The cochlear implant, approved by the FDA in 1984, was considered a medical marvel. It gifted people who were afflicted with sensorineural hearing loss the ability to hear again. Cochlear implants take advantage of the tonotopy of the cochlea, where sound waves are converted into digital signals by a sound processor, which is typically placed behind the ear. This code is then converted into electrical signals, which stimulate an electrode array embedded within the cochlea. This electrode array is able to correspond to the organization of the cochlea, where high-frequency sounds are processed closer to the base of the cochlea while low-frequency sounds are processed closer to the apex. The cochlea is able to encode various characteristics of sound like pitch and volume, sending the signals through the auditory nerves up to the auditory cortex for further processing.
Implantation of this device requires a surgical operation, and this procedure can be performed on both children and adults. While the average cost of cochlear implants is around $60,000, this one-time cost is more economically sound, at least for children. The cost of special needs classes and assistance is nearly equivalent to the surgical cost, if not more, over the lifetime of the child. Nearly a quarter million people in the world use cochlear implants for hearing, and they claim that it allows them to enjoy music, participate in speech, and focus in conversation, all of which are priceless privileges.
As a hearing person, I was quick to appreciate the innovation behind the cochlear implant. I believed that cochlear implants were of the equivalent as prostheses, where both devices could help people regain function of their body and let them live out their lives as they had once previously known.
However, some of the Deaf view the cochlear implant as an attack on their culture. The Deaf have one of the most vibrant and active cultures among groups classified as people with disabilities. This community does not consider the lack of hearing a “disability.” Rather, they claim it opens the doors to a new culture, one which is complete with its own language, school system, social gatherings, and so on. On certain blogs within the community, individuals have gone as far as claiming that the advent of the cochlear implant is comparable to a genocide of a separate culture. Hearing parents of a deaf child often jump at the idea of cochlear implants without giving consideration to the Deaf community and the fact that this deaf child could be a part of this culture. Many members of the Deaf community hope for a Deaf child when starting families so that the child may be a part of their community. One of the most controversial aspects of cochlear implants is for young children who are not capable of making their own decisions regarding hearing. This decision is particularly imminent for young children, because language development occurs around this age. Without access to sound, the child’s ability to develop vocal language may be permanently compromised or impaired due to a critical period.
On the other hand, it is difficult to fathom a scenario where a child’s parents do not influence the culture the child is born into. A child born to a couple in America are likely to grow up in an American culture. This is not necessarily consciously forced upon the child by the parents, but just by convenience and lifestyle, the child is likely to grow up as an American. Likewise, for a family born with a deaf child, the child could miss out on the family’s culture without his or her ability to hear. Some families are very big on music, a topic that innately requires the ability to hear. Therefore, forcing the child out of this environment by denying him or her cochlear implants, is also inherently unfair.
Cochlear implants, from a purely medical point-of-view, are extremely useful devices that often benefit their users. However, apart from medicine and a hearing person’s biased perspective, cochlear implants have huge cultural implications that we do not typically take into consideration. On a case-by-case basis, physicians can recommend cochlear implants to improve hearing, but the perspectives of the Deaf community towards these devices ought to be recognized and considered in the process.