The Atlantic Magazine selects this short documentary video of third graders learning about crayfish at the California School for the Deaf. The video reminds me of taking Literature and Film course, learning about different shots taken, that was in addition to Russian Literature to meet Gallaudet liberal-arts requirements. Deaf schools located in a city with a film industry or university film school nearby are often chosen by film students as locations and subject of their class projects. They need practice if they want to succeed in Hollywood. As for me, at least I learn something about crayfish, even though science not my strength.
I explain that deafness offers me a unique perspective on the world, or joke that I like it quiet when I’m writing, but I always end with a fact: “It would be a big commitment — learning to use a cochlear implant takes a lot of work.”
In my teaching, depending on the class, I use a combination of American Sign Language with interpreters, my own voice and lip reading when appropriate. I also use hearing aids that give me basic sound information. My experience is far from exceptional. Most deaf people use multiple methods of communication and technological support to interact with the hearing world.
It’s no secret that a heated debate over cochlear implantation has evolved in recent years, one frequently reduced to an either-or battle between sign language and speech. The reality is much more nuanced, and the more we understand about it, the better.
It’s true that cochlear implants are often misrepresented as the miracle cure for deafness. (Some people in the deaf community raised this concern about a previous article in The Times by Jane Brody.) But not all deaf people are eligible for an implant; the devices work by bypassing defective cochleae and do not correct conductive hearing loss, replace dysfunctional auditory nerves nor aid with central auditory processing disorders.
Those who are good candidates still have a long road to success after the operation. A cochlear implant sends sound as electrical pulses to the auditory nerve; it does not come preloaded with language information. The user must spend years in vigorous auditory-verbal training to learn to decode the signals to understand sound and speech.
Because the implants are often depicted as quick fixes without mention of this process, the surrounding controversy is often framed as culture versus technology: Those who advocate American Sign Language (A.S.L.) are defenders of a language rendered irrelevant by scientific progress. And while cultural preservation is certainly a factor for deaf people, it is not the whole story.
Many medical professionals still present the decision to parents of deaf children as a strict binary — either A.S.L. or implant, not both — using outdated information about how this type of bilingualism hurts a child’s speech development. In reality, most deaf people use a combination of sign language and speech in everyday life, and few A.S.L. users are against assistive technology. The most popular model of A.S.L.-based deaf education is bimodal bilingualism, a methodology that uses A.S.L. as the primary language and neurolinguistics framework through which to learn subsequent ones, the same way most hearing people learn multiple languages.
Bimodal bilingualism is not a knee-jerk attempt to save sign language. It’s grounded in recent neurolinguistics research about the “critical period” of language development in the brain, from birth to 5 years old. When a child doesn’t gain language fluency during this period, language deprivation results, and one’s capacity for intellectual development is diminished substantially and permanently.
Children with a cochlear implant and no access to visual language may be unwittingly engaged in a race against the clock as they learn to interpret the electrical signals provided by the implant. Some children are successful in this pursuit, while others aren’t.
Low technological failure rates for implant hardware are often confused with the more complicated measure of success or failure of the devices in real-world contexts. Implant technology might be consistent in a vacuum, but the human use and response to it isn’t.
Advocates of oral-only education often dismiss arguments for bilingualism with the phrase “parental choice,” but when implants are publicized as cures, many parents make a choice with incomplete information and without ever having met a deaf person before. And those who choose to forgo the implant face pressure from medical professionals.
Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney, an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the mother of a deaf preschooler, says her family’s experience has made it clear that the goal of implantation for many isn’t language access but rather to make the child “normal.”
“We are constantly asked why my A.S.L.-using preschooler, whose language development is more than a year ahead for his age, doesn’t have a C.I.,” she wrote in an email. “The focus isn’t on whether he’s educated, happy, and thriving — it’s on passing. Meanwhile, we know children with C. I.s who have language delays because of factors like age of hearing loss identification and quality of support.
Dr. Stack Whitney said that she and her husband are not against implants and that their son will weigh in on the decision when he is older.
Rachel Kolb, a doctoral candidate at Emory University who has been deaf since birth and got an implant at 20 years old, believes that the popular notion of cochlear-implant-assisted hearing as “automatic and normal” is detrimental to those who use the technology. “My friends and acquaintances genuinely did seem to think that my implant would make me almost hearing, or at least that it would make me not deaf,” she said. “But I still am deaf. Ironically, I’ve realized many more of the ways that I really am deaf since getting my cochlear implant.” (
Ms. Kolb says applying a one-size-fits-all understanding to the subjective natures of sound and hearing does a disservice to implant users. “Because of the existing misperception of what cochlear implant technology actually does, and the range of outcomes that actually exists for different deaf people,” she says, “I’ve had to do a lot of work to explain to others what I do hear, and also why I still need and benefit from accommodations. I think this is the dangerous underside of perpetuating an uncomplicated story of cochlear-implant-as-cure.”
A cochlear implant isn’t inherently bad, but it isn’t inherently good, either; it is a neutral piece of technology, a tool, like a hammer. Expecting an implant to cure deafness or magically generate speech is to await the moment the hammer will fly out of one’s hand and build a house on its own. The value of the tool lies only in the skill of its user, and for the cochlear implant user, that skill is learned with much effort. To suggest otherwise is to give a disingenuous prognosis to potential patients and their parents, and discounts the hard work successful C.I. users do to communicate in a way the hearing world deems acceptable.