confirmed that Alana’s deafness was irreversible, but Joanna came away with a fresh resolve to enable Alana to hear.

Back in Taiwan and with hearing aids, Alana was treated to professional tutorial from Australia. Progress, however, remained elusive. Through the couple’s friends around the world, Joanna made contact with AG Bell, the association founded in 1890 by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of telephone, for his hearing-impaired wife that provided educational and medical information

services for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Joanna and Kenny went to the 1993 annual meeting of AG Bell in Denver, Colorado. They split up to attend as many seminars and collect as much information as possible. To the couple’s astonishment, many of the deaf present talked and responded to others quite naturally, and one would not have noticed anything

were it not for the hearing aids. The observation gave Joanna and Kenny great hope for Alana’s future. At the meeting, they also learned about the Auditory-Verbal Approach (AVA), whereby those with residual hearing (amounting to 95% of the hearing-impaired) could learn to speak given adequately adjusted assistive devices and a supportive environment. Surely the AVA was what would bring Alana out of the world of silence.


Another Setback, Another Turn

Alana happened to belong to the 5% without residual hearing, according to the latest evaluation.

Joanna and Kenny did not give up there and kept looking for alternatives. At last, they came across something called the cochlear implant. They took Alana to Melbourne, Australia, where the technology was developed, to meet one Dr. Pyman, in anticipation of a life-changing surgery.

Dr. Pyman examined Alana and concluded that she had an underdeveloped inner ear. While a fully developed cochlea makes two and three-quarter turns around its axis, Alana’s did not even make one. He would not jeopardize Alana for an operation he had never performed before.

Joanna, ever optimistic, could no longer hold her tears.

Many more inquiries were made, and Joanna and Kenny learned about a German doctor who had done the implantation for a patient with single-turn cochleae. Joanna convinced Dr. Pyman to refer her to the German. Over the transcontinental phone call, the German doctor, emboldened by Joanna’s words, took on the challenge. Alana would just be the same as before and not any

worse, she told him, even if the operation should fail.


Hearing and Speaking Hope

Cochlear implants became part of Alana at age two. As the surgical wounds healed, the day to activate’ the implants arrived. The moment they were turned on, Alana was so frightened by the sudden sounds that she ran sobbing to her mother’s comfort. Joanna was in tears, too, for her long struggle finally bore fruit.

While the activation of Alana’s implants was done by an audiologist, a doctor turned on Ann’s in the story. Ann also had her surgery in Taiwan, where at the turn of the millennium not every hospital employed audiologists, and doctors had more work to do. Now, of course, audiologists are in sole charge of the activations. 

The following weeks and months were spent applying the Auditory-Verbal Approach to Alana. The girl would spend two to three months practicing in Canada with her mother, come back to Taiwan with an AVA trainer in tow, and travel again abroad for the next session. 

Alana never uttered a word before the surgery, and she still could not speak ten months into the AVA sessions. Then one day Alana opened her mouth and said a sentence. Now she just wouldn’t shut up,” Joanna recalled with a smile. What Alana had accomplished was not some intangible miracle; it was the quenched alloy of a mother’s patience and love.


Sharing the Joy

Having been beneficiaries, Joanna and Kenny thought it was their turn to share the experience and introduce the AVA to more families with hearing-impaired children. Joanna actively sought out these families and offered her help. She often guided perplexed parents over late-night calls through whatever difficulty they ran into. Joanna and Kenny both thought that, in order for the children to talk, their families should be entitled to substantial medical and educational support. After all, not every hearing-impaired child was born to affluent parents like Alana’s. To learn to speak was a right, regardless of one’s financial status. The couple’s advocacy culminated in their founding the Children’s Hearing Foundation in 1996.

The foundation bore Alana’s name Ya-Wen in its Mandarin title, and covered most of its early cases’ consulting, surgical and AVA training costs. In the story, Joanna actually paid for Ann’s implants through the foundation. As Taiwan’s welfare system matured, such unsustainable practices were discontinued so that the foundation could render more services for more diverse cases by matching them with the social resources available. The mission statement, however, stayed the same: Every hearingimpaired child shall be able to listen and speak.


Above and Beyond

Despite the increasing workload at the foundation, Joanna never for one day walked away from her motherly duties. She kept her daughters by her side, and told them bedtime stories every night until they fell asleep. She was always passionate, her love touching all those around her. There was, however, a last surprise in store for her.

In 1999, Alana was a primary schooler, the foundation was running well, and Joanna received news that she had breast cancer. She was 45 years old. After consulting with specialists and the family, she checked in to a hospital in the States, then another in Germany, and finally continued treatment in Taiwan. The disease subsided for a while, at which time Joanna and Kenny donated two Pap test touring vans in the hope of helping more women. Her health then took a sharp downturn. Joanna died in 2001, having reflected on and made peace with the illness.

The latter part of Joanna’s life was harsh, but she turned around to help struggling people like her, and made that bitterness sweet. Though Joanna Nichols has left us, she has also left wings of love that would lead us above and beyond.


Photo credit / Children's Hearing Foundation