Girl, 15, becomes ambassador for ground-breaking deafness therapy

ONCE she had difficulty saying her own name because of the deafness that first appeared shortly after she was born.

Now Lily Davidson, 15, is standing before rapt audiences telling them how medical and therapeutic advances have helped her develop as a bright and articulate teenager.

Lily used to struggle to pronounce the "l"s in her own name, until she received a cochlear implant that helped her interpret sounds. Then she was given therapy at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, which used an electronic palate - electropalatograph or EPG - to improve her diction.

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Tomorrow, QMU is launching its Clinical Audiology, Speech and Language Research Centre, aiming to expand the use of the techniques which have helped others like Lily. Lily, from Loanhead, Midlothian, said: "Because I couldn't hear anything at all, I didn't learn to speak normally like a baby does, just lying gurgling in my cot, testing out how to make sounds. I had silence for three years.

"Then, when I was three and got my implant, I had to guess how to move the inside of my mouth to make words and I just made it up - so I had some odd ways of saying a word. It worked OK for one word but, as I got older and spoke more quickly, the words didn't run together properly. The EPG helped me relearn how to speak.

"I didn't realise what I was doing wrong before but seeing the shapes my tongue made on a computer screen made it easy for me to learn how to change my words.

"People understand me so much better now and I don't have to repeat what I say nearly so much. And having better speech gave me the confidence to be a speaker at a conference for parents of deaf babies. I wanted to show how well their children could do when they grow up. Lots of the mums and dads were so moved they cried - even my mum."

Electropalatography, which is not yet routinely available on the NHS, can help patients with a range of hearing and communication problems, including cleft palate, persistent speech disorders and Down's syndrome.

It involves a special palate, like a dental plate, being custom-made for the patient. It contains 62 electrodes which can detect where the tongue is as it moves around the roof of the mouth during speech.

This information is then sent to a computer screen where the patient can see an image of where the tongue is when they pronounce words.

During a session, a speech and language therapist also wears a plate so that, when they speak, the patient can see where the tongue should be to make the sound correctly.The patient can then use what they have seen on the screen to move their tongue in the proper manner to make particular sounds.

The cochlear implant Lily was fitted with as a three-year-old was placed in the inner ear and used with an external processor, which transforms speech and sounds into electrical impulses. While this cannot return hearing to normal, the impulses stimulate nerves which allow wearers to hear the sounds they make, which help speech. When she was ten, Lily started working with Dr Sara Wood, a therapist at QMU, shortly after having a second cochlear implant.

While she made good progress, she still struggled to speak clearly and her family were concerned this could affect her social life and how she was perceived by her peers.

Wood said: "We began using EPG therapy with Lily to help improve her speech intelligibility. She had difficulty with specific speech sounds including the sound of the letter 'L'. This was particularly important to Lily as it meant that she had problems clearly pronouncing her own name."

Wood said the improvements in her speech had boosted Lily's confidence, allowing her to do things she may never have thought possible. Her mother, Carolyn, also noticed the change. "Not only had the clarity of her words improved, she also grew in confidence, especially when meeting new people. I also believe that this will help her socially and professionally as she moves into adult life," she said.

Dr Jo White, audiology research lead at the new QMU centre, said: "Lily has always been an intelligent and gifted child, but without a combination of ground-breaking technology and dedicated therapists and researchers she would not have achieved her full potential in the hearing world. She is now a remarkably articulate teenager with a very bright future."

Lily now wants more deaf people to benefit from the same techniques that helped her. "I'm the only one of all my deaf friends who has had EPG and that's not fair.

"Everyone should have an equal chance to improve their speech," she said.