Charlie Swinbourne: Review of Channel 4’s Breaking the Silence: Live, showing cochlear implant switch-ons

Posted on November 23, 2016

When I first found out about Breaking the Silence: Live – an hour of live primetime TV showing deaf people having their cochlear implants switched on for the first time – it was hard not to think that Channel 4 executives had seen the huge number of views viral videos of cochlear implant switch-ons and tried to figure out a way of making them into compelling TV.

My worry before watching it was that it might paint an overly positive picture of cochlear implants when they’re first switched on – that the programme might portray deaf people as being able to hear perfectly straight away, or ‘cured,’ or as though they’d been instantly ‘fixed.’

Having seen it, there could have been more about the hard work patients have to go through before the operation, how they qualify for an implant (which in itself is quite a rigorous process), and also the therapy they have to go through following switch-on. Plus the operation and recovery itself.

But what we did get was a truthful picture of what switch-on is like, and how a cochlear implant first sounds – with the responses from the participants including “tinny” and “high-pitched.” The audiologists came over well, and it was emphasised several times that this was the first day on a long journey for those taking part.

Showing this process completely live came with risks and although the responses from the participants were emotional and moving, they didn’t match the intensity – the tears and the pure emotion – of some of those viral videos that might have inspired it.

I think the programme was better for this. The participants seemed genuinely to be processing what they could hear, trying to make sense of it and getting to know the new sound. This felt true to how most people might respond in real life.

The majority of the participants were people who have been deafened in the last few years, and what came across strongly was just how isolated they were from those closest to them.

Marion had woken up two years ago to find she was unable to hear. Through that time, she’d been unable to hear a thing her husband was saying (although we realised when her implant was turned on that Ron might have raised his voice a little to help her out!).

We saw Bryan at the dinner table, surrounded by his family but unable to take part. All deaf people can relate to that.

It was also hard not to root for Rebecca, who had become profoundly deaf back in July and could not even lipread (she’d created her own signs with her sister), who wanted to be able to hear her son.

When Deaf sign language user Fiona appeared, with an interpreter, it was interesting to see the contrast between her and the deafened participants.

We could see that Fiona had access to language, and didn’t seem as isolated as the other people taking part. Like a number of older Deaf people I know, part of the reason she was having the implant was in order to hear her hearing children, as they grow up.

The live nature of the programme meant there was a contrast between the pre-recorded inserts, which were smoothly cut and gave us a chance to get to know the participants’ back stories, and the live segments in hospital settings which slightly lingered, and felt more clinical to watch. 

From a deaf perspective, one problem with the programme being live was having to depend on live subtitles, with their mistakes and delays, to follow it (although a sign interpreted broadcast was available to those who can get the 4Seven channel). Not ideal.

The value of the programme lies in understanding what cochlear implant switch-on is like, what implants might sound like at first, and relating to the stories of the D/deaf people involved. I hope that we will get to see the longer picture of how they are getting on, say six months, or a year, further down the line.

What did you think of the programme? Tell us in the comments below.

Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being an award-winning filmmaker. He directed the comedies The Kiss and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool, and three instalments of the documentary Found. As a journalist, he has written for the Guardian and BBC Online, and he is currently making a new two-part comedy programme.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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