The Case of Cochlear Implants in the Internet Age

Published: Multimedia Newsroom – Apr 24, 2014

You’ve probably seen a thumbnail of a crying woman hooked up to her new cochlear implant on your Facebook newsfeed, or watched the YouTube video of a baby boy’s pacifier fall out of his mouth when he hears his mother’s voice for the first time. These videos rapidly garner millions of views for their quick, tender moments and give warm and fuzzy feelings to the viewer. While the recent videos of a deaf person hearing for the first time have touched the hearts of millions, many people in the Deaf community don’t share the same heartfelt feelings.

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device consisting of many different parts, including an auditory stimulator inside of the head and a speech processor and microphone on the outside. It doesn’t restore normal hearing but instead provides a sense of sound for some deaf and hard of hearing people.

Viral videos tend to have short shelf lives, especially due to the availability of video sharing online and rapid usage of social media. This genre of video can do more harm than good in the eyes of some individuals in the Deaf community and it seems to be one that isn’t going away.

The latest cochlear implant viral video is of 40-year-old Joanne Milne who was born with Usher Syndrome, which affects hearing and vision. The short moment of her hearing music for the first time got more than 2 million views on YouTube the week it was uploaded. Comments on the video and from the many news outlets that also shared it spoke of how lucky Milne was to hear for the first time while others speculated if this meant deafness is now cured. The Deaf community wasn’t as pleased.

“Videos like these I think just continue a really problematic narrative in the history of the Deaf community. It makes it seem like deaf people are broken and need to be ‘fixed’ and then if the CI doesn’t work for them, they’re seen as beyond repair,” said Mark Chester, a child of a Deaf adult, more colloquially referred to as a CODA. “It is a deeply personal choice to get implanted and these videos I think try to capitalize on that. They show a couple seconds of a deaf person feeling overwhelmed at sound, but they don’t show the long and sometimes painful process that comes with it.”

What many hearing people outside of the Deaf community don’t realize is that cochlear implants don’t fix deafness. There are many factors that go into qualifying for a cochlear implant, from having a functioning auditory nerve to the specific type of sensorineural hearing loss, in which an individual’s deafness can come from the vestibulocochlear nerve, the inner ear, or central processing centers of the brain. Not to mention the support of friends and family and around $40,000 for the surgery and implant hardware.

As these videos streak across the internet, many people in the Deaf community have mixed feelings about how they impact the hearing perspective of their culture.

“Really, for me it’s a balance, seeing people post these videos on Facebook and stuff,” said Lisa Guerra,  a Deaf senior at the University of Texas. “I’ve seen hearing people post that and I’ve seen my Deaf friends post the opposite, saying “why did you post this!” But I’ve seen hearing people post like “oh my god, here’s this really sweet story!” So I’ve seen a balance. I don’t say if I support either to any of them, I just look. But when I want to say something, I will. But not on their walls, on my own Facebook wall.”

International relations junior Claire Labry, who is Deaf as well, has had a different experience with seeing the videos pop up in her social networks and she attributes the difference to the fact that she has a cochlear implant and has many Deaf friends who are implanted as well.

“Most of the time, I see hearing people post this sweet story about a deaf woman who hears for the first time,” Labry said. “I don’t have the same experience as her because I come from a different world than Lisa. My parents raised me oral, so I don’t have a lot of exposure to ASL and Deaf culture. It’s a little bit different. But I don’t see a lot of my oral deaf friends posting anything like that, I’ve never seen that. But always from hearing people.”

“Because they’re so oblivious to the Deaf culture out there,” Guerra said. “We need to change that, but how? It’s hard. Why? Because oralism is oppressive.”

Other than the financial and medical specificities required by cochlear implants, a problem many hearing people don’t understand is that many Deaf people don’t want CIs.

The videos don’t show the surgery or explain the financial and emotional costs. The 60-second sound bites don’t display the extensive therapy some Deaf people go through to get used to common noises, like wind or a dripping faucet. They can’t accurately sum up how the person now hears and if their cochlear implant gave them 100% hearing or if they now can’t distinguish between voices or if speech now sounds robotic.

Another issue these videos pose is that they take a long, personal and sometimes painful process and condense it into a short, easily sharable moment. The reality is choosing to get a cochlear implant, especially if a Deaf person is an adult and has already lived without one, is a deeply personal decision.

The Deaf cultural identity isn’t contingent on the ability to hear, but the decision can still be emotionally difficult regarding how a newly implanted Deaf person views themselves and how they feel their community will view them as well. While the Deaf community has varying outlooks on CIs, some newly implanted people have a hard time relating to and feeling welcome in the Deaf community after their surgery.

“There is no one way to be Deaf,” said Guerra. “Having a CI or wearing a hearing aid or having no hearing aids at all doesn’t make you any more or less Deaf. What hearing people fail to realize is that not every D/deaf person wants to be hearing and we don’t need to be fixed. We can be successful and independent without hearing a damn thing.”

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