by Tammy Tillotson
“I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of a child.” — Anne Sullivan, teacher of Helen Keller
Cochlear Devices: An Obedient Decision
As medical professionals have found that deaf children between the ages of one to three are more likely to respond well to cochlear implants, will this parental decision of technological obedience adversely affect the child’s experience within the Deaf Community and Culture?
The answer is largely a matter of personal perspective based on two main arguments.
Some individuals view cochlear implant technology as a gateway to knowledge through which the hearing impaired can learn to love communication – especially deaf children. However, many members of the Deaf Community see the technology as a barrier of opposition, claiming it threatens the existence of the deaf culture and sign language.
The opposing viewpoints result primarily as a reflection of how the Deaf Community defines their sense of community, culture, and language in relation to the rest of the hearing world. Humans are by nature social creatures, and deaf individuals have forged their own sense of community among different individuals with the shared condition of lacking auditory capabilities. The community exists as primary shared interests of the community lie within ensuring hearing impaired members are equally educated and able to lead a productive life within a larger society without discrimination. Interestingly enough, perhaps the discourse within the Deaf Community is being created through discriminating against its own members where cochlear technology is concerned.
Two Senses of “Deaf” Community
To better understand the Deaf Community, scholars have outlined the existence of two perspectives that are generally accepted. The technical names and definitions of these perspectives are really not important for the intent of this article, but it is important to realize that either is primarily dependent on how an individual perceives deaf people in general. It is an extremely difficult and complex task to accurately define the Deaf Community, and only for simplicity, these two senses will refer to whether shared interests lie within viewing deafness as a medical condition or a condition that dictates a specific form of communication.
The sense of Deaf Community, as a medical condition, represents a group of people with hearing loss. The “loss” is viewed to some extent as a disadvantage because it prevents normal speech reception and language, in comparison to other individuals that are able to hear. Deaf individuals are often perceived as not being normal due to this inability. Medical personnel often fall into this category as they are trying to “fix” what is “wrong” with the community. Cochlear devices are one medical solution to aiding the hearing impaired.
The second sense of Deaf Community represents a group of people whose identity is based largely on their shared form of communication, often American Sign Language (ASL). Part of the cohesion of the community lies within the inability to hear, yet ability to communicate using visual representations produced with by hand gestures and expression. Lacking the ability to hear is not viewed as a disability within this community, and it is an important part of uniqueness, determination, and survival. Since cochlear devices have the greatest success with young children, the community is concerned that its history, culture, and form of communication will be replaced or become extinct as this new technology encompasses the younger generation.
Not Making Sense of Cochlear Devices
Regardless of which of the two senses an individual is more inclined to associate with, an overwhelming amount of confusion has resulted in trying to make sense beyond what already makes sense.
A community only serves the good of the community as long as its members maintain a sense of belonging. The Deaf Community has effectively broken down into segments issues that demand direct association one way or the other, despite the fact that both should be working together to accomplish good for the entire community.
Differences of opinion are effectively splitting the community apart at the heart of its seams. The issue is not entirely whether cochlear devices are beneficial. A large part of the disagreement is over the notion that technology is offering deaf individuals a choice that could or could not be beneficial to hearing ability. The choice is a personal one that will result in some people experiencing success while others experience failure. It could also result in individuals who have only possessed knowledge of being deaf, having the opportunity to possess knowledge of hearing.
Technology is presenting the Deaf Community with choices and possibilities that they have historically learned to accept as a fact of life that exceeds their capabilities. Acceptance of that fact has resulted in an intensely loyal sense of belonging that is essential to the community’s existence. Admitting that it may be possible to remove or change essential communal characteristics, not surprisingly, results in a new sense of organized chaos. Their greatest fear has been realized – a collection of people who have organized themselves because of a single symbolic construct, are faced with the possibility of having that construct destroyed or altered.
The possibility of change causes questions and concerns to emerge as part of a redefinition process of what it could mean to truly be deaf. Is a person only deaf when they accept the inability to hear as a definite occurrence and cope with it? Has a deaf person that learns to live and communicate with a cochlear device broken the unsaid membership rules resulting in their no longer having need of the Deaf Community or in being able to belong to it? Are parents inevitably helping or hindering their child’s experience within the Deaf Community by deciding to implant cochlear devices?
Hearing the Answers
Technology and innovation bring change and adaptation. Some accept this willingly, some refuse to change, and some face opposition in choosing how they go about the transition from one perspective to another. It is unfair to critically judge individuals within their own community simply because they make a personal decision that may or may not prove entirely helpful. If technology fails to fulfill its allusive promise these same individuals will need the support of their community even more so than before.
If the Deaf Community continues to ostracize members that believe they are making the best decision for themselves in choosing to use cochlear devices, the community will systematically and effectively continue to segregate itself. The irony will lie in the fact that the community will be responsible for reproducing similar discrimination ideals that it has historically struggled to overcome.
Conclusion: Truly Hearing Within
“All my life I have tried to avoid ruts, such as doing things my ancestors did before me, or leaning on the crutches of other people’s opinion, or losing my childhood sense of wonderment. I am glad to say I still have a vivid curiosity about the world I live in…tis as natural for me to believe that the richest harvest of happiness comes with age as to believe that true sight and hearing are within, not without.” — Helen Keller
While the Deaf Community struggles with opposing beliefs concerning implanting deaf children with cochlear devices, Keller offers an honest perspective in hearing and seeing the real issues. Doing things the same identical way as our ancestors, and depending on the opinions and beliefs of others are ruts that should be avoided.
Culture, community, and communication are ever-evolving concepts that transcend to succeeding generations because they adapt and change while simultaneously demonstrating common interests, values, and ways of living. An important part of that is being curious about the world outside of the community and also the technology.
If true happiness comes from within and true sight and hearing also come from within, there is also a lesson to be learned from first deciding what role obedience plays within cochlear devices and the Deaf Community.
In choosing to use cochlear devices, the parents of deaf children have accepted medical authority that deafness is indeed an issue that their child cannot avoid. These individuals have also accepted the possibility that their submissiveness to technology might serve as a gateway through which knowledge can enter the mind of their child. It is a decision of obedience based on love and sacrifice, as it offers no guarantees – only possibilities.
In choosing to belong to the Deaf Community, one that would ostracize its own members for pursuing knowledge and possibilities, a person must wonder what obedience that community embodies. Perhaps it is more accurately a group of people whose shared interests lie within accepting lacking the auditory sense and refusing to heed or be persuaded by any other development outside of the community, especially within technology. That being the case, the community will continue to instill values of remaining deaf, which will serve as its source of contentment. They seem to have forgotten the sense of childhood wonderment that results from wondering why there is only silence.
It is preposterous to wonder if happiness from within can also come from having the choice to embrace the possibility of no longer having to blindly accept going without?
The idea itself is the first giant leap out of the rut.