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Cochlear Implants: Deaf Community vs. Hearing Society:

By Grace Mangum

Cochlear Implants: Deaf Community vs. Hearing Society

Over the last half-century members of the medical community have developed a technology that performs a feat that heralded by many as miraculous: it creates sound within the ears of the deaf. Cochlear implant technology uses electrical impulses to send the sensation of sound waves to the brain by working around the damaged cochlea, creating a perceived indication of sound to a deaf or hard of hearing individual (NAD).

If you asked your average hearing American what they thought about the discovery of CI technology, they would rejoice that there is finally a cure for the "tragedy of deafness" and would expect that the Deaf community would be excited beyond belief. While the hearing interviewee could be commended for their positive attitude, their assumption would be inherently and dreadfully incorrect. The overwhelming response to CIs from the Deaf community has not been eager acceptance but rather hostile rejection. In fact, in the 1980's and 90's members of the Deaf community held protests against the use of cochlear implants, especially in young children (Sparrow).

This misunderstanding stems from the conception behind the phrase I used my example, "tragedy of deafness." In a culture geared almost exclusively towards hearing persons, members of the Deaf community are viewed by hearing persons as deviant victims of an unfortunate ailment that deserve to be "cured." (NAD) Hearing people in general remain ignorant of true values and viewpoints possessed by the Deaf community. While is it true that being deaf presents challenges and disadvantages in life, it does not prevent a deaf or hard of hearing person from becoming a highly functional, independent, and successful member of society (Sparrow). In fact, deaf people typically develop a strong resilience toward opposition and discrimination due to the challenges they face in a hearing society (NAD).

Members of the Deaf community don't see themselves as having a "disability."  On the contrary, they view themselves as a minority culture group, one with their own language and similar life and cultural experiences (Sparrow).   Their lack of hearing capabilities is to them no different than skin color or height; it is simply a quality about them that differs from the norm but at the same time unites them as a community. So, while introducing the use of CIs was done with the most well-meaning of intentions by medical professionals, the Deaf community views it as an attack against their culture (Hossain). They see it as hearing people trying to enforce their idea of "normal" onto the Deaf, encouraging them to abandon their language and people group to learn the ways of another. "Indeed," says Robert Sparrow, "they have compared it to genocide."

According to Hossain the only way to reconcile these opposing parties is to recognize that each side has valid points and concerns. In addition, it is important to discuss both the risks and the benefits of cochlear implants, as it is with any new technology. It is critical to remember that when one's health and livelihood are in the equation, we need to take a "both/and" approach to the situation rather than an "either/or" approach (Enerstvedt). Cochlear implants are a tool that might not be beneficial for some but could be a positive improvement for others (Albertini).

Albertini, John A. and Hintermair, Manfred. (2005). Ethics, Deafness, and New Medical Technologies. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education Vol 10 No 2.

Enerstvedt, R. T. (1999). New medical technology: To what does it lead? American Annals of the Deaf, 144, 242--249.

Hossain, Shaikat. (2013). Cochlear Implants and the Deaf Culture: A Transhumanist Perspective. H+ Magazine.

National Association of the Deaf. (2000). NAD Position Statement on Cochlear Implants.

Sparrow, Robert. (2005). Defending Deaf Culture: The Case of Cochlear Implants. The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol 13, No 2, pp 135 - 152. 2005.


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