THE OLYMPIAN | • Published July 30, 2010
Years ago, a friend of mine told the story of his son’s birth. He recalled the doctor somberly gave the news that their son was deaf. The doctor was astonished when the parents hugged and rejoiced. They explained to the befuddled doctor that because he was deaf, he would be able to fully share the culture and language of his parents.
The doctor then added their new, perfectly healthy boy could be fixed through cochlear implants.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” they replied firmly.
Alarmed, the doctor insisted they were doing great harm and sternly lectured about potential speech and language delays. Undaunted, they proceeded with no implant.
Without an implant, his son is now fully immersed in deaf culture, understands American Sign Language fluently, reads at grade level English and acts mischievously as any young boy.
A cochlear implant is a device which is surgically attached to the cochlea. It bypasses the outer ear and transmits sound waves to the brain through a processor which is worn outside the patient’s head. An implant works where neurosensory hearing loss eliminates the effectiveness of the most powerful outer ear hearing aids.
Cochlear implants can be a substantial blessing for those who are postlingually deaf. After Rush Limbaugh went deaf, implants helped him regain his hearing and, love or hate him, continue his broadcasting career.
A candidate for a successful implant has a strong language foundation and wants to hear again. However, using implants in prelingually deaf children with no language foundation has created a firestorm of controversy pitting deaf culture against the audist opinions of medical and educational professionals.
Today, one out of 10 deaf children has cochlear implants. In 15 years, this is expected to rise to one out of three deaf children. Many doctors push parents of deaf children toward implants and oralism, insisting, despite the oxymoron, the best path is teaching a deaf child how to speak. The benefits of using American Sign Language as a method of communication are usually omitted or discouraged.
Those in support of prelingual implants insist the decision should be no harder than deciding to buy glasses to correct vision problems. Playing on the fears of distraught parents, doctors often fail to mention the enormous costs, years of commitment for speech therapy and frequency in which implants simply don’t work. The reality of longitudinal success rates for prelingual implants remains inconclusive and unimpressive. Further, the FDA recently warned that implanted children are more likely to develop several medical complications including bacterial meningitis.
Despite these unresolved issues or input from the deaf community, medical science continues to brainwash government leaders regarding prelingual implants and unproven speech theories. The deaf view this as an extension of the historic battle with Alexander Graham Bell.
Prior to Bell’s forcing oralism into deaf education, students flourished. William Gallaudet and others proved that American Sign Language has a vital role in language development and early deaf education. Bell, who detested Gallaudet, abused his power to systematically eliminate sign language and promote his version of oralism.
Two hundred years later, Bell’s approach hasn’t lived up to its hype. Increasingly, statistics show how oralism continues to leave deaf children behind. Despite the piling negative evidence, oralism thrives among hearing professionals as the model for deaf rehabilitation.
The deaf community continues advocating against prelingual implants. However, their pleas have, ironically, fallen on the deaf ears of oralist professionals who refuse to change while continuing to ignore the deaf community’s opinion. In order to create an ethical solution, the oralist rationale, which drives the increase of prelingual implants, must include deaf cultural perspectives and eliminate audist practices.
Stephen Roldan, a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, is statewide coordinator of deaf services for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.