Charlie Swinbourne: Is it right to criticise Marvel for creating superhero with hearing aids?

Posted on March 8, 2013

Fair comment, or an example of how it’s impossible to please everyone when it comes to deafness?

In May last year, we reported on how cartoonists at Marvel had responded to a heart-felt letter from the mother of a deaf boy who wouldn’t wear his hearing aids.

First, they sent him a West Coast Avengers cover with the character Hawkeye wearing a hearing aid (see left).

Then they sent the boy, called Anthony, an image of himself as a superhero called Blue Ear. Soon after, the boy started wearing his blue hearing aids again.

For many, this was a great example of a large company going out of their way to cheer up a deaf kid, and encourage him not to be ashamed of his hearing aids, something Marvel should be commended for.

Later, Marvel went a step further, teaming up with hearing aid manufacturer Phonak to create a poster that featured the character Iron Man with the message “that kids who use hearing aids are just like him because ‘they are using technology to be their best self.’”

This poster, and in particular, the ‘best self’ statement, has sparked a comment piece by Tara Congdon on CNN’s website, which criticises the comic giant, saying that they were “misguided” and had “stepped into a minefield” with the Iron Man poster.

Congdon admits that Marvel’s gesture to the deaf boy was “heartwarming” and “thoughtful and generous” but says that “by extrapolating an individual’s circumstances and applying it indiscriminately, [the article] devalues a segment of the deaf and hard of hearing community.”

phonakmarvel3She goes on to say that the message of the poster (left) “is deeply offensive and hurtful to those who gain little to no benefit from hearing aids,” and that it “dismisses the reality that Phonak’s technology does not always succeed in restoring hearing or [achieve] auditory comprehension for its users.”

She says that she formerly used Phonak products and did not benefit from them, and then goes on to explain her experiences of attempts to teach her to hear at school, which made her feel like a failure. She says she was not alone, and cites examples of many of her peers who went on to be successful through using American Sign Language (ASL).

Crucially, she feels that because Marvel’s poster states that through hearing aids, a child can be their “best self,” it therefore implies that the reverse is true of those who don’t wear hearing aids: “because our type or degree of hearing loss prevents us from fully benefiting from Phonak’s technology, we are “failing to be our best selves.”

Is a deaf child’s ‘best self’ only possible if they wear hearing aids? Of course not. Of course there is equal value in a deaf child using sign language and finding the method of hearing, and communicating that best suits them.

But was that really what the poster, which has been designed to go on bedroom walls, was trying to say? That the ‘best self’ cannot be someone who wouldn’t benefit from hearing aids, and/or uses sign language communicate?

For me, I think it’s a lot more simple than that. I think it was trying to say that, for deaf children who would benefit from wearing hearing aids, being proud of them – as part of who you are – is better than being ashamed of them and not wearing them at all.

The whole reason Marvel ever got involved with designing images of superheroes wearing hearing aids was because of a child who would not. That child is incredibly common, for there is a huge stigma associated with wearing hearing aids. Here in the UK, 3.4 million people in the UK could benefit from wearing hearing aids, but do not (Anovum – EuroTrak UK 2010).

The message of the poster, as I read it, is that a deaf kid’s ‘best self’ is not being ashamed of being deaf, not being ashamed of wearing hearing aids as a result, and not deciding not to wear them because of how they look, even if it means you miss out on what people are saying around you.

But what do you think? Do you agree with Congdon? Tell us in the comments below.

Charlie Swinbourne is the Editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned My Song, Coming Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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