Emily Howlett: Everybody’s talking about giving my baby a cochlear implant… Except me.

Posted on November 22, 2013



My life as a deaf person has been filled with a lot of noise (pun intended, but still terrible) about cochlear implants. I was born around the same time that the technology was starting to really develop and become, if not common then at least known.

The cyborgs had become a reality… Bionic ears!

I’m sure my father, who spends his entire life among technology and computers, would have found some positives in a daughter he could hook up to the mainframe, but my mother obviously overruled him.

I’m joking, of course…  But it didn’t matter what the doctors or health visitors or neighbours said; my parents decided their little lady was not for implanting.

I fully understand their decision; and I am grateful for it. This was a time when the operation involved carried many more risks than it does now, because it was a relatively new procedure in terms of advances and expectations.

In my youth, I got enough ‘hearing’ from using hearing aids, loops, all those massive pieces of equipment that got in the way during P.E. and made you look like a popcorn seller with a tray hanging around your neck.

And now… Here I am with my own little person. Because I am deaf, my baby boy has already been the subject of several million conversations about whether or not he will have any hearing loss.

And whether or not, if he did, we would give him a cochlear implant. And although I see these conversations, I’m not part of them. Not yet; because it isn’t an issue yet. And I honestly don’t know what I would do if it was.

I can feel the tremor in the earth just writing that last sentence.

There is one thing, and one thing only, which I despise about cochlear implants. There has only ever been one thing and it is this; the doctors who present them as ‘a cure.’

A cochlear implant will not ‘fix you’. It will not ‘make your baby hearing’, and to use such descriptions to convince people, especially confused, scared parents is a terrible misuse of knowledge.

I know three hearing mothers of implanted babies, and two of them fully believe their child is now hearing and can be treated as such, with no support or thought given to their ‘cured’ hearing loss. That is so blatantly untrue I don’t even need to explain why, do I?

But, and this is the thing… That is my only problem with it.

Let’s not do that thing of pretending cochlear implants are a threat to deaf identity and culture; why can’t a child with a CI be fully immersed in their deaf heritage as well as having access to some sounds? Because that is all the CI does; it allows access to sound, exactly as a hearing aid does, but on a more complex level. It doesn’t stop anyone being who they are, and it doesn’t stop them being deaf.

“But you’re drilling a hole into a baby’s head!”

That is a tough one. It is an operation, and it carries risks. Although these may well be less than in previous years, they are still real. But there is no drilling of holes with a jackhammer; it is less invasive than most people think. It is certainly less invasive than I thought before I researched this.

Most importantly though, the operation risks mean nothing to anyone who is not involved. Only the parents, or the child, or the person, can weigh up the risks against the benefits in their personal circumstances, and nobody else has the right to comment on that.

The fact that the implants look ‘grotesque’?

Oh, seriously? This isn’t the 18th Century; people with disabilities have used ‘add-ons’ for years, and now almost everyone has some kind of communication device in their ear. There’s never been a better time for pimping your hearing aids and cochlear implants.

Having said that, seeing a big electrical thing on the side of a tiny head is still… Well. I would be lying if I said I felt 100% at ease with it. But, why? Because it’s unnatural? In that case a wheelchair is also unnatural. But they are essential equipment to the people who use them, and it is my own failing if they make me feel uneasy. Mine or society’s, or a bit of both.

Speaking to an audiologist recently, I asked her, “Would you implant your own child, if they were deaf?” Her reply?

“Oh, yes. Definitely. You have to see it from the other point of view. By implanting a child, you take away their decision to have the operation. That’s true, but if you leave a child with no hearing at all, during all their developmental years, you have taken the decision away from them to have access to the sound in the world. You have taken away their opportunity to be part of the hearing world. Whereas if they are implanted, they can have all of that access but nothing stops them from living all aspects of ‘deaf life’ as well. If their parents are open-minded enough, that is… Whether a parent does or doesn’t have their child implanted, they have taken a choice away from them. They just have to do what is right for them, with clear options and no false expectations…

“Besides, if the CI is a struggle, or stopping them exploring their deaf identity, they can just take it off.”

Can they, though? Can you just ‘take off’ something your parents went through the agony of deciding to give to you? Can you be comfortable with a ‘dual’ identity? Can you be who you were always going to be, either way?

I think you can, if you want to. You can do anything, if you want to.

The thing you can’t do is second guess other people’s decisions about their children. And what you definitely cannot ever, ever do is predict how a child’s life will be affected by your decisions.

You just have to do your best. That’s what parents do.

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer, horsewoman and new mum. Emily used to be found all over the place, but motherhood has turned her into somewhat of a self-confessed homebody. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie.

Emily tweets at @ehowlett

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