Billy 2.0 – Why are some parents against cochlear implants for their children?

Cristina Hartmann
I’ve been trying for a long time to articulate my thoughts on this particular issue – in the end I found someone else had already answered the question with much more clarity and balance than I ever could. Her name is Cristina Hartmann, a writer based in the USA. Her thoughts are reprinted below from Quora with her kind permission.
I hope I’ll be able to offer a unique perspective that explains why the Deaf community resents CIs.
Let me establish my background and knowledge of Cochlear Implants (CIs) and the Deaf culture.I was born profoundly deaf in the early 1980s, so I learned American Sign Language (ASL) as my first language. Mind you, this is not as easy as it sounds. My family and I went to classes when I was 6 months old. I needed individual tutoring in the language daily because my family wasn’t fluent. Of course they weren’t fluent.
My family is like a large majority of deaf children’s parents: hearing.In 1990, I got a CI as one of the first pediatric candidates. I embarked on a 10-year journey of learning speech and listening. (Not as fun as it sounds.) Eventually, I managed to speak and listen well enough to get along in the hearing world. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.So, I’m one of the relatively rare few who can get along in both worlds: the Deaf and the hearing. I’m very happy with this state, but I think I’m a disappearing minority. Why?A large majority of hearing parents will not learn ASL.ASL isn’t an easy language to learn. It has its own syntax and grammar. Learning later in life is a grinding, difficult process. You don’t take a few classes and shazam, you’re fluent. It takes years and immersion to truly learn ASL.

ASL is a beautiful language, but doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Hearing parents have little incentive to learn ASL if they have a child with a CI. If the child is implanted early, the child can learn speech almost just as well as he or she can learn ASL. This way, the parents don’t have to take classes and have individual instructions like my parents did. (Note: my parents are immigrants, so it was doubly hard for them to learn a third language on top of English.)

Plus, at this point, a child with a CI still needs speech therapy. That takes time ane effort. To add ASL instruction to the to-do list of a busy family? I don’t think so.

Many experts advocate an oral-only method of teaching deaf children with CIs. I’m a living example that it can be done differently. I learned speech while I used an ASL interpreter at school. I, however, understand why the experts advocate this method. You need to compartmentalize the two languages. Nobody should sign and speak at the same time if they want to master either language. ASL has a different syntax than English, so you wouldn’t get much benefit. (This is my opinion, not an expert opinion.)

On a personal note. Once I got my CI, my family basically stopped learning ASL. My sister can only fingerspell. My dad can barely sign anything anymore. My mom knows a good amount, but it’s nowhere near fluency. My point is that people will take the path of least resistance. Dual language acquisition is a path of many obstacles.

Not only is ASL acquisition a logistical nightmare, it’s a cultural obstacle. Every parent wants to share a culture with their children. Having the child participate in the Deaf community can feel like cultural abandonment to many hearing parents (consciously or subconsciously). You are no longer the primary cultural influence in your child’s life; the Deaf community is.

ASL anchors the entire Deaf community.

Without ASL, there is no Deaf community. We band together not because of our “hearing loss” but because of a common language.

Like English, Bengali, French, ASL informs the cultural underpinnings of the Deaf community. Deaf history shows the importance of ASL to Deaf people. It’s not something we’ll give up easily and gladly.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, many educators tried to eradicate ASL in favor of oralism. They wanted to assimilate deaf people into the “mainstream” community. Many deaf people suffered because of this. They received marginal education because they couldn’t understand the spoken language. One of the older deaf men that I knew in my childhood couldn’t get a job better than a janitor because he received no valuable education from his oral school They just tried to teach him how to talk, to no avail.

Amidst all of this, a vibrant community emerged. People would converge at Deaf schools and churches just for a chance to use their own language with someone else. A feeling of kinship grew in face of oppression. (Yes, trying to abolish a language and forcibly integrate people is oppression.)

Many Deaf people throughout history fought very hard for the right to sign and live on their own terms. One example is the Gallaudet protests of the 1980s. The thought that this hard-earned culture will disappear because parents don’t want to learn ASL sparks abject fear and anger in many Deaf people.

And why not? Wouldn’t you be angry if someone told you that your culture is outdated and irrelevant now?

Deaf parents are like hearing parents. They want to pass on their culture to their children. Not child abuse, I think.

The Deaf Community serves as a vibrant, engaging culture that provides a safe space for Deaf people. 

Whenever I meet a Deaf person, we spend a good chunk of time just talking. Regardless of socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity or region background, we find kinship. Because of my Deafness, I have friends from all over the world, all kinds of backgrounds.

How many cultures can say that?

I’m fully prepared to be one of the last few people who can walk into both worlds–hearing or deaf–but it grieves me. The Deaf culture has shaped me for the better, not for the worse. I just hope it doesn’t disappear in my lifetime.

Why does it grieve me? When all is said and done, the hearing world still sees me as somewhat defective. The Deaf community doesn’t.

In the Deaf culture, unlike the hearing world, I’m just as good as everyone else. I’m a true equal. I can’t say that about the hearing world. Most hearing people see me as “missing something” and feel sorry for me. Pity is the last thing I want. Deaf culture doesn’t pity people like me, it values people like me.

Unfortunately, that’ll disappear someday because of technology. Just remember, at this point, a CI cannot replace natural hearing. Until then, deaf children with CIs will still be at a disadvantage, but they may not have a Deaf culture to fall back on if they want.

Perhaps the eradiction of Deafness as we know it will benefit society, but it saddens me to think that people like me will never exist in the future. Ah well.

Just for everyone’s edification, I would teach my deaf children ASL and give them a CI. The world is a harsh one for the disabled, but I’d want to pass on a bit of my own language.

Addendum: I don’t intend this answer to encourage or discourage parents to implant their child. I believe strongly that it is the parents’ decision (hopefully well-informed). That, of course, goes both ways. That’s the price of individual freedom; people will do things that we disagree with. C’est la vie.

Further Reading:
The original question and discussion can be read on Quora here

8 Replies to “Billy 2.0 – Why are some parents against cochlear implants for their children?”

  1. Well, I had a Deaf upbringing too. Not just that but my parents were in complete denial about my hearing loss. So I had to be a pretend hearie at home (you know what I mean) and only with other Deaf people could I be myself. There has always been this split between me and my parents and I have always had to change back and forth between the Deaf and hearing worlds.
    I have a CI now and my only regret is that I didn’t have it 30 years ago, but that is not allowing for the fact that the technology was not so good then. So here I am a culturally Deaf person who can actually hear quite well! Just where in Deaf culture do I fit in?

    I wouldn’t have it any other way, being able to hear so much better is something of an adventure and at my time of life you don’t get too many of those! But, yes there is this paradigm shift in culture now. We are going to have Deaf people who can hear quite well!

  2. I was once told by a professor at the department of Deafness, Cognition and Language research at City University that our first experience of a community starts with our own family. Our own family gives us our first experience of integrating with other communities and groups later in life.

    So in my case, my family chose to give me the tools to integrate with the hearing community, and to have access to the wider world. That didn’t prevent me from finding out about deaf culture and sign language later in life. For the record I agree with Cristina – that implants if suitable can be a great tool, but at the same time it’s important to keep that sense of shared community and language alive.

  3. A superbly written article, but I have to disagree with some of the sentiments in it. A big majority of deaf people come from hearing families, like myself. And for an awful lot of that group, there is no access to deaf culture. And that’s the other side of the coin. For people who are part of it, it’s undoubtedly a fantastic thing to have, a support base to fall back on.

    But for those who don’t have that access, and note that I’m from the UK where the deaf community isn’t as prominent as in the US, it’s sink or swim at times I’m afraid. My support comes from my family, I have had virtually zero contact with my fellow deaf since I left a specialised school when I was nine.

    For a lot of us, deaf culture barely exists. I’m unabashedly a CI supporter, and my family has been my rock in that regard. I’ve never given any thought as to how strangers think of me. To my family, friends and co-workers, I’m just me. They don’t give any special attention to my deafness. It’s just a part of me, it doesn’t define me.

    Deaf culture has had nothing to do with that. And I reiterate, it’s a fantastic thing, but not everyone has access to it. Who you are and who you become is far more important than ASL/BSL or CIs. Making friendships, succeeding in life is the most important. There’s a whole wide world out there, being deaf doesn’t limit you in any of that in my opinion.

    There’ll be a time when ASL/BSL will start limiting people, and that’s what concerns me. I signed, even with a CI until I was ten. Five years after being implanted. But I left it behind because I simply did not need it. I know there’s plenty of people who can’t speak to the same level as others, but being bilingual is better than sticking solely to ASL/BSL. And for some, speech therapy is the best way to succeed in life. Even at the cost of ASL/BSL. I include myself in that. BSL didn’t get me where I am now. Speaking did. And I make no bones about that.

    Sorry for rambling on. But a very good read and I just wanted to provide my thoughts on it.

  4. I am intrigued by the notion of a “deaf culture” and think it explains the resistance in some quarters to CI’s. The debate mirrors in many respects the debate over multiculturalism and whether immigrants should “integrate” or retain their own identity. But I wonder if the analogy is entirely valid. Is there a “deaf” culture in the same way there is a Chinese or Asian culture? The only thing that differentiates the deaf community is their deafness and a common language, (community = culture ???) both important defining characteristics of a culture I know but where are the other characteristics specific to the deaf community, religion, art, dance, dress, cuisine for instance?

    Perhaps I am being too narrow minded. Culture is acquired, it is not determined by the colour of one’s skin. Had I been adopted at birth and brought up in China by a Chinese family, speaking mandarin, I would be Chinese although ethnically European and when cultures collide they tend to rub off on each other. Arguably second and third generation Asians living in the UK are now “anglo-Asian” as opposed to “Asian”. So maybe we can speak of a deaf culture as well as a deaf community. I once saw a video of a deaf poet signing his work which even to a non signer was a thrilling thing to observe.

    Cristina describes the many difficulties in learning sign language in a hearing family and here she seems to be arguing against herself and in favour of CI’s but I have a question. At what age can a CI be implanted? Language is generally acquired in the first 5 years of life, it is my impression that CI’s are implanted much later. That being the case audible language will always be a second language to most deaf people. CI’s are not perfect, they do not give perfect hearing and they are implanted later in life meaning that the person ends up learning to speak as an adult. But these are only prototypes in time they will become better smaller and implanted earlier and earlier. In time they will give perfect hearing and be implanted at birth. Parents who deny their deaf children CI’s now, are delaying this future development.

    No one wants to be labelled defective and treated as a second class citizen but, and there is no way around this, being deaf is a defect. Not of character or moral standing but specifically of hearing but it is a defect or disability that can be corrected. I don’t understand why parents of deaf children are not embracing this development. Yes it would mean we would loose “Deaf signing poets” but personally I can live with that.

  5. Being American, I beg to differ with the characterization of British Deaf Culture. I grew up oral, in a hearing family, and knew no ASL until my late teens. Now for my point:

    **Being bilingual does not mean being able to speak and sign. It means fluency in two languages: English and sign.** This is based on the realization that English is a language, it is not merely the spoken vehicle. Sign is not a vehicle, it is a fully featured language.

    I read and write English fluently, lipread some, and speak fully phrased English with people who are used to the “deaf accent” that comes with being profoundly deaf.

    Thankfully, I also eventually became fluent in American Sign Language because it is now my preferred language. The full range of expressiveness, emotions, nuances and innuendos of English has nothing on the profound detail, complexity and depth of ASL. Trust me on that.

    Although born too soon to have the “benefits” of the CI, I would never put any deaf person in the position of obtaining a college education, a doctor’s consultation, a lawyer’s analysis, or critical news by hearing. That would be creating the identical situation of old fashioned oralism: language filtered and condensed to a bare minimum and with important details generally stripped off. (The CI has a limited range, while normal hearing has millions of frequencies.)

    To compensate for this, Deaf people have for generations resorted to reading, interpreters and relaying from more skilled and educated members to the less fluent people, the important information of life. As a community, it is a vibrant, defensive and functional system that no hearing community has ever duplicated or equaled. Even today, with the often-inadequate “miracle” of the CI, it would be a grievous error to deny the deaf child access to a normal life experience through the Deaf Community and its satisfying language.

  6. A defect that can be corrected? I’d say spoken like a truly ignorant person. Even a CI doesn’t completely eradicate the barriers and difficulty. Also there are some of us that cannot get CIs or hearing aids.

    Yes culture is defined by more than language, but language helps to shape the arts. Stories, history, poetry, etc are also a part of Deaf Culture.

    Food choices, work history, education-are also a part of culture. As scattered as Deaf people are- often these things remain the same.

    I’ve yet to meet a Deaf person riding in a limo eating caviar daily– middle to lower class is more common & could be considered a part of cultural commonality as well.

  7. “I’m one of the relatively rare few who can get along in both worlds: the Deaf and the hearing.”

    Are you sure? 😉

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