Meet the world’s only deaf medical researcher


Magteld Smith can’t hear a thing – without her cochlear implant. Diagnosed as profoundly deaf, her life is utterly without sound. In light of this her achievements in medicine and academia feel absurd. She grew up in a hearing family and, refusing to let her disability prevent her from experiencing life in its fullest, practised endless hours of spoken language. Today her primary mode of communication is to read lips, facial expressions and body language in conjunction with her cochlear implant. This tenacity has been the mark of Smith’s life. It has seen her go on to become the world’s only deaf medical-social researcher, focusing on various disciplines concerning deafness and hearing loss.

A relentless pioneer, Smith is also the only deaf South African to have acquired two multidisciplinary Master’s degrees and a PhD. But her rise to academic prowess began in sad conditions. Dismissing widespread professional opinion that their daughter couldn’t be taught, her parents enrolled her in a mainstream school. But Smith’s teacher was young and lacked experience and knowledge concerning a learner with deafness. This caused a situation that frustrated both parties, until Smith moved to the De La Bat School for the Deaf. The change proved a pivotal moment in her life, as she immediately connected with her new environment and began to understand herself better through it. By the time Smith matriculated her self-confidence had grown immensely, compelling her to pursue tertiary study in the USA. She was awarded the prestigious Humphrey Fulbright Fellowship.

Upon her return home Smith’s career went from strength to strength as she received numerous accolades, including the Golden Key International Honour Chapter Award. She is now a fulltime staff member at the University of Free State in the Faculty of Health Sciences in the Department of Otorhinolaryngology (the study of diseases of the ear, nose, and throat). Having experienced the failings of conventional schooling, Smith’s goal is to make life easier for other people with deafness and hearing loss to navigate society by prioritising forward-thinking research, while also raising awareness. One of her most notable breakthroughs was partnering with leading international academic experts to conduct research on various topics around deafness and hearing loss. But there’s a key ingredient to Smith’s personal success that has no hope of being defined in books: her unwavering spirit. She has become a pioneer in her field by believing that every day presents new opportunity.