Cochlear Implants and the Death of Deaf Culture

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Cochlear implant technology is a tool for simulating sound in individuals with audiological deafness by inserting a machine into the skull to stimulate the inner ear and allow many sounds to be heard. It does not get rid of the deafness (someone with an implant is still deaf when they take off the outer adapter to sleep or shower, or when it is damaged), but it does allow them to function more fluidly in the hearing world when combined with linguistic and hearing training.

However, many people in the Deaf community (capitalized to distinguish the cultural group that self-identifies with that label from the mere audiological condition of deafness) consider cochlear implant technology an assault on them and their way of life. For them, not hearing is normal and part of who they are; by pushing technology to 'fix' this, mainstream society is in essence providing technology to change who they are or get rid of them.

I can certainly understand the perspective of those who are Deaf and see the attempt to minimize audiological deafness in future populations as a personal attack labeling them as 'abnormal' or 'impaired'. They are no more impaired than hearing people are impaired for lack of being able to see the ultraviolet or infrared part of the spectrum. We can still live full, happy human lives while lacking certain visual senses that other animals have; so in the same way, individuals with audiological deafness can still live full, happy human lives while lacking certain auditory senses that other animals have.

The 'normal' versus 'abnormal' issue is purely cultural, not biological. In a community of Deaf people, hearing people would be abnormal. In a society built around the needs and day-to-day lives of people with audiological deafness, a hearing person might even have impaired function and be considered disabled.

Deafness is certainly a cultural thing: it includes using a visual first language like American Sign Language (many Deaf individuals have limited English), sharing a community with other Deaf people, knowing certain cultural history and mythology, etc. However, Deaf culture is different from other minority cultures in that it is only partially or selectively hereditary. A Chinese-American born to Chinese-American parents is automatically part of the Chinese-American community. But only with the Deaf is someone born into a culture different than that which they are expected to grow up in (e.g. a deaf child born into a hearing family).

There is anything but a straightforward solution to this dilemma, since embracing Deaf culture can mean diverging from hearing parents and family who are from non-Deaf culture, whereas mainstreaming can mean being stuck in the socially constructed role of a "disabled person" (and being seen as a traitor by some in the Deaf community).

What is perhaps most interesting is where things will go in the future as technology advances. Presumably such technology as cochlear implants will eventually be perfected and audiological deafness will be able to be changed into the full and permanent ability to hear (perhaps even to hear better than 'natural' human ears). This will certainly lead to social changes and the Deaf community will have to deal with it. It won't be easy, and it won't be as simple as assimilation by foreign cultures into 'normal' American culture. Some people will want to be 'normal' - to be able to hear sounds - while some people will choose to stay how they are (audiologically deaf) because it is natural, normal and familiar to them, just as it is natural, normal and familiar to us to see only certain parts of the visual spectrum.

In a way, I see the future of Deafness/deafness as it adapts to technological change as just one example of the exact same issue confronting society at large. Gene therapy, cybernetics, bioengineering and nanotechnology will soon offer us the ability not just to choose our children's traits (a form of prenatal eugenics already practiced to avoid giving birth to children who would have certain conditions), but to add new traits which we humans have never had before (like seeing ultraviolet, hearing levels of sound we can't now, perhaps new forms of sensing like touch-from-afar). Surely 'normal' humans will meet these changes with confusion and fear, and while many will embrace them, many others will choose to stay how they are "because it is natural, normal and familiar to them".

This holistic perspective on 'disability' looks at it through a different paradigm where we recognize that people missing this or that function which other humans have can still be perfectly normal and fully human. But at the same time, we realistically have to deal with the onslaught of the technological juggernaut and realize that it will change things; and while the culture may survive, the physical traits (audiological deafness) may not. Not because they are 'bad' or 'less fully human' traits, but because what it means to be human will be redefined as technology changes us, and in time those who don't change will simply be left behind.

Thus the definition of 'normal' and 'natural' will change with time - the definition is culturally based - and so the idea of some physical characteristic being a 'disability' is subjective and arbitrary. Soon those of us who consider ourselves 'normal' (full hearing, sight, mobility and the like) may find ourselves 'disabled' in a society where the majority have altered biology/genetics.

Perhaps looking at things this way will help us understand the feelings of Deaf people facing the pressures of cochlear implant technology. At the same time, Deaf people might eventually come to define their culture not around their audiological deafness, but around the more central, crucial, truly cultural characteristics (like their rich history and their visual, expressive language), so that cochlear implants or not, hearing ability or not, people can be Deaf and normal.

Originally Written: 03-04-05
Last Updated: 03-04-05