What would you do if you didn’t have social media in your life? (Answer: You wouldn’t be able to access my wonderful blog obviously). It has become a huge part of our everyday lives with apps such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. You can directly message your favourite celebrity (and get a response) or watch videos on how to make the perfect pud in 5 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, I am a big social networker, and many of my friends like to tag me in videos, especially if they relate to deafness in some way. I’ve had my attention drawn to videos such as signed singing, BSL Zone and BSL word of the day. I have however, also noticed a particular rise in videos that actually make me feel slightly uncomfortable, even though they are posted and shared with happy and positive intent.
These videos that I am talking about are usually titled as ‘Baby hears his mother’s voice for the first time’. These are videos of deaf babies and young children who have undergone a (quite serious) surgical procedure to allow them to hear better – they have had a cochlear implant fitted.
What is a cochlear implant?
A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear. Cochlear implants do the work of the damaged cochlear to provide sound signals to the brain*. A receiver with a magnet is fitted under the skin behind the ear with electrodes inserted into the cochlear. There is also an external part that consists of a microphone and sound processor with a transmitted coil*. It takes roughly 6 weeks before the implant is switched on to know if it has worked or not.
Why should we care?
I have friends who have cochlear implants and I teach children with them too. For them, being implanted was completely the right choice. They have wonderful communication and make great use of their voice. They can access a lot more sound than other deaf people do due to their implants aiding them and I think this makes life easier for them, than full BSL signers.
The reason why I feel uncomfortable watching these videos is because it suggests that deafness can be ‘fixed’. Some children, who become implanted from a young age, grow up believing that they are ‘hearing’. This is due to their hearing being really quite good and not having to rely solely on sign language to communicate. This has happened a number of times with children at the school I work at. When discussing who may be deaf or hearing in the classroom, those implanted usually, from my experience, say that they are hearing (despite attending a school for the deaf). Their deaf identity has been lost through a system that they had no choice over.
These babies and children do not have the ability to give consent to whether or not they should receive the implant (you can tell my boyfriend is a philosopher can’t you?). It is a procedure that can come with serious risks such as: nerve damage, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, paralysis in the face and many more. Yet, we usually do not hear about these side effects and only find out about the success stories.
Many of you may have seen earlier this year a Channel 4 TV programme called ‘Breaking the Silence: Live’. This show followed a group of deaf people who were visiting their audiologist to have their implant switched on. There were many similarities between the people they had appear on the show.
- All adults who were able to make their own decision about having the implant.
- All born hearing who went deaf later on in life and were finding life more difficult now that they have hearing loss.
- All had the ability to already talk and use their voices well.
What message does this send out to the general public who have no prior knowledge to the deaf community? It gives the impression that all deaf people are implanted (or should be) in order to have good hearing and to be able to use their voice. The participants all cry with joy that their hearing has returned, enabling the audience to feel that this is an amazing cure for the deaf. Deaf people are who they are because of their deafness, they should not need to be ‘cured’. They have a language, a culture and a history. By implanting everyone, it may result in the end of deaf culture as all would be seen as ‘hearing’.
We do not see someone who was born deaf becoming implanted as an adult. The sounds and noises would probably be way too much to hear for the first time, and the joy would be bitter sweet with turning a silent world into one of overwhelming sound.
The documentary is described as ‘ground-breaking’, yet, there is not really anything ground breaking about it. Many children and adults already have an implant and have been using them for years. The implant has been around since the 1960s and the technology has just been improving ever since. It would be ground breaking if the implant also meant you grew wings, but we all know it’s only Red Bull that does that.
These documentaries and Facebook videos do not reflect all deaf people and their abilities. There are all different levels of deafness that we do not see being shown in the media. There are implanted people who don’t speak – when do we see this online? There are people with hearing aids who hear and speak well, those with aids who do not and some with nothing at all. That is completely fine and totally their choice. Deafness is not one dimensional. Programmes like ‘Breaking the Silence: Live’ I feel can damage the expectations of the deaf from the hearing public.
For some deaf children, being deaf is such a huge part of their identity and a vibrant culture they should be a part of. Most of their friends will be and many of their teachers are. Acceptance of their deafness needs to be encouraged as being in denial about it will create many further issues and problems. Having the implant can enable deaf people to feel as though they need to become hearing in order to be happy as ‘hearing’ is what people ‘aspire’ to be or become – evident from the documentary where the participants could not live their lives without their hearing.
This post is by no means meant to be a platform to criticize people with the implant as there are many benefits to having one. I am also not a mother of a deaf child so it is impossible for me to say whether I would implant my child over hearing aids. It is just an opinion and an observation I have made through being obsessed with my phone and the media. I hope however, I have educated people on something they may have not known about before.