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The current paper examines the impact of cochlear implants (CI) on Deaf communities and cultures. First, how this technology was received by these groups is considered; then, the cultural effects of the implants are discussed. Even though the implant was received negatively by Deaf people, it is argued that their reasons are practically weak; this is important because using the implants might considerably increase the quality of life of persons with “hearing loss”. Besides, it is shown how the use of the implant might affect individuals with different cultural (for hearing status) identities, which is important because it might have a considerable influence on the manner of life of people within some of these groups.
How Was the Cochlear Implant Received by the Deaf Community?
According to Mauldin (2014) and Sparrow (2005), the deaf community mostly had negative perceptions about CI. The greatest protest coming from that community was related to the utilization of CI for young children (Mauldin 2014). In certain cases, some representatives of the deaf culture stated that the implementation of CI was akin to “genocide” (Sparrow 2005, p. 135).
Representatives of the groups with adverse attitude to CI provide several arguments against these devices. It is suggested that deafness should not be perceived as disability, but as a characteristic of a person; that deaf persons better develop other senses (e.g., better vision), which can replace the absent or low hearing; and that the disadvantages related to deafness originate from the dominating culture (Sparrow 2005). The notion of a “normal person” is discussed as well. It is also argued that deaf people have their own identity as deaf and that they have their own culture. Thus, installing CI on deaf or hard of hearing individuals (DOHHI) roots that culture out (Sparrow 2005). Also, using these devices on small children deprives them of the chance to choose their own identity and become members of the deaf culture (Sparrow 2005).
However, the proponents of CI stress that DOHHI suffers from numerous disadvantages in the current world (Mauldin 2014). In particular, due to their absent or impaired ability to speak, they are unable to communicate with the majority of people as easily as hearing people do; it is difficult for them to pursue an education; they have considerably more difficulty finding a job (not only due to the deafness but also because of generally poorer education), and so on.
While assessing the arguments of the sides, it might be stated that the reasoning of the opponents of CI makes sense theoretically, but appear to be less effective in practice, especially in comparison to that of the proponents of the implants. It is possible to define the word “deafness” using not the word “disability” but the words “feature” or “characteristic”, and thus to state that deafness does not require treatment; however, in practice, an individual with a “hearing loss” in the current world will often require additional assistance to make their quality of life equal to or better than that of a person with “normal” hearing (Kumar et al. 2014)–e.g., with a hearing threshold of up to 15 dB (Haynes, Moran & Pindzola 2012, p. 276), to take one definition. Of course, if there existed a sufficient (in terms of population size and ease of access) culture where everyone did not use sound e.g. communication, “hearing loss” would not be a problem. However, it might be possible to state that emergence of such a culture does not seem likely in the nearest future, whereas the other option–that one with “hearing loss” would experience more difficulties than a person with the “normal” hearing–remains a state of the fact (Haynes, Moran & Pindzola 2012). Furthermore, a decrease in the population of DOHHI in Australia was noted by Johnston (2004), so it will probably be harder for DOHHI to become members of the Deaf culture, perhaps especially in rural areas with a low population.
Thus, when it comes to children, installing CI might be thought of as giving them the chance to become members of the “hearing” cultures rather than as of depriving them of the possibility to become members of the Deaf culture. Also, being DOHHI on its own does not automatically mean becoming a member of the Deaf culture (Leigh & Maxwell-McCaw 2014), which is shown below. On the contrary, not installing the implant at an early age might be thought of as permanently depriving children of the chance to join non-Deaf cultures as full members, or considerably reducing that chance.
As for adult DOHHI, installing CI might deprive them of their identity (deaf) or change it; lowering the hearing threshold might be perhaps overwhelming; such people will often have to make a tremendous effort to become able to use hearing at least to some degree of efficiency, and so on. Nevertheless, it seems better when they can choose if they should install CI than when they cannot. In any case, the decision about whether a person ought to install an implant or not should be made by that person; however, this needs to be an informed choice.
Therefore, CIs were received by the deaf community adversely, although it appears that their arguments against these implants are not very strong in practical terms.
The Cultural Effects of the Cochlear Implant
Such phenomenon as the “deaf identity” has existed for millennia, and the attitude to DOHHI depended on how the societies in which they lived perceived the meaning of “deafness” (it is possible that in certain cultures they might have been almost worshiped as special, whereas in others rejected as e.g. punished by gods) (Leigh & Maxwell-McCaw 2014). Nowadays, one of the known categorizations of cultural identities for hearing status, which was proposed by Neil Glickman, cited in Leigh and Maxwell-McCaw (2014), comprises four main groups: 1) culturally hearing; 2) cultural marginality (no full identification with either hearing or Deaf communities); 3) culturally Deaf (inclusion into Deaf groups, fluency in sign language, socializing mainly only with other Deaf people, finding Deaf partners, etc.); and 4) bicultural individuals (comfortably belonging to both the Deaf and hearing cultures and easily switching their “mode” according to the situation). It is stressed that bicultural individuals were shown to be best psychologically adapted, although other studies found that culturally Deaf were also optimally adapted psychologically.
The creation of CI had a profound effect on Deaf culture. In terms of the offered division, however, it might be possible to assume that CI could have the following effects on the four described groups:
- The members of the first group will not be considerable affected; if certain individuals who have e.g. slight hearing impairment, with a hearing threshold of 16-25 dB (Haynes, Moran & Pindzola 2012, p. 276), have implants installed, they might become more full-fledged members of this group. This group might also become larger (in numbers) thanks to the decrease in the number of members of the second group.
- The members of the second group who had implants installed might increase their chance to become members of the first group. They still can become members of the third group, and then it will also be able to fall into the fourth category.
- The members of the third group who had an implant installed might remain members of the Deaf culture (unless rejected by their peers), also gaining the chance to become acculturated to the hearing culture, thus becoming the members of the fourth group. Of course, they might be rejected by their peers and also fail to become full-fledged members of the hearing culture, thus falling into the second category.
- Finally, the members of the fourth group apparently should not be affected considerably.
Therefore, CI seemingly can have the greatest influence on the second and third groups. The members of the second group can get the chance to become acculturated to the hearing culture (which could be viewed as a positive outcome), whereas the members of the third group also seem to get opportunities to improve their situation by becoming bicultural in the case of success. However, such members of the third group mustn’t become rejected by their community. Also, on the whole, the second and third groups might become smaller and smaller (in terms of population size) with time.
The invention of CI has caused redefining the notion of the “deaf”: deafness was reframed as a “neurological processing problem” rather than sensory loss because now individuals need to “train their brain” to achieve hearing via using the implant (Mauldin 2014, pp. 130, 132). Therefore, the four categories might be redefined, or another category might be added to include the people with implants. The members of Deaf cultures should also become more accepting of individuals with implants.
Therefore, CI received a negative attitude from some members of Deaf cultures; however, their arguments against it are weak in practical terms, because in the current world, people with hearing loss experience much more difficulties than their hearing peers in similar situations; changing that requires considerable structural changes which appear unlikely. Also, cultural groups for hearing status were considered; it was found that members of culturally marginal and culturally Deaf groups might gain the opportunity to also become members of the hearing cultural group or the bicultural group thanks to the implants, although, for the third group, these members mustn’t be rejected by their peers from that initial group.
Haynes, WO, Moran, MJ & Pindzola, RH 2012, Communication disorders in educational and medical settings, Jones & Bartlett Learning, London, UK.
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Johnston, TA 2004, ‘W(h)ither the deaf community? Population, genetics, and the future of Australian sign language’, American Annals of the Deaf, vol. 148, no. 5, pp. 358-375.
Kumar, R, Warner-Czyz, A, Silver, CH, Loy, B & Tobey, E 2014, ‘American parent perspectives on quality of life in pediatric cochlear implant recipients’, Ear and Hearing, vol. 36, no. 2, pp.269-278.
Leigh, IW & Maxwell-McCaw, D 2014, ‘Cochlear implants: implications for deaf identities’, Revista Espaço, no. 41, pp. 21-30.
Mauldin, L 2014, ‘Precarious plasticity: neuropolitics, cochlear implants, and the redefinition of deafness’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 130-153.
Sparrow, R 2005, ‘Defending deaf culture: the case of cochlear implants’, The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 135-152.