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A Summary of the Cochlear Implant Dilemma

New advances in science have always inspired heated debate between proponents for and opponents against, but rarely does a development split a group in two. With the introduction of the cochlear implant less than a decade ago, deaf and hard of hearing individuals and their families have been personally divided by the new hearing device. While some may choose to undergo the controversial procedure and regain some hearing, others argue its costs outweigh the benefits and will ultimately destroy the deaf community.

For many deaf individuals, the more popular hearing aids are not an option. Hearing aids act as miniaturized sound speakers/amps that make sound easier to hear, but they are unable to assist someone who has no hearing altogether. Cochlear implants are effectively a hearing aid that bypasses the ear’s vibration-carrying structures, but does not use any form of sound amplifier that traditional hearing aids use. Instead, the implant stimulates the cochlear nerve directly, which is responsible for transmitting the electrical signals generated from the ear to the brain where these signals are converted into the perception of sound. But an implant is not just a slip-on device like a hearing aid either. It requires an intrusive surgery to permanently affix the implant at the ear and often requires a long and arduous recovery period.

Baby with a cochlear implant
Many cochlear advocates recommend implants for deaf babies, as it is easier to transition to this form of assisted hearing at an earlier age.

The implant does not always restore or improve sound perception. While no one can know what a cochlear implant truly sounds like without having one themselves, simulations are able to tell us a lot. Interpreting normal speech and music is very difficult and will take therapy to get used to. Sounds seem very garbled and in many cases can psychologically torment those who used to live in silence, leading to a potential further debilitation. In other cases, it can greatly improve the lives of those who undergo the procedure, though that takes time. In addition to sound, those with cochlear implants can relearn speech as well and stray from reliance on sign languages–which may also be a con considering how communicating with other deaf individuals will inevitably become more difficult. One remarkable cochlear implant patient Heather Artinian spoke in a Ted Talk on how she progressed from deafness to coping with the implant and learning to communicate through speech.

But others say cochlear implants can ruin deaf culture – the set of shared values, beliefs and communities of deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Cochlear implants remove deaf people from their deaf support groups and put them in limbo between hearing society and deaf culture in which these people are universally accepted by neither. Cochlear implants could be the first omen of a dying deaf community and a growing cochlear community as more and more individuals migrate towards getting and accepting implants. Meanwhile, some see the implants as just another symptom of society’s audism, the feeling of superiority those with hearing possess, putting societal pressure on the deaf to receive implants rather than accept their deaf lifestyle.

These conflicting views on cochlear implants may change as technology progresses. As medical costs come down, recovery periods mitigate, and restored hearing becomes clearer, perhaps the deaf community will be more accepting of cochlear implants. But as it stands, cochlear implants remain divisive.

Edited by Briana Fannin