The Horror of Cochlear Implants, Part 2

While I was visiting family in Wisconsin last winter, I went to a Deaf gathering at a local pub to reconnect with an old Deaf professor. I wound up at a side table with 5-6 older d/hh people near the entrance. At some point, a family walked in with a young teenage girl who had a cochlear implant. And the table fell silent. I mean, emphasis on “fell”: signing hands went down, and eyes went to her head. One woman signed, “She has a cochlear implant.” Another woman put up her hands and looked to the side: “no comment.”

Traditionally, the Deaf community– at least the older generations, in my experience– has been pretty staunchly anti-cochlear implants. In the past 20-30 years, that overall view has softened to this: Cochlear implants are OK for adults who choose to get it, but don’t implant children before they’re old enough to decide for themselves– and certainly never implant infants. What about the health risks? What if the kid grows up to resent it? I’ve seen some Deaf publications go so far as to call it cultural genocide.

I won’t go into the risks, which are vanishingly minor, by the way– we’re talking a fraction of 1% rate of complications, period; not deaths, all complications. What I will discuss is the preconception that implanting a child before s/he’s old enough to consent (whatever age that is) will incur resentment against her parents and an identity crisis.

Sample size of one, but: I was implanted when I was ten. I was certainly old enough to ask if I wanted it, but for whatever reason, my parents never did. That wasn’t really the way things worked in our household; what Mom and Dad said was Law, and we kids went along.

I have never once regretted the implant, nor resented them for not discussing it with me first. Hell, ten-year-old me thought having a metal bit that mysteriously stuck on my head like magic was pretty cool. (I’m not sure how much I understood about magnets back then.)

The thing is, I knew my parents loved me and wanted the best for me. And I knew the implant was a result of that. I think that’s what made the difference, not some vague and ill-defined idea of consent. It’s a tiny bit of metal. It doesn’t change anything about who I am. How could it?

I have never, not once, heard another cochlear implantee speak negatively about her implant. I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t heard it yet– and believe me, I’ve asked. The worst feedback I’ve heard on cochlear implants has been neutral: “Oh yeah, I just don’t use it anymore.” Most has been positive. The criticism and concerns I hear almost always come from an unimplanted person. And damn near every one of them has a friend, or a friend of a friend, who got a cochlear implant and hated it. (After a while, I began to suspect that their “friends” were one person that everyone knew.)

More than that, though, I’d read accounts of cochlear implantees being rejected or teased by their d/hh peers as soon as they got the implant. And that was touted as an example of how implantation could cause an identity crisis, a reason to not implant your children.

Um, excuse me? If your friends ditch you over something like that, the cochlear implant isn’t the problem, and you need better friends.

“Deaf Person Hears for the First Time” Videos

You know those emotional YouTube videos of someone’s cochlear implant activation, usually ending in happy exclaims and tears of joy. Friends have shared a few of these on my Facebook wall because I have a cochlear implant too, and really, I don’t mind. Joy is a good thing to spread, and I generally applaud more additions to our bionic army.

If you have any familiarity with the d/hh community, though, you know there are mixed reactions. Some of them get pretty heated. (And the Titanic sprung a leak.) In fact, there was an article on Wired a while back titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Share Those Emotional ‘Deaf Person Hears for the First Time’ Videos.” I disagree somewhat with that article, by the way. So, here’s some middle-ground perspective.

The thing to remember is that these videos are usually of late-deafened individuals who want to hear again, or babies who have no clue what’s going on. The impact will be somewhat different for those who, for whatever reason, don’t regard hearing as a big part of their lives.

I became deaf at eighteen months, so I have always relied far more heavily on sight than sound. When I got my implant at ten years old, my reaction was, “Oh, I can hear more now. Cool.” That was it. I can’t miss what I’ve never had. I’ve also known several late-deafened people who found that they just didn’t really miss their hearing that much.

These videos also don’t show the time and effort that goes into post-surgery recalibration, because you often have some neurolinguistic programming to overcome. It’s not an instantaneous process.[*] As a result, they can give off the mistaken impression that the cochlear implant is a “cure” for deafness. It’s not. It’s an incredibly useful tool, but it doesn’t restore hearing as most people know it.

[*] However, it’s also not the burden that some anti-cochlear implant detractors have made it out to be; I spent one night in the hospital and went back to school after three days, and that was in 2000. CI surgeries have advanced immensely since then, to the point that it’s usually now performed as an outpatient procedure. I also resumed speech therapy as usual, just with a different focus.

ALL THAT SAID. Don’t let anyone guilt you into not sharing or liking these videos. Usually they’re intended to share the original poster’s happiness with the world, not to be hurtful or malicious, and that happiness alone is worth celebrating. The important thing is to keep them in perspective.