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.

“If you could restore your hearing, would you?”

The first time I thought about this scenario, I hesitated.

As I’ve mentioned in another post, I grew up with the impression that deafness was this great obstacle to be overcome, to be excised out of my daily life as much as possible. To boot, I grew up in a very religious community that was big on faith healing. My mom, especially, prayed regularly for my hearing to be restored, and I went along with it as a kid. So when I started reading news articles about new advances in treating hearing loss…

By all rights, I should’ve responded with a resounding “yes.” But I didn’t. I was afraid that I would be changing myself. This, even though I’d already gotten a cochlear implant and knew that it didn’t take anything away; it just gave me more access. Whether I wanted it or not– mostly not, for most of my formative years– deafness had already shaped my identity. So, when I thought about taking that away… I paused.

But when I dove deeper into it, I realized that regained hearing couldn’t erase my past experiences, which helped shape the perspective and strengths that I have now. I would still think and feel “deaf,” if that makes sense. It wouldn’t make me un-learn ASL or Cued Speech, or stop hanging out with my d/hh friends; why would I have to give any of those up just because I could hear?

On the contrary, when I started speech therapy last year, I started using my cochlear implant a lot more– I mean, really paying attention to sounds around me and picking out what made people tick when it came to music and spoken language. And things started falling into place, and my world broadened just a little bit more. I stayed me, but now I had more access to the hearing world, and more potential to speak for myself without having to go through interpreters or transliterators. And to me, that’s a good thing.

Choosing Your Cultural & Linguistic Identity

Cherokee blood runs strong in my dad’s side of the family. Both my grandparents spoke Cherokee, and my grandfather won awards for his work teaching the Cherokee language. My siblings and I are registered members of the Cherokee Nation, with tribal cards to prove our ancestry. Yes, we have literal, honest-to-God race cards, and I’m playing mine here.

The thing is, I don’t speak nor read a lick of Cherokee, although I’d love to change that this year. I was just not exposed to it growing up. Hence, it’s not my natural nor native language. My physical makeup—other than the neurons in my brain that drive language development—had nothing to do with that. My dad tried to expose us to Cherokee history and culture as much as he could during our annual visits to Oklahoma, and we picked up on some Cherokee mannerisms from his side of the family, but for the most part, I was raised in working/middle-class settings, with predominantly German/Irish/Polish Americans. I live in the South now, and people here can often tell that I’m from the North; that’s closer to my cultural norm. So I think I can safely say that Cherokee is not my “natural” culture. I could learn a lot more about Cherokee, and grow to identify with the culture, but it would still be a learning curve, about as much as if I moved to China and tried to immerse with the natives there.

In that same strain, I am biologically deaf. But I don’t consider myself predisposed to ASL or Deaf Culture, especially Deaf Culture from those more than 2-3 generations before me. My native language is English, and I’m much more familiar with hearing culture than I am with Deaf culture. And I’m not the only one. Due to cochlear implantation and mainstreaming, the d/hh community (including the Deaf subset) has seen much more diversity in the past 20 or so years.

Another thing to consider is that, had the Cherokee Nation required that every one of its members speak Cherokee and live in Cherokee communities, regardless of any other considerations like the living standards of these communities, our access to resources, our interactions with non-Cherokee, our personal preferences, etc… I am quite certain they would have met with strong resistance, especially from my dad’s family. Not because their members don’t value Cherokee language and culture, but because people generally don’t like being told what to do.

I’m grateful that I learned ASL and studied Deaf history and culture. It helped me solidify an integral part of my identity in my early 20s, a time when I think pretty much everyone struggles with that kind of thing. I’m also grateful that Dad took us to Cherokee museums and re-enactments, and had us read books on our ancestors, and told us stories about his childhood in rural Oklahoma. But the thing is, it was all a gift. It wasn’t forced on me, and I didn’t have to trade off one culture for another.

Times are changing, as they always have and always will. I think most of us would like the freedom to determine our own cultural identities, not according to someone else’s cultural ideal.