Emily Howlett: Are cochlear implants child abuse, a ‘quick fix’ or a threat to Deaf identity?

Posted on September 12, 2014



As anyone who reads my Deaf Mum column will have noticed, cochlear implants have been quite a hot topic of conversation for me recently.

And when I say hot, I mean scorching. Having been burned by both sides of all the arguments over the years, I thought it was about time someone tried to look at the main points objectively.

Then I remembered it’s impossible to be truly objective, so I just did my best and then went to play with my boy instead. This is where I got to before my head exploded; enjoy.

Cochlear implants are child abuse

This is such a grey area; I’m slightly afraid of it.

Some people say that to give a child a CI is pretty much the same as abusing them, as Rita Symonds found in last year’s documentary “My Daughter, Deafness and Me”.

At any age before they are old enough to consent, a child who is implanted has had that decision taken away from them.

They have been through an operation, and all the risks it entails, to try and restore some level of hearing to them, when nobody can say for sure whether they even want to hear.

The general assumption is that of course the child will want to hear. Who wouldn’t? Being able to hear is ‘the norm’.

But this is where deafness is different to other disabilities; being deaf might not be ‘the norm’, but there is this whole other community where, actually, it is normal.

There’s a lot of support, there are others in the same situation and there’s even a brilliant officially recognised language. Which raises the question; if a CI gives you access to sound, does being deaf in the first place give you access to BSL?

Well, it definitely should… Which is where the grey area comes into play again; if an implanted child is raised to be part of both the deaf and hearing world, they gain from each.

But if they are left to live an unsupported ‘hearing life’, it’s not going to be good… I suspect this is what gives rise to at least some of the ‘abuse’ debates.

So, why can’t a child be left alone to be part of the deaf world, until they are old enough to decide if they want to be implanted, and have a go at hearing something?

Well, obviously, they can, and some parents opt for this. By making this decision, they have also decided that their child’s formative years will be silent, but they have given over all control to them, which is very powerful.

However, implanting a toddler, whose brain is designed to grow and learn and adapt, will have a different result to implanting a teenager, whose brain, while still adaptable, is much more rigid.

Cochlear implants are like everything else; there are pros and cons.

But I can’t find any shred of evidence that they could be classed as actual child abuse, which is truly horrific and incomparable.

And, to be honest, I think trying to compare the two does nothing for the cochlear implant debate, whichever side you stand on.

Cochlear implants will fix you

Here we are! My personal despair over cochlear implants. Once again, I’m not sure if it balances out, but let’s have another go.

A cochlear implant will not fix you. It will not fix your baby.

It will not fix your mother’s friend’s cousin, twice removed, who happens to be called Fontania.

Nothing can fix being called Fontania. Just as, currently, nothing can ‘fix’ being deaf.

Sure, there are seemingly endless techniques, technologies and treatments that can restore some, or most, access to sound. But if you are deaf, you are always going to be deaf. A cochlear implant will not change that.

Even if it were to miraculously give you 100% hearing, a cochlear implant will not ‘fix your ears’. You can only hear when you wear it, and when it is working.

And you will never get 100% hearing from a machine which uses less than ten ‘receivers’ (electrodes) to process sound that would naturally be processed by thousands of ‘receivers’ (hairs).

It won’t be ‘perfect’, but you might well get some benefit that makes it worthwhile. You might get a benefit beyond your wildest imagining. You might get nothing at all.

But, more than anything at all, I hope you don’t get anyone telling you that you will be ‘fixed’.

In the interest of balancing this out, I have to say, it is possible that a CI can ‘fix you.’ It is possible that a hearing aid can ‘fix you.’

But in order for that to happen, you have to first view your deafness as a problem, an injury, something ‘other’ that isn’t really a part of you and needs to be got rid of.

And if you’ve got those kind of issues with identity, I’m not convinced that being able to hear is going to, well, fix everything.

Cochlear implants damage deaf culture

I am really struggling to find a balanced argument for this one.

There seems to be a significant number of deaf people who will ferociously argue the awful impact CIs have on the deaf community, and therefore deaf culture.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but isn’t it impossible for CIs themselves to have any impact on, well, anything outside of a person’s hearing levels?

Cochlear implants are not marching down Whitehall waving placards and chanting “Down With Deafhood!”

People, on the other hand, have the biggest impact of all.

There are deaf people in respected positions who will not work with other deaf people who have been implanted.

There are groups who will not allow members with CIs, whether they expressly admit it or not.

It is not difficult to find a deaf person who feels anyone with a CI has ‘sold out’ and somehow betrayed their deaf identity; it’s a more widespread view than any of us might think.

But, why? Why exactly do these people automatically assume anyone with a CI is ashamed of being deaf, or trying to be hearing, or any other negative thing?

Everybody is different, and surely there will be some people with CIs who don’t identify as deaf, or Deaf.

There are also people with hearing aids, or BAHAs, or no hearing at all who choose not to be part of the deaf community.

But it seems to be only the CIs that are the mark of evil and, as I say, I can’t find a genuine, balanced reason why.

It appears to be just an ideal that people hold without really knowing why. Which is a shame.

If there are deaf people who allow others’ CIs to anger them, and divide their community, I’m afraid I can’t understand why.

Really, why?

Why is there a certain level of animosity reserved for CIs over, say, hearing aids? Why is there this clear and ever-present negativity?

I could understand anger towards doctors or professionals, or even ignorant family members who push CIs onto others as ‘the only solution to deafness’.

I could understand anger towards anyone who flaunts a CI as making them better than other deaf people (though I’ve not met such a person).

But, just general negativity towards people with CIs, or parents trying to find out more options… I just don’t get it.

Can’t we just accept everyone as part of our lovely, rich, diverse community? And be stronger for it?

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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