Charlie Swinbourne: BBC News articles oversimplified teenagers choice

Posted on February 17, 2012

In The Limping Chicken’s debut post, editor Charlie Swinbourne argues that two recent BBC News articles about the teenagers featured in Deaf Teens: Hearing World oversimplified the audiological choices they face.

Yesterday, BBC News Magazine (online) published an article called Deaf Debate: Caught between two worlds that featured readers responses to their earlier feature Living Outside the Hearing World, about two of the teenagers featured in BBC3’s documentary Deaf Teens: Hearing World.

Specifically, about the fact that one of them now has a cochlear implant, while the other has not.

The earlier article was based on information seen in the film, focusing on the difference between Sara, who doesn’t have a cochlear implant, and Meghan, who was seen in the documentary having the operation.

Just to make one thing clear before I go on: I have friends who have a cochlear implant, more friends who are considering having one, and I fully support them, 100%. What I’m arguing is that it shouldn’t be assumed an implant would suit absolutely every deaf person, and further, that every deaf person would benefit from one in the same way.

I’ve written about the assumptions people make around cochlear implants before, in the Guardian article Not all deaf people want to be fixed, so I felt disappointed with the impression Living Outside the Hearing World gave, and the distinction it drew between the two teenagers.

While the article makes it clear that Sara doesn’t speak and is a sign language user, it doesn’t outline just how different the possible benefits of the operation might be for her, compared to Meghan.

As we saw in the documentary, Meghan decided to have a cochlear implant when she lost a lot of the hearing she previously had. She’d attended a deaf school that taught its students through speech and in the film she spoke throughout (as well as sometimes signing). Her sister and mother already had an implant, so she knew exactly what she might gain from having the operation. In choosing to have a cochlear implant, she made a choice that clearly complimented the way she already communicated, which we then saw benefited her immensely.

Sara’s was a different case. Born into a deaf, signing family, she’d grown up communicating with her hands, going on to attend a deaf school that taught its pupils through sign language. As the article notes, some of her reasons for not wanting to have a cochlear implant were cultural: “I wouldn’t know where I belong, in the deaf world or the hearing world… with a cochlear [implant] I’d feel in between.”

But there is more to it than that. In your late teens, deciding to have an implant when you haven’t heard and haven’t spoken throughout your life would be a massive step with massive implications. You wouldn’t become ‘hearing’ overnight – you would need to learn to hear, to understand those sounds, much more than someone who has used their hearing in the past. To learn to speak, you would also need extensive speech therapy. The process could last years, with no guarantee of the results.

Then there’s the issue of identity. If you’ve lived life one way for nearly 20 years, then you suddenly start to communicate in a different way, that’s a big step in terms of who you actually feel you are.

Fortunately, the follow-up article, Deaf Debate: Caught between two worlds, gave the story a lot more balance. It featured the stories of deaf people who had made a choice, one way or another. It showed that it’s not really ‘one size fits all.’

I thought the documentary was great, but it was a shame to see the first article pick up on that one difference between two of the teenagers featured, to then present an unhelpful and overly simplistic impression of the choices they’d made.

What do you think? Leave your comment in the box below.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of The Limping Chicken.

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