Oralism leaves deaf children behind in our society

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 .

4 Comments to Oralism leaves deaf children behind in our society

  1. Mary
    July 30, 2010 at 10:18 PM | Permalink

    I still can’t believe this kind of nonsense is still published in this day and age. My son has bilateral cochlear implants and is VERY oral….he even knows a little sign to get by when his processors are off. He has a huge vocabulary and can interact with anyone he chooses. We go to the state school every other year to interact with other deaf students and he does well with kids who sign and those who are oral.
    He also has tourette syndrome, OCD and ADHD. He has more access to help more easily because he is oral. I have also been able to explain to him his condition and we have worked through it.
    Also, MOST parents aren’t and will never be as good at ASL as a deaf parent who has a child. Even with signing exact English it is hard.
    Parents have the right to chose and whether they chose ASL or oral, IT IS STILL A LOT of work. My son has never been left behind! He is leading the way.

  2. Melissa Benton
    July 30, 2010 at 11:17 PM | Permalink

    This is typical deaf culture hogwash. The facts and statistics strongly demonstrate that children who develop speech and language early in life and who are educated in auditory oral classrooms attain higher levels of education and employment.
    The deaf culture should allow parents to make their own decisions concerning what is best for their children. If parents are deaf and their child is born deaf and they want them to have the same culture and language, that’s fine. But the deaf culture needs to respect the fact that 90% of children who are born deaf are born to hearing parents, and those parents want their child to be able to hear all of the wonderful sounds of life. In my line of work, I have personally witnessed many children who were born deaf, had a cochlear implant at a young age, attended auditory-verbal therapy, and were ready to attend mainstream school when they were 5 years old. Their hearing and speech abilities were so good that you could not even tell they had a hearing loss. Another factual statistic: the success rate of cochlear implants is 99%. This is amazing technology that works very well. Don’t listen to the lies of the deaf culture. They feel threatened because they are the minority. If they don’t want to be part of the hearing world, they need to stay out of the hearing world’s business and stop spreading lies about cochlear implants.

  3. Jennifer
    July 31, 2010 at 1:43 AM | Permalink

    I feel I must reply to this post as the writer is grossly mis-informed about children who are pre-lingually implanted. The author states that, “The reality of longitudinal success rates for prelingual implants remains inconclusive and unimpressive.” There are many studies being conducted about this very thing. I have two children who are involved in this one: http://cdaci.org/information.html. I have three deaf children, all bilaterally implanted at different ages. All three of my children are conversant in ASL because they are and always will be deaf. I grew up in the deaf community and culture. I understand what traditional “hard core” oralists have done to the DEAF. I have witnessed it in my own family. I do not support that view and I do not support the view to do nothing and let them be Deaf. My children are proof that in this day and age, a person can have the best of both worlds. Both worlds must be willing to allow it though.

  4. August 2, 2010 at 1:16 AM | Permalink

    I must mention that being oral do NOT leave deaf children behind. Rather they helped bridging the difference with hearing people. I do support learning American sign language however. I believe learning both oral and ASL would greatly help in development.
    The writer have no basis saying oralism leaving deaf children behind. Myself being oral have no problem. In fact I have graduated with top honors and with high college entrance test scores. Granted oralism may not work with some deaf children. It all depended on children environment and their parents and their willingness. I do believe that deaf children should have a choice as how to learn via ASL or oralism. Being coerced would not assist in development. Rather it will turn them away unwilling to learn anything.
    Both oralism and ASL have worked for deaf children. Doctors should NOT pushed parents to have implants put on. That is like trying to erase ashame and close book on deafness just like they did to mentally ill in 50′s.

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