Bionic ear transformed Royer's life

Michael Royer blends in with the crowds filling the Metro trains each morning in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He carries an iPod and listens to music or recordings of sermons that he downloads from his church's Web site. "It's very easy to do — just download the audio file and put it in into your iTunes program," he said.

The difference is the iPod is plugged into Royer's cochlear implant, an electronic device that compensates for damaged or nonworking parts of the inner ear.

The 27-year-old computer specialist at the Internal Revenue Service delivers a compelling presentation when asked to speak in executive education classes about the agency's Section 508 and assistive technologies program. His stories about living with assistive technology often include his 13-month-old daughter, Annemarie, who likes to grab the hardware her dad wears on his right ear. Royer is unsure whether she understands yet, but he tells her, "Daddy's ears are broken, and this is not a toy. We don't eat it."

The cochlear implant, paired with the external device Royer wears on his ear, has restored most of his hearing. Genetic deafness is prevalent in his mother's family, and Royer began losing his hearing when he was 8. By the time he began middle school, he was profoundly deaf, able to hear only the loudest sounds.

Middle school and high school were painful experiences, Royer said. When a short bus with a bright blue sign pulled up to his house for the first time, he recalled thinking, "'Why me? Why the short bus?'"

Royer struggled with identity problems because he didn't understand what was happening. "I never had anybody come along and say to me, 'You're hearing impaired. You're deaf. But you can live with it,'" he said.

But any psychological damage from those days apparently wasn't permanent. "I think those experiences really built me up and prepared me for where I am today," Royer said.

Now, Royer volunteers as a mentor to others with disabilities. At the IRS, he works with programmers and procurement officials who develop and buy electronic information technologies that people with disabilities can use. "It's an exciting job," he said.

One of his duties is to manage the IRS' Section 508 Web site, which gives him an opportunity to write. "When I'm writing Web content or when I'm writing an article or if I'm just writing, I love writing," he said.

Without assistive technology, he would not be able to hear sounds from his computer. He could not, for example, play a digital video and listen to the audio portion. That need has made him a strong advocate of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires the government to buy assistive technologies to help federal employees with sensory or mobility impairments make use of computers.

His supervisor, T.J. Cannady, said Royer is a creative member of the Section 508 team. For example, Royer suggested presenting skits rather than lectures at a recent disabilities conference in Washington, D.C. "It went over very big, and we're exploring how we can take those skits, cut them down a bit and use them internally for educational purposes," Cannady said.

Everything Royer hears is processed through a device from Advanced Bionics called the HiResolution 90K Bionic Ear, which was implanted and activated at Johns Hopkins University. He has a magnet inside his skull and a 16-channel electrode in his cochlea, a part of the inner ear that fires signals through the auditory nerve to the brain. The device "hears" new sound information 90,000 times a second — the "90K" part of the name — and stimulates the wearer's auditory nerves 83,000 times a second.

Cochlear devices are implanted on an outpatient basis. "People think this is extremely painful, and it is, but the pain lasts only about five days," he said.

The procedure could have left him disfigured from severed facial nerves or caused debilitating vertigo, but Royer saw his decision to undergo the procedure as a smart risk. "Life is all about taking risks," he said.

He no longer uses the IRS' teletypewriter equipment or sign language interpreter services. "This personal decision I made has saved the government thousands of dollars a year," he said.

One of Royer's co-workers, who is blind, strongly supported his decision to undergo the procedure. "She was so excited for me," he said. She told Royer that if there were any surgery that would enable her to see, she would risk it.

"She said, 'I would love to see my daughter,'" Royer said. "I'd been saying, 'I would love to hear my daughter.' And now I do. I love to hear her."

Not long ago Royer was holding his daughter in his lap when he thought he heard his gas fireplace sputtering and perhaps about to explode. His wife, Alicia, checked the fireplace then said, "Honey, it's Annemarie sucking on her pacifier."

The Michael Royer file

Current position: Computer specialist at the Internal Revenue Service.

Age: 27.

Work history: Royer worked for several small Internet banks, including one that was acquired by E-Trade Bank, before joining the IRS in 2003.

Education: He attended the Rochester Institute of Technology for one year before withdrawing. "I was struggling academically" because of his hearing impairment, he said.

Family: Wife, Alicia, and daughter, Annemarie, 13 months.

Outside activities: Church-based volunteer work and mountain biking. "I can fit a helmet over my processor so I can enjoy nature sounds," he said.

Dreams: He would like to go back to school part-time to earn a master's degree in public administration at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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