If you had to use just one word to sum up Kenneth Zhu it would be “determined”.
And, if you had to use a word to describe his parents James and Yang, it would be “remarkable”.
Nineteen-year-old Kenneth is full of resolve and grit and has a simple plan to aim higher and try harder – an attitude to life that was passed down from his parents.
Kenneth is profoundly deaf in both ears and wears a cochlear implant in his right ear.
His hearing loss was diagnosed when he was around 8 to 10 months old. His parents realised something was wrong when they called Kenneth’s name and he wouldn’t respond.
Kenneth was initially fitted with hearing aids and began coming to The Hearing House for Auditory-Verbal Therapy sessions with Jim Casey and later Liz Fairgray.
Hearing aids didn’t help, so one month before his second birthday he received a cochlear implant in his right ear.
“I’m pleased [my parents] got a cochlear implant for me,” the 19-year-old says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone.”
As a youngster, he attended The Hearing House Preschool (now known as the Joyce Fisher Preschool) and was closely supported by staff who worked hard to expose him to as many language opportunities as possible.
The early days were hard for Kenneth – he attended Auditory-Verbal Therapy twice a week, but James says it was always a difficult time for his son.
“Every time we had therapy he wasn’t calm. There was lots of crying. It was very difficult to continue.”
Kenneth made slow progress in the areas of clear speech, his use of language, motor skills, eating and chewing, and social interactions.
“I remember [in therapy sessions] I had to repeat words lots of times to get the sound correct. I hated it,” Kenneth says with a laugh.
Reports from his therapist stated things like “there continues to be concerns regarding his speech production” and “Kenneth continues to require intensive individual support”.
A report cited communication, adjustment to school, speech clarity and the language to express ideas, as areas of concern.
When Kenneth started primary school those worries continued, but James and Yang were determined to see their son shine.
“English tests showed he was two years behind and teachers said his learning progress was very slow. They told him he’d have to repeat Year 1.”
Instead, they moved Kenneth to Hillsborough Primary School where he was put into Year 2, and the family continued working with The Hearing House.
It wasn’t long before all those concerns went out the window and with hard work and determination from himself and his parents, Kenneth began to flourish.
Reports from assessments carried out at The Hearing House have comments like:
“Kenneth’s speech clarity and use of language has been quite rapid in the past 12 months.”
“He made astonishing progress in the last year of primary school.”
“He has developed more confidence in his ability to speak and make himself understood.”
“Kenneth is currently making significant gains in all areas. His rate of progress is faster now than it has been at any other time.”
“His overall confidence is increasing and his personality is blossoming,” the reports say.
James says one of the highlights was watching Kenneth become more confident thanks to Jim’s support.
In Year 6 Kenneth entered a school speech competition, earning himself a highly commended award.
“That’s a huge difference from when he was crying through therapy,” James says.
“Every time he sat an English test there was a little bit of catch up – he was closing the gap.”
This was just the beginning of his success.
Once he arrived at Mt Albert Grammar School the awards and responsibilities flowed.
He took on a leadership role with the Environmental Protection Society, was on the school’s academic council, helped organise quiz nights, won a cup for service to the school, an academic award for quality of effort, became a prefect, was nominated for an award from the New Zealand Federation for Deaf Children that recognised academic excellence in year 11 in the deaf society, and won a scholarship to study Engineering at the University of Auckland.
The award he is most proud of is receiving the Neville Watson Memorial Award for best typifying the spirit of Mt Albert Grammar School
“I was never expecting that….just to realise how much my class mates enjoyed having me.”
Kenneth, who speaks Mandarin and English, says his success at school came down to reviewing his notes, asking questions of the teachers and having friends around him to help him out.
“My parents always told me to work hard.”
James says he and his wife encouraged Kenneth to learn.
“We tried to support him in everything he wanted to learn.”
In 2018 Kenneth began studying engineering and commerce at the University of Auckland.
“The first year of uni was all about finding my way. I didn’t have my Resource Teacher of the Deaf anymore.”
His academic results for his first year were an impressive list of As and Bs.
“I’m going to push myself even harder this year. I’m looking towards my future.”
Jim Casey, the therapist who worked with Kenneth in his early days with The Hearing House says James and Yang are “absolutely amazing parents”.
“They are remarkable. They did everything they could to progress him.”
The Hearing House audiologists who Kenneth currently sees also have a lot of admiration for him – among them is Denice Bos.
“Kenneth is an exceptionally hard worker. He has set high goals for himself and is not prepared to let his hearing loss get in the way of achieving those goals.
“He has a really positive attitude and clearly enjoys the successes he works so hard to accomplish.”
Kenneth has been involved in Scouts since he was 11 years old and is a fan of tramping, playing the piano and badminton. He learnt New Zealand Sign Language as a teenager and often signed the English version of the New Zealand national anthem at school.
Kenneth says getting a cochlear implant “changed everything” for him.
“I was able to hear everything. I was able to hear music.”
Kenneth says the key to success, and his advice to other cochlear implant users, is to “make the most of your life”.
“Take all the opportunities that are given to you.”