Why are Cochlear Implants Bad? A Primer

On The Horror of Cochlear Implants, Part 2, a Facebook acquaintance commented, “There must be some culture that I’m entirely outside of. Being able to make use of a sense that you otherwise could not is a bad thing somehow? Looks like I need to rethink my glasses…”

The traditional Deaf aversion to cochlear implants is baffling to most people. They can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t jump at the chance to hear. Thing is, I understand that viewpoint. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. The short answer is that it’s got a lot to do with the values that Deaf culture traditionally holds, most of which was shaped by events in the 20th century. The long answer… well, let’s dig right into the beginning.

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Deafness fundamentally shapes the way you approach the world. More so if you lost your hearing at a young age. In the absence of a sensory input, the brain and body will compensate in other ways. Not quite Daredevil-style, but deaf brains do tend to rewire for heightened visual and tactile input. There are also some real interesting questions on how our brains process language. And apparently we have better peripheral vision too, by having more neurons in our eyeballs. In other words, I guess we’re… glorified chameleons?

funny-chameleon-1254493-640x480

Kinda like this, but sexier.

That kind of thing also leaks out into how we think, talk, and behave. Instead of “I heard him say…” I’ll say, “I saw that he said…” We hug and touch more. We’re blunter, because communication is hard enough to begin with, and dancing around the topic just makes it worse. (That bluntness has gotten me into trouble more often than I care to admit, incidentally). We tend to use more animated gestures and expressions. Oh, and we gravitate to light.

Kinda like… no. Exactly like this.

When deaf and hard-of-hearing people get together– especially at residential schools for the deaf– and find these commonalities in how they live and think and get shit done, they basically create their own language and communities that don’t really factor in sound at all. Modern technology has made that even more possible: video calls, flashing alerts, text and video messaging, emails.

(Matter of fact, Nicaraguan sign language is a modern example of this phenomenon. Prior to the 1970s, Nicaragua didn’t have a deaf community, nor an unified sign language; d/hh kids grew up with mostly hearing families and home-grown signs. Then someone threw a bunch of those kids together, made it into a school, added more kids… and over time, the kids developed a pidgin/creolized mishmash of their home signs. Years after the school started, an ASL researcher found that the younger students had not only copied the older students’ creolized sign language, but also sophisticated it further. If you don’t mind the paywall, here’s a link to the study: http://www.ethnologue.com/language/ncs

However, some people disagreed on the benefits of this cultural and linguistic autonomy, at least in the US. And a lot of those people tried to steer their next generation of d/hh children toward integration into mainstream hearing society, particularly in the late 1800’s to mid-1900’s– often to poor results, both socially and academically. Turns out, educating and integrating d/hh children based on sound instead of sight is a tad counterintuitive, especially when effective hearing aids and cochlear implants aren’t a thing yet. (And I haven’t touched on the numerous attempts to “cure” hearing loss, a lot of which did more harm than help.)

The rise of oralism in the early 20th century–using spoken language to teach d/hh students– created a domino effect. Residential schools for the deaf were downsized or closed; d/hh staff lost their jobs to hearing people who couldn’t sign; d/hh students were banned from using sign language– some punished by having their knuckles rapped bloody with a ruler, or slammed into drawers; the focus on speech rehabilitation overshadowed traditional studies like math, science, and the trades– and often at the cost of language development. The end result was social, educational, and ultimately career retardation for a large segment of the signing d/hh people nationwide. (Pro tip: want to learn some really rude signs? Bring up Alexander Graham Bell with a mainstreamed Deaf person over 30.)

There are books and books of history on this, but for starters, I’d suggest A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America by John Vickery Van Cleve and Barry A. Crouch; and Never The Twain Shall Meet: The Communications Debate by  Richard Winefield.

Keep in mind, much of this was done in the name of “normalizing” d/hh children. Tell generations of signing d/hh people that they’re broken, threaten their nexus of social interaction and networking (i.e. residential schools), punish them for using an intuitive language, stunt their social and academic development by hyper-focusing on the one ability they collectively lack instead of their strengths… and you have the perfect recipe for resentment and a general mistrust of outsiders’ attempts to “fix” or “help” deafness.

Only in the past few decades has this trend started to reverse, particularly after the recognition of ASL as a language in the 1960s, and even then it’s often been an uphill struggle. Cue in the mass adoption of the first cochlear implant in the early 1980s– new, experimental, requiring surgery, and with a variable success rate that depended on many factors to boot– and hackles went straight back up. “Oh, great, yet another attempt to turn us into something we’re not, and you want to cut into our skulls to do it.”

The cochlear implant isn’t a cure. But it was often marketed as such to hearing parents who didn’t know better, and more often than not, these parents weren’t made aware of American Sign Language or Deaf resources as an option. People being people, the controversy quickly devolved into an “us-vs-them” mentality– not entirely without cause, given recent history. And unfortunately, a lot of misconceptions on cochlear implants from those early days still persist.

Nowadays, while the Deaf view on cochlear implants has softened to accepting implants for adults, you’ll still see some resistance when discussing implantation for children. That’s a post for another time, but essentially, it boils down to the same central issue: stripping d/hh people of their cultural identity and linguistic access. While I don’t think implantation by itself results in that— quite the opposite, actually– I do consider it wise to evaluate the motivation behind advocating cochlear implantation. Giving the kid options? Sure. Expecting it to do the work for you, or make him “just like a hearing kid”? Not so hot.

So, there you have it. By nature, Deaf people have, for the most part, learned to adapt to a world using sight and touch, to the point that for many of us, sound is just not… a thing. It’s not in our mental landscape, at all. Some people choose to add sound to their toolbox through hearing aids and/or cochlear implants. Some don’t. The key element there is choice. When someone else tries to push that choice for us, whether that’s for or against implantation, that’s where things go awry. And it’s worse when that someone is perceived as an outsider pushing to eradicate the very thing that gave birth to your cultural and linguistic identity.

One thought on “Why are Cochlear Implants Bad? A Primer

  1. Once again, an astounding article. You shed light on a way that is clearly understood and easily digested! Thoroughly enjoy the way you close the gap between the old ways vs Concious choice. Am thankful for evolving Concious awareness and the concepts of just being able to BE without judgement or forces ideology.

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