Emily Howlett: The media should question whether viral cochlear implant videos reflect most people’s experiences

Posted on April 2, 2014



So, another cochlear implant (CI) switch on has gone viral; reaching widespread coverage not just on the internet forums but across the televised news and papers.

I say ‘another’, because this is by no means the first time such a video has captured the imagination of the mainstream media. One seems to capture the public imagination every so often, despite the fact there are literally hundreds floating around on YouTube and similar sites.

It seems to be the ‘thing to do’ these days; film your switch-on session and upload it to the internet. This is, of course, every individual’s right, and I applaud people having the confidence to share such an intimate moment with the world, so that world might learn to be a bit more open-minded. It is brilliant to celebrate positive things, and, for many, many people, CIs are an amazingly positive thing.

But I’m not sure about the message it sends out about deafness, and what CIs actually mean to a deaf person.

For example, this most recent video, is being widely reported in the media as the first time the patient hears anything. EVER. But moments after switch-on takes place, she can understand the days of the week being read to her, knows she is speaking with a Geordie accent and tells the audiologist that the sounds seem ‘too high’… Hang on, wait… Geordie accent? This is the first time she has ever heard and she can not only speak, but with a recognisable accent? That’s not a cochlear implant, that’s a miracle.

Which is exactly my concern; this kind of fantastical reporting is doing nothing to help anyone, deaf or hearing, understand the realities of choosing to have and then living with a cochlear implant.

Now, I am not in any way saying the lady in the video is lying, pretending, falsifying. I feel nothing but empathy for her situation, happiness that she is getting such a brilliant benefit and respect for the fact she has been brave enough to share her journey.

I am just sceptical, and concerned, by the way the media have seized upon the story and seem to be reporting it in increasingly sensationalised ways. Very few reports make any reference to qualifying exactly how long it has been since the lady has heard; they just declare it is the FIRST TIME. EVER.

They are, basically, implying she NEVER had ANY hearing AT ALL, but is now RESTORED to humanity and CURED by the magic surgeons and audiologists.

I have made my views on CIs being offered as a ‘cure’ to ‘fix deaf people’ very clear before, and very publicly. I just don’t appreciate anyone, with the current technology and medicine available, saying they will ‘cure’ a ‘hearing impairment.’

If someone with hearing loss chooses to use a device to help them regain some access to sound, it doesn’t matter what their choice is; hearing aid, CI, BAHA… They are still a person who is deaf. It hasn’t gone away; they’ve just found some equipment that gives them something they didn’t have before. (Incidentally, it also doesn’t take away anything of who they were and are.)

When these switch-on videos become viral in the mainstream, nobody questions what they see. A video of a more usual switch-on session, unless it features a particularly cute baby hearing mummy for the first time, never hits the big time. This is because they generally aren’t such great viewing.

Although often emotionally charged, the instant benefit of having a cochlear implant fitted, is, for the majority of users, not that astounding. It’s either a return to a slightly different tone of hearing they accessed before, or a completely new and random sense of sound, which takes the brain a long time to process and begin to understand.

These are the commonplace videos; the beginning of a long and often difficult journey of auditory rehabilitation. The actual instant of switch-on is nothing compared to the ongoing experiences the person has ahead of them; both good and bad. But nobody wants to put those on BBC News or the front page of the papers, because they’re boring. They’re not miraculous stories; they’re just people going through things in their lives.

And that’s where the media let us down. Nobody questions if the viral video is a true representation of the whole CI community; they just assume everybody gets the same instant benefit. Which is very dangerous, and saddening, in so many ways.

 We aren’t all miracles because we give our deafness over to medical science and hope for the best. We aren’t all idiots and selfish if we don’t. We’re all just… people going through things in our lives.

If we’re going to be celebrated for things, it’s a shame we never seem to get celebrated for that.

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. She tweets as @ehowlett

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