MYTHS AND FACTS

A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY

The term "Deaf" (with an uppercase "D") is used here to emphasize a cultural affiliation: deaf people in the United States and Canada who use American Sign Language as their everyday means of communication, who identify as culturally-Deaf, and who consider themselves members of the Deaf community. (Members of Deaf communities in other countries use their own native sign languages, but for the sake of simplicity, only ASL is mentioned here.) Many, although not all, have attended schools for the deaf; a number have also attended the "Big Three": NTID at RIT, Gallaudet, and CSUN. We use the broad, inclusive term "deaf" (lowercase "d") to refer to any person who is medically/audiologically deaf, irrespective of communication mode, cultural affiliation, or identity. We also use the term "Hearing" (uppercase "H") to emphasize the cultural aspect of the hearing community.

We are using the pronouns "we" and "us" to refer to the MSM Productions, Ltd./DEAF.com staff and, in a broader sense, members of the Deaf community–which includes ASL-Deaf people and hearing people who share our concerns and support and encourage our work. The Deaf community is an intermodal alliance–that is, it includes deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing people. This is the community we serve.

Click on any question to read the answer.

What is your opinion of cochlear implants? Many doctors are calling it a "revolutionary technology" that is transforming what had been an isolated group of people, namely the deaf. How do you see the development in implants?

Do you feel that the mass media has given the CI controversy fair and balanced coverage? Or has it been biased? If so, how?

Can you give me an example of media bias?

What is the impact on Deaf culture of the growing number of people who are using these devices?

Do Deaf people feel insulted by the fact that so many hearing parents are willing to risk putting their children through surgery in order to eliminate deafness?

What bothers you most about implants?

What are some of your concerns about children with CIs?

On what basis do you say that they have no real interest in the well-being of deaf children?

What else bothers you?

Doesn’t the CI cure deafness? Doesn’t it make a deaf person hear? Doesn’t it enhance the quality of life for deaf children?

Isn’t it important for deaf people to acquire good speech and listening skills?

Aren’t deaf people who have good speech more successful than those who rely on signing alone?

How much person-to person contact have you had with deaf people with implants?

Do you consider people with CIs part of the Deaf Community?

Aren’t most people with CIs happy about their implants?

Do you have questions about the effectiveness and safety of implants?

Well, they can give implantees antibiotics, right?

If the CI is here to stay, isn’t it a waste of time and energy to try and fight it?

Those who are in favor of cochlear implants say that implants can make deaf children and adults hear. But Deaf advocates say that even with an implant, a deaf person is still deaf. What does that mean?

Even so, doesn’t the CI have the power to bring an isolated, marginalized group of people into the mainstream of society?

Aren’t implants a good thing for society?

Why are some deaf people so bitterly opposed to implants?

Why do you object to giving implants to deaf children?

Isn’t some hearing better than nothing? Isn’t artificial hearing better than no hearing at all?

Shouldn’t all deaf children be able to enjoy the world of sound?

Aren’t a number of born-deaf or early-deafened children getting remarkable, even miraculous, results from their implants?

Won’t the implant prevent illiteracy in deaf children?

If the Deaf community is losing the war against childhood CIs, what are some of the reasons?

Are CIs improving public attitudes towards deaf people?

What’s the real motivation of those who oppose childhood implants? Do Deaf people oppose CIs because they need to recruit deaf children to keep the signing community viable?

What’s been happening with the CI controversy on DeafNotes?

Who are these implant evangelists, anyway?

Illicit promotion? How?

But aren’t the implant corporations interested in reaching out to your largely deaf readership?

But don’t kids with implants make miraculous progress?

If deaf children can benefit from a CI, why deny them the opportunity? Why consign them to a childhood of silence?

Aren’t parents who decide to give their deaf kids implants giving them more communication choices, instead of limiting them to signing alone?

Are implants a form of child abuse? That’s what Deaf Culturalists claim. What’s your view?

So what do these Deaf advocates really want?

If education for the deaf was primarily oral was so many years, and signing was forbidden, how did ASL survive?

Do students in oral schools still practice signing? How do they pick it up? What about kids with CIs?

How is ASL going to survive the CI onslaught?

Do kids with cochlear implants identify as deaf or hearing?

Will the Deaf community survive the cochlear implant? Won’t implants ultimately render it obsolete?

Will the implant destroy Deaf culture?

What’s so special about Deaf Culture? Why should it be studied by hearing high-school and college students? Why should people with CIs care about it?

Deafness is a disability. Aren’t opponents of CIs denying their disability?

EDITORS’ NOTE

FULL TEXT

What is your opinion of cochlear implants? Many doctors are calling it a "revolutionary technology" that is transforming what had been an isolated group of people, namely the deaf. How do you see the development in implants?

Many of us are extremely skeptical about the claims we’ve been reading in the media and cochlear-implant (CI) promotional literature. We sometimes suspect that the media plays up the advantages of the CI while dismissing the disadvantages. We have no quarrel with deaf teenagers or adults who choose to receive implants. We have profound reservations about the current trend of implanting deaf infants and children.

Do you feel that the mass media has given the CI controversy fair and balanced coverage? Or has it been biased? If so, how?

One thing that disturbs us when reading media coverage of CIs the staggering quantity of ignorance displayed by some of those who are reporting and commenting on it. Even in prestigious newspapers and periodicals, we’ve found a lot of slanted language utilized by journalists that reveals prejudice: e.g., describing the CI as "a cure for deafness" and the sensory experience of the unimplanted child as "a world of total silence."

In 1997, a leader of the National Association of the Deaf patiently endured a two-hour interview for a TV-news special on CIs, giving articulate responses to each question as she was videotaped. She was asked boorishly ignorant questions like "How can you deny hope to deaf children?" The program, as broadcast, allotted her perhaps 30 seconds of commentary. What she had to say ended up mainly on the cutting-room floor.

We’ve been contacted by a few reporters and asked some good, tough questions. By "tough," we mean that they’re not the sort of questions that lend themselves to quick answers. They can’t be answered breezily in the space of a sound bite. Reams of paper have been chewed up and tankloads of ink spilled on this topic already–and we’ve scarcely begun. We appreciated the reporters’ approach, and their open-mindedness, their willingness to ask us how we felt about this issue. However, in most cases, the responses we gave these reporters weren’t published. In the case of People Weekly, an editor (not the reporter who contacted us) made the decision to publish a quote from a Deaf celebrity instead of anything from us. The DEAF LIFE staff didn’t qualify as celebrities. No quotes from us were used in the USA Today writeup as it was published. That’s how the media business goes: you give them lots of detailed responses, but you’re lucky if you get a couple of sentences in the published or broadcast version.

We wouldn’t go so far as to say that the CI lobby controls the media. (We sometimes suspect that they do because they have money to burn. The Deaf community doesn’t.) But doctors, CI surgeons, clinicians, audiologists, and other members of the medical lobby command a lot of respect in our culture just because they’re members of the medical profession. The public listens to them. They have high visibility. They have prestige. When you have quickie news coverage of this issue, you often see the doctor making some typically authoritative comment like "We get much better results with implants when the children are young. The earlier it’s done, the better the outcome." Cut to a member of the grassroots-Deaf community (usually one without medical credentials) making a comment like "We Deaf people are not broken, and we don’t want to be fixed." Which one has more media visibility?

The media loves parents of kids with implants. They certainly get a sizable chunk of the spotlight. It’s hard to resist the sight of cute little kids, especially those whose parents insist that they’ve given them CIs because they love them and want the best for them. And then the videocams focus on little Kimmy or Jimmy learning to talk: "Mama! Dada!" The public just eats it up. And where are the signing-Deaf children of signing parents? They’re not in the spotlight.

Another thing: in articles about newly-implanted deaf children, you always read what the adults (the doctors, audiologists, and parents) have to say about the child’s progress, but you rarely read what the deaf child says, how she feels, what she thinks. The adults are making the decisions, articulating their reasons, justifying their actions–and the deaf child remains silent, inarticulate. But when Deaf adults (and the vast majority are deaf children of hearing parents) speak out against the CI, they are portrayed as dangerous enemies of progress, as extremists, fanatics, and militants. Their concerns are frequently downplayed or dismissed. An anti-implant protest rally in Canada (1995) made it into Chuck Shepard’s "News of the Weird," but not the front pages.

Can you give me an example of media bias?

There’s an article by Arthur Allen posted on the Salon.com site in Spring 2000, titled "Sound and Fury" and subtitled "Thousands of deaf kids can hear, and speak, thanks to a stunningly effective ear implant. So why is the deaf community in an uproar?" To quote one of the statements: "Many leaders of the National Association of the Deaf have gotten implants, and the group is redrafting a position paper to make it more friendly to cochlear implants." We were aware that NAD was redrafting its old CI position paper, but who were these NAD leaders who had received implants? Nancy J. Bloch, NAD Executive Director, told us, "I don’t know where Arthur [Allen] got the ‘many leaders’ and ‘more friendly to cochlear implants’ part, so cannot comment on this. I can tell you that the NAD cochlear implant committee is in the process of developing a new position statement for consideration by and approval of the NAD Board of Directors. It is expected that the new position document will be less adversarial than the original, take into consideration the rights of parents to make balanced and informed choices on behalf of their children, and the need for emphasis on visual language development, among other things." It’s safe to say that no NAD leaders have received implants.

And "stunningly effective?" Really?

What is the impact on Deaf culture of the growing number of people who are using these devices?

It has created an uproar in the Deaf community, to be sure, and a lot of bitter feelings. There has been some public outcry. A number of implanted kids have entered the schools for the deaf. How well has it been working out for them? Are they making good progress? Deaf children have been known to haze implanted kids mercilessly. Parents of implanted kids have been publicly confronted and excoriated by Deaf people. There has been name-calling, shouting, and a lot of online flaming. The CI has ideologically split the Deaf community, and has shaken up families. This was evidenced in the Aronson documentary Sound and Fury. The Artinian family, which has deaf and hearing siblings exposed to Deaf Culture, and deaf children born to the deaf and hearing siblings, was painfully divided on the issue.

Do Deaf people feel insulted by the fact that so many hearing parents are willing to risk putting their children through surgery in order to eliminate deafness?

Insulted, perhaps, but perhaps a more accurate response is "disturbed." We’re gravely concerned about the effect that the implants will have on these children’s educational careers, their social lives, their communicative skills, their emotional health, their futures, and their overall well-being. We feel that there’s some degree of deception going on, that the parents are not getting the full story before making the commitment.

Deaf people, quite understandably, feel threatened by the implant in a way that they don’t feel threatened by other technological advances such as hearing aids, signaling devices, and the Internet. Hearing aids, let it be remembered, are completely removable. An implant is a permanent installation. The new implants are used with babies, and the community "feels that they’re being robbed of their most precious resource–deaf children." (We’re paraphrasing a statement we recently read.) The implant takes away more than it gives.

Deaf people in this country have been fighting to gain equal respect as citizens, and to have their language, ASL, recognized and respected, and to give deaf children a wider choice of options than the traditional pure-oral regimen imposed by virtually all schools for the deaf and deaf-ed programs–and just as soon as we get ASL out of the closet, get some recognition and respect for it in the academic community and general society, along comes the implant and a new boom in the most rigorous kind of oral/aural approach. Some of us don’t see this as technological progress, but the worst sort of backlash. It’s not progress as much as a new twist on retrogression.

What bothers you most about implants?

Several factors.

We are gravely concerned about implants becoming a "trend." Remember when tonsillectomies were the medical trend? If your child got sick and had inflamed tonsils, s/he was trundled off to the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Finally, when medical researchers realized that tonsils might play a hitherto unrecognized role in keeping the immune system healthy, and parents realized that tonsils were better off left alone, the trend died out.

One mother of two grown deaf children has compared cochlear implants to silicone breast implants, which the FDA assured us were quite safe, and were part of a cosmetic trend–until word got out that there were might be some very bad consequences.

Some of us see implants as the latest medical fad for "curing" deafness. There is already a backlash of youthful implantees who are, for various reasons, unhappy with their implants and have stopped using them. A few have even had them surgically removed. It’s too soon to see whether they represent the vanguard of a growing faction of dissidents or a disgruntled minority.

What are some of your concerns about children with CIs?

We are concerned about the well-being of deaf children, and their families, too. We’re worried about the grueling oral-aural rehabilitation they typically have to undergo, the way that clinicians and doctors frequently tell the parents not to use any signing whatsoever with their children, the banishment of sign language and Deaf mentors from their lives, and the possible negative effects of the mainstreaming that will be the norm for a majority of these kids.

We’re worried that at least some of them will be left without any effective language. Their parents won’t learn to sign, they won’t get any real exposure to it in public schools, and they’ll be deprived of this tremendous source of enrichment.

The implant industry has a ready sucker market in parents of newly-diagnosed deaf babies. They’re in a state of shock. They may be grieving. They desperately want their children to be "normal," to participate fully and to enjoy all the advantages of life in the "real" world. Choose a world of sound, the propaganda urges them, if you really care about them. And they feature stock photographs of attractive, happy children (undoubtedly portrayed by hearing models) in their ads. Who could resist such a come-on?

There’s a growing trend to send newborns straight to the implant clinic after the hearing-screening tests confirm that they’re deaf. We imagine that some parents are persuaded (or pressured) to make this decision quickly, "for the good of the child." They won’t have to worry about learning to sign or choosing a school for the deaf. Wham! The kid’s "fixed."

We’re worried about the way the cochlear-implant corporations have been promoting implants as a providing a magic key to a deaf child’s success in the mainstream, and the misleading advertising surrounding the promotional campaigns, which are, naturally, aimed at the parents–parents who are coping with the shock and grief of their children’s deafness and who desperately want their deaf kids to be "normal." These campaigns use highly selective data to present an incomplete, even deceptive, picture to parents. They tout the "higher quality of life" supposedly enjoyed by young implantees, as compared with unimplanted deaf children. The implant industry, as far as we can tell, has no real interest in the total well-being of these children, nor their struggles in the mainstream, nor their futures. They just want to market their product globally. They want their profit margin.

On what basis do you say that they have no real interest in the well-being of deaf children?

They’ve admitted as such themselves. In a Washington Post article, a top executive of the leading CI corporation said that his company wasn’t "in business to serve the Deaf Culture" (i.e., deaf people), but to serve hearing parents. No CI surgeons or representatives from the implant industry have, to our knowledge, ever bothered to visit schools for the deaf or mainstream programs to see just how well the consumers of their prostheses are doing in their everyday lives. The implant industry has never sponsored any Deaf Culture or ASL-affirmative events. They do send representatives to Deaf expos to staff information booths, disseminating free CI promotional materials. But we never read about grants to schools for the deaf or any community initiative that isn’t strictly self-serving.

What else bothers you?

We’re worried about the way implants are marketed to parents of newly-diagnosed deaf babies. Now, ostensibly, statewide screening programs are supposed to present the options to parents in a fair, unbiased way. But if the Cochlear Corporation has a better, more aggressive marketing campaign than, say, the National Association of the Deaf, are they scoring more hits with the parents?

Question: Do parents of deaf babies really understand the options before they commit to an implant?

Question: Are implants really a more cost-effective measure in the long run than a sign-based education at a school for the deaf?

Question: Do parents whose children get implants have higher expectations for them than parents who don’t?

Question: What long-term effects do the implants have on a deaf child, socially and academically?

We’re concerned about the way the popular media (women’s magazines, for example) carry glowing, simplistic stories about the "miracle" of the implant ("the gift of sound!"), without discussing the children whose experience with implants has been less than "miraculous." When they tout a certain child making exemplary progress with the implants, are they including full details of the child’s communication capabilities before he got the implant? In some cases, they omit this data. Some of this success is undoubtedly due to active parental involvement. If deaf kids are from achievement-oriented families that place a lot of importance on reading and writing, they automatically have an advantage over those who don’t. A good measure of a child’s success in school can be attributed to the early acquisition of literacy–getting exposure and plenty of extracurricular practice in reading and writing. We would like to know what effect implants have on these vital skills.

Many of us in the Deaf community are likewise concerned about these things. The high cost of the implant, the fact that there is still no reliable way of predicting how much the implant will benefit a child or what its long-term effect on her life may be, the attitude of some doctors and implant-clinic staffers who prohibit any use of signing in the rehabilitative regimen, parents who refuse to allow their child to get any exposure to ASL, the additional burden being placed on deaf children who are forcibly mainstreamed–all of these things concern us.

And, yes, we have been speaking out about it, but since we lack the political clout of the CI lobby, our response has been scattershot. There is no single unified anti-childhood-implant organization.

Doesn’t the CI cure deafness? Doesn’t it make a deaf person hear? Doesn’t it enhance the quality of life for deaf children?

We are concerned about the way the implant is being promoted as a "cure for deafness." Calling the implant a "cure" is a fallacy. The implant does not cure deafness. From what we understand (and we have discussed this at length with people who have chosen implants for themselves), it is plain wrong to describe an implant as a "miracle" or "cure." In most cases, profound sensorineural deafness is not a "curable" condition. It’s permanent. Unless there’s a middle-ear or bone-conductivity problem that can be reversed or remedied surgically, a deaf person will always be deaf. A CI doesn’t magically or bionically undo this. There seems to be widespread misunderstanding about just what an implant can do and what it cannot do.

What it does is to enable the user to perceive sounds and distinguish some degree of sound discrimination–and there is evidently a wide spectrum of results from user to user, ranging from negligible to the superb. The user has to undergo intensive rehabilitation to learn to perceive these sounds as speech, music, danger sounds, noises, etc. It is not a miracle fix. It doesn’t magically restore lost hearing; it gives the user the functional capacity of some hearing. It doesn’t make a deaf person hearing, but more like hard-of-hearing. While some implantees are able to carry on regular voice conversations on the telephone, others cannot. The outcome is quite unpredictable.

Just what is the quality of sound the implantees perceive? One audiologist was quoted in a Sacramento Bee article (2001) as saying that with an implant, 22 electrodes were "doing the work of 30,000 hair cells." The 22 or 24 electrodes in an implant can’t possibly replace the thousands of microscopic hair cells in the cochlea that give richness and depth to sounds as they are perceived in normal hearing. One cochlear-implant usr likens the sounds he heard in his implant as "environmental noise." Perceiving "environmental noise" is not equivalent to hearing the full spectrum of sounds.

Isn’t it important for deaf people to acquire good speech and listening skills?

Yes, these skills are important, but we don’t believe that speech and speechreading should be our #1 educational priorities.

Many people automatically equate "good speech" with intellectual prowess. By this logic, to speak well is to think well. And this is simply not true. There are a number of hearing people who can talk well, but they certainly aren’t intelligent!

We don’t believe that the be-all and end-off of deaf education is the acquisition of "normal" speech. How many hundreds, even thousands, of hours does a deaf child with an implant spend in speech and auditory therapy? Much of this time could be more profitably devoted to getting a real education–improving literacy skills, for example.

The oralists don’t want to admit it, but the fact is, deaf children who have a strong foundation in sign language actually do better in acquiring good speech skills. Why? Because they already have a foundation in language when they start speech practice. Compelling the children to practice speech and listening before they have a working knowledge of language only retards their progress. It’s putting the cart before the horse.

Aren’t deaf people who have good speech more successful than those who rely on signing alone?

This is one of the most frequently-reiterated claims of the oralists: that oral-deaf people are more successful than signing-Deaf people, that they have unlimited educational and employment options and a vast array of social opportunities, whereas deaf people who depend on signing as their everyday mode of communication are restricted educationally and employment-wise and limited socially to a small, isolated group of signers. This is negative propaganda. It doesn’t represent the truth. The true picture is far more complex than the oralists would have you believe. Sign language doesn’t restrict us. It doesn’t limit our horizons, it frees us to be ourselves. We don’t consider ourselves constrained or limited by our preference for ASL.

Members of the CI lobby want parents to believe that in choosing an implant for their children, they’re giving them a magic key to entry into a world without limitations. This, too, is propaganda. The reality is not quite that neat.

How much person-to-person contact have you had with deaf people with implants?

We have a few friends with CIs, and have had some degree of friendly contact with several other people who do have them, primarily those who have appeared on DEAF LIFE covers and those profiled in Great Deaf Americans: The Second Edition. And people we’ve "met" through the Internet, and in person.

At an educational conference in North Carolina, we met several deaf children with implants, and none of them could communicate with us. And since this was an inclusive conference, the kids could see Deaf adults, teens, and children signing fluently to each other. Since they hadn’t been exposed to signing (it’s typically forbidden in strict oral programs, and their parents were not using any signing at home), they couldn’t join in. They were smart enough to realize that they were missing out on something important.

At another conference a few years ago, we met a deaf woman who had chosen an implant for herself, and we had a good talk. She told us that she didn’t believe that implants were right for deaf children, that it should be a matter of informed choice, that implants didn’t make a deaf person hearing. A number of deaf people with implants are fluent signers, and didn’t sever their connections to the Deaf community after getting one. (Getting flak from Deaf anti-implant advocates is another matter entirely.) Choosing an implant is a decision they’ve made for themselves because they want to gain access to the enrichment of sound, to be better able to modulate their voices, to hear the voices of their spouses and children, to enjoy music, maybe even use a voice telephone. They still consider themselves deaf.

Some members of ALDA (the Association of Late-Deafened Adults) have gotten them. Late-deafened adults are often considered exemplary candidates. Virtually all have retained clear speech, have "Hearing" backgrounds, and maintain strong connections to the Hearing community. Some have already learned to sign and also participate in Deaf-community activism. They represent a fascinating and colorful segment of the Deaf-community population.

Do you consider people with CIs part of the Deaf Community?

Certainly . . . if they want to be. We are amply aware that some oral-deaf persons, with or without implants, reject any idea of affiliation with this community. They identify solely with the Hearing community. That’s fine with us, since it represents their choice. It’s not likely that our paths will cross.

Oralists and signers have a number of shared concerns. Some of these are: telecommunications (access to 911 and other emergency services; the availability of TTY payphones), media (closed-captioning of local newscasts, open-captioned first run movies in cinemas), access to public facilities; and communicative access (getting sign-language or oral interpreters when they’re needed). And for most people with cochlear implants (most of whom, as far as we can tell, have achieved more modest gains than the spectacular ones enjoyed by Sigrid Cerf!), these concerns haven’t been eliminated. You would have to talk to the people with implants to get their views. Some are oralists; some are signers; some are eclectics. There’s a wide spectrum of experiences and a diversity of views. All deserve representation.

Aren’t most people with CIs happy about their implants?

We are quite aware that some implant users love their implants, enjoy what the implants do for them, and would never consider having them removed. Some, who have received implants as children, are glad their parents made that decision for them. Others aren’t. A good number of adults with CIs (and who are happy with them) don’t believe that they’re appropriate for children.

Do you have questions about the effectiveness and safety of implants?

Many questions. We’ve been following the biotechnological developments with interest. We’re aware that the 24-channel implant is much less obtrusive-looking than the previous models, and small enough to be used in infants.

We are simply not convinced that the CI is the ultimate solution to the "problem" of being profoundly deaf. As is fairly well known, the installation of a CI destroys whatever residual hearing the implantee might have. During CI surgery, a narrow tube containing the array of electrodes is inserted into the cochlea, like threading a flexible wire into a nautilus shell. This requires cutting into the cochlea and irreversibly destroying some of the tissue. There are a number of deaf people who consider this prospect scary, since the surgery cannot be undone. A number of these people are intrigued by the possibility of a pill that might enable the nerve tissue to regenerate, thereby gaining or regaining he capability to hear, but they are disturbed by the prospect of having to undergo invasive head surgery. The CI still, as far as we can tell, has a totally unpredictable outcome.

The FDA approved cochlear implants for adults in 1985, and for children over 18 months of age in 1990, and has subsequently lowered the age to infancy. Deaf people (e.g., the NAD) have complained that the FDA did not consult them, that their concerns were not taken into account, and that the FDA proceeded recklessly, bowing to the interests of a wealthy industry. The long-term effects of the implants are still unknown, and there is some fear that we may have another "Meme" scenario in the not-too-distant future. Sure, they say, the FDA insists that cochlear implants are safe. Wasn’t this exactly what they were saying about silicone breast implants not so long ago?

Lately, we’ve learned that some CIs manufactured in the U.S. may aggravate or even cause bacterial meningitis, a potentially fatal infection of the lining of the surface of the brain, in children and adults. An Associated Press report dated July 25, 2002 notes that thirteen implantees in the U.S. have come down with meningitis, including two deaf preschoolers who died. According to this report, seven implantees in other countries have also died from meningitis, and these cases are being investigated by U.S. health authorities. Doctors have been asked to report "any suspicious meningitis cases" to the FDA, to "aggressively treat ear infections" in implantees, and make sure children are properly vaccinated against meningitis.

So there is a certain degree of medical risk involved with the CI. It’s not like getting a pair of eyeglasses. It’s not like having one’s tonsils removed. It involves insertion of a foreign object inside the head.

Well, they can give implantees antibiotics, right?

Is it worth the risk?

If the CI is here to stay, isn’t it a waste of time and energy to try and fight it?

We believe in giving parents of deaf kids the full picture–not just the portion that the CI industry wants them to see. We believe that when parents have access to full information, they’re in a better position to make a good decision. We have already heard from some parents who say they weren’t sufficiently informed of the Deaf Community’s attitude towards implants and that if they had known beforehand, would not have committed themselves to giving their child an implant.

We are not fighting against the implant. We support the right of deaf people to make informed choices for themselves.

Those who are in favor of cochlear implants say that implants can make deaf children and adults hear. But Deaf advocates say that even with an implant, a deaf person is still deaf. What does that mean?

The CI doesn’t make a deaf person hearing. It does not constitute a bionic replacement for the delicate and complicated sense of hearing that has been lost or damaged.

When we say that a person with an implant is still deaf, we mean that it doesn’t nullify one’s being deaf. It doesn’t reverse deafness. It mechanically provides sound stimulation, but it doesn’t make a deaf person hearing. Disconnect the implant, and the user is audiologically deaf again.

A deaf child with an implant is still going to be treated by others as deaf, not hearing. They still need speech therapy, rehabilitation, adaptation, and technological aids. Those who remain in the oralist sector will undoubtedly need oral interpreters. Society doesn’t see implanted people as "ex-deaf," but as "still deaf."

Even so, doesn’t the CI have the power to bring an isolated, marginalized group of people into the mainstream of society?

What do you mean by "isolation"? To us, an isolated deaf person is someone who lacks language and social contact with others who can communicate with him. And by "communication," we mean visual communication.

Deaf people, contrary to negative stereotypes, are not against technological progress. Many of us have fax machines, signaling devices, TTYs, computers, the Internet, caption-capable TVs, and instant-messaging systems. Some of us have wireless pagers. We use and appreciate these devices and programs because they enhance our communicative and working capabilities. They enrich our lives, or simply make them easier. Some of us use hearing aids. Some of us don’t. We are extremely skeptical about the touted "benefits" of the CI. We don’t see how it can de-isolate or de-marginalize the Deaf community. Only a wide-scale positive change in public attitudes can do that, and we don’t see how CIs are accomplishing that. We see it as having more of a negative effect.

Aren’t implants a good thing for society?

For those who have lost their hearing, implants are undoubtedly "a good thing for society." If we became blind, we would want our eyes replaced or fixed. As sighted persons, we’ve had all these decades of experience as a sighted person, so we know what vision means, and what we’d be losing. Those who consciously choose to accept an implant understand that there are no guarantees, acknowledge the risks involved, and accept the possibility that they may not derive significant benefit from it. Those who have had previous experience with sound (late-deafened or progressively-deafened people) tend to do best.

Why are some deaf people so bitterly opposed to implants?

Because they don’t consider themselves as patients with broken auditory equipment that needs fixing. They don’t see themselves in terms of loss or deficit. They don’t see themselves as candidates for head surgery. They see themselves as whole, just as they are. They live full, rich, rewarding lives as Deaf people. They consider CI surgery a violently extreme intrusion into their bodies. The message they’re getting from the medical establishment is "Society isn’t comfortable with your deafness problem, so let’s fix you."

The proponents of implants want the deaf person to bear the full burden of the responsibility for communication, the burden of conforming to what society sees as "normal" and "acceptable." Culturally-Deaf people believe that deaf people are whole and healthy as they are, and that society should make communication more accessible and more just. They want acceptance and understanding.

Do you see deaf people in terms of deficit, of disability, as specimens of auditory pathology, or as full-fledged members of a cultural-linguistic minority? The two views are essentially irreconcilable. Someone who maintains that deafness needs to be cured will probably not understand the cultural view of ASL.

Entirely aside from that is the expense factor. Implants usually cost something like $50,000 a pop, and we don’t think that figure even includes the ensuing regimen of auditory and speech therapy. How many of these parents would plunk down that kind of money if it wasn’t covered by health insurance? And one of the lines of reasoning used by these advocates is that the implant is, in the long run, cost-effective. It’s cheaper than the ultimate expense of sending a child to a school for the deaf and having the government put her on the SSI rolls after she graduates. Ah . . . but is it really? All those clinical and rehabilitative and audiological services are expensive, and someone’s gotta pay for them!

Culturally-Deaf people have moral qualms about helping to pay for someone else’s implant, especially when that someone else is a deaf child. They also have qualms about the implant industry’s making money off deaf people’s deafness. As far as we know, no deaf people occupy high positions in these corporations or clinics. Few, if any, deaf people are directly benefiting from the implant windfall. The implant industry is profiting directly from deaf children’s deafness–and what is it doing to improve the overall quality of deaf people’s lives? To some of us, this is an ethical issue. Ask any culturally-Deaf person how s/he feels about this, and you’re bound to get a vehement answer.

Why do you object to giving implants to deaf children?

We don’t feel that cochlear implants are good for born-deaf children. Why? It confuses them. It aggravates sensory confusion. Instead of being able to focus on language acquisition, they’re being forced to focus on auditory therapy. They should be encouraged to develop a strong foundation in visual language first before embarking on a speech-and-hearing regimen. Learning should utilize our strongest senses, not our weakest one. Deaf people are primarily visual learners, not auditory learners.

Our feeling is that you can’t force a born-deaf child to comprehend sounds any more than you can force a blind child to see colors. The sounds they’re getting from the implant are not natural sounds, they’re electronic sounds. Even if they’re responding to the sounds of a water faucet or a passing train, how "natural" are these sounds? They have to be trained to interpret these electronic sounds as speech, etcetera, don’t they?

Isn’t some hearing better than nothing? Isn’t artificial hearing better than no hearing at all?

It depends on the "nothing," doesn’t it? If you envision deaf children as existing in a tragically isolated "world of silence," of course you’ll want to end that isolation through medical intervention. That’s the compassionate thing to do. But if you recognize that deaf people already have a language and a community, and that this can be made immediately accessible to deaf children, then you may change your mind: "Oh, maybe it’s not necessary to compel these children to undergo head surgery to have full and rewarding lives, after all."

Shouldn’t all deaf children be able to enjoy the world of sound?

Yes, we agree that it’s good to expose deaf children to the world of sound–but not at the expense of their literacy! They should acquire a solid foundation in visual language first and foremost, and then literacy skills (reading and writing).

Aren’t a number of born-deaf or early-deafened children getting remarkable, even miraculous, results from their implants?

It’s impossible to deny the glowing tones of the testimonials we’ve read. Still, we find these claims difficult to believe, because this is exactly what the audiometrics industry was claiming about hearing aids for deaf kids–that they would enable children to attain natural or near-natural oral-language acquisition, thereby eliminating the "deafness problem." We’ve had a couple of generations of deaf children growing up with these "miraculous" aids, and we fail to see what "miraculous" effect they’ve had on the acquisition of speech and literacy. We don’t believe that electronic stimulation can be a "miraculous" substitute for natural hearing. Well, you may note, so the 24-channel implant enables a wider and more natural range of sounds to be decoded than was possible with hearing aids? Too bad we can’t take loaner models home and sample them before committing ourselves to the purchase!

Won’t the implant prevent illiteracy in deaf children?

One thing that we’d like to emphasize, and which we feel is getting overlooked in this cochlear-implant slugfest, is the crucial importance of teaching deaf children how to read and write.

As you may already know, most everyone agrees that we have a really big illiteracy and substandard-literacy problem in the Deaf community. No one agrees about the cause. Alumni of oral/aural programs often have the same kind of problems stereotypically linked to those from schools for the deaf. So we don’t think that ASL is to blame for our illiteracy problem.

It is crucially important for deaf kids to learn to read and write competently. The earlier they acquire these skills, and the more highly they develop them, the more academically and socially successful they’ll be, and they’ll enjoy more rewarding careers and happier personal lives. We have shared this view with teachers, parents, and students alike. In our outreach efforts, we’ve encouraged Deaf teens to practice and improve their literacy skills, and to make reading and writing part of their everyday lives–an enjoyable part.

All this sounds ridiculously obvious. But we feel that this vitally important issue is getting trampled and buried beneath the stampede of cochlear-implant controversy. Proponents of cochlear implants claim that kids with implants are able to receive information aurally, as hearing kids effortlessly do . . . but are they really getting all the information? Aren’t they missing something? Is the implant really the "miracle fix" for deaf illiteracy? For decades, hearing aids were touted as the great "cure" for our plight. Most, if not all, students attending schools and programs for the deaf were required to wear them. It was mandatory, even for the profoundly deaf. And how well have these aids improved deaf people’s literacy skills? Not much, if at all.

This intensive aural-rehabilitation regimen that’s part of the childhood-cochlear-implant package–is this really going to help their literacy?

As far as we’re concerned, the ability to read and write is far more important than the ability to speak clearly. (How many deaf people can attain that degree of polish, and how many thousands of hours of speech therapy does it take?) Without a solid foundation in literacy, how can a person develop good speech and listening skills? This implant brouhaha (give deaf kids bionic hearing so they can have better speech!) has distracted us so badly that we’re in danger of losing sight of the priorities.

And this is one thing that worries us: that children with implants are being categorically excluded from the advantages of visual language and visual learning. The implant has unleashed a new assault against ASL and sign-based education. This is definitely not a good thing.

As far as deaf children are concerned, audiometrics should not be at the top of our priorities. Deaf children should learn how to read and write first. They need this far more than they need implants. Reading and writing are far more important skills than speaking and listening. In the electronic-highway era, it has become increasingly important to know how to read well and how to communicate well through writing. Using a computer keyboard to produce coherent, articulate written communications, or even searching the Net, demands a high degree of literacy skill. The need for these skills has only increased, not lessened.

Among the hearing population, as you’re surely aware, the level of literacy in the U.S. has declined precipitously during the past few decades, what with the incursion of television and video. Deaf people with substandard literacy skills are already at a disadvantage in the fiercely competitive job market. We’d like to see more ABE classes for Deaf adults, and a greater commitment to literacy in the schools serving deaf students. We don’t think mainstreaming has been working out well for many deaf children. They’re just not getting an education–not adequate, let alone equal. Now we have an influx of deaf kids with implants coming into the public schools, the schools for the deaf, and the new oral schools. One Deaf superintendent told me (off the record) that there were several deaf kids with implants in his school, and all of them had language delays.

If the Deaf community is losing the war against childhood CIs, what are some of the reasons?

The audiological/oral lobby has far more money and commercial clout than the Deaf lobby does. Compare the annual operating budgets of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and the NAD, and you’ll see what we mean. (If the ASL advocates are such a ruthlessly powerful and influential faction, as our critics argue, why weren’t they able to prevent the FDA from approving implants for deaf babies?) Imagine what schools and programs serving deaf children, teens, and adults could do with the money that’s being spent on childhood cochlear implants–$50,000 apiece! Federal monies spent by the National Institutes of Health to study language acquisition in youthful implantees could be more profitably used to improve deaf children’s literacy skills.

Are CIs improving public attitudes towards deaf people?

We fail to see how the implant boom is improving public attitudes towards deaf people or ASL or the Deaf community at all. Indeed, we see signs of a backlash. It’s so ironic–at a time when more and more hearing high-school and college students are enrolling in ASL classes, and a number of scholars and laypeople are showing increased interest in and appreciation of Deaf issues, there’s a redoubled movement to close down the schools for the deaf, reroute all deaf children into mainstream public-school programs, and to "fix the problem" with implants. When oral/aural and sign-language programs are competing for governmental funding, which one is going to get it?

What’s the real motivation of those who oppose childhood implants? Do Deaf people oppose CIs because they need to recruit deaf children to keep the signing community viable?

Opponents of the Deaf community like to accuse Deaf people of wanting to keep deaf children deaf to maintain a population base for the purpose of perpetuating Deaf culture, or more explicitly, of artificially prolonging a dying and ghettoized subculture by recruiting as many deaf children as they can. According to this logic, they oppose the childhood CI because it diminishes the pool of potential recruits. This is an invidious accusation.

Our motivation is not to artificially prolong a dying and ghettoized subculture, as some of our critics would have it, or to make sure that we have a sizable pool of young Deaf Culture recruits to sustain the Deaf population, but the well-being of all deaf children and their families.

Our concern is for the welfare of deaf children. Deaf adults, as you may know, have traditionally had an impassioned concern for deaf children. They are our brothers and sisters, in a sense, and who else speaks for them? Certainly not hearing parents. Only a deaf person can understand what it’s like to be deaf. And many deaf adults, especially those from oral/aural backgrounds, have personally experienced the pain of exclusion within their own families, missed connections, misconnections, and the terrible frustrations accruing from not being able to communicate or be understood. They understand the failings of oralism that the oralists have refused to acknowledge. This is what they wish to spare other deaf children. This is what they’ve been trying to make parents understand. Why should any more deaf children go through that ordeal? Why should their parents spend enormous quantities of time and money to learn the hard way that they’ve been bamboozled?

A child’s first human need is to communicate. That is the uncontestable first fact of life. Before there can be literacy, there must be language, and to have access to language, you must have a means of communication. Deaf people in the United States and Canada have found that ASL affords them an immediate means of communication and a source of enrichment and freedom. A means of liberation, if you will. This is something that neither the medical/audiological lobby nor the implant industry recognize. (But why should they? When deaf children become ASL users instead of consumers of expensive audiometrics, it cuts into their profit margins!)

We believe wholeheartedly that all deaf children have a right to free, full, unimpeded communication, to language, to literacy, and to the best possible education. We know that the reality is far short of the ideal. Our task is never done. We don’t advocate separatism (being insular and exclusionary), but establishing connections between the Deaf and Hearing communities. We seek to promote better understanding among the factions.

Ah, yes, factions. There is, after all, an ideological rift between the signing and oral factions, and we don’t think that it will ever be resolved. However, as we’ve noticed, the division between "signing" deaf and "speaking" deaf isn’t always that absolute. A number of deaf people from oral backgrounds learn to sign, have Deaf friends, and participate in Deaf-community activities. Some deaf people hold multiple memberships in organizations that putatively represent oppositional aims: the NAD, ALDA, Bell Association, and SHHH.

However, the attitudes of the medical/audiological sector haven’t changed much, if at all. They still don’t recognize Deaf people as a linguistic community; they have no interest in sign language; they continue to see deaf people as physically defective, as having hearing disabilities, as needing to be fixed, as consumers of their audiological prostheses. Those who oppose them are merely obstructing biomedical progress and, like picketers on the sidewalks of the entryway, can be ignored. Let’s proceed with business as usual!

What’s been happening with the CI controversy on DeafNotes?

Our company runs a bulletin-board Website called DeafNotes, which has a forum on cochlear implants. It has been the most frequently-posted and hotly-debated of all the topics on that site since it was launched in July 1999. Hotter than the sign-versus-speech and the mainstreaming debates. The debate quickly began getting acrimonious, with parents who have chosen to give their deaf children implants posting threads like "Cochlear Implant Success Stories," and verbally slugging it out with Deaf people who feel that implants for deaf children are a form of child abuse. It has been a real headache for the moderators and us.

We recall how it started. When a woman who had chosen to give her young deaf son an implant entered the debate, it had an explosive effect. We had to delete a batch of postings because the dialogue had degenerated into crude, juvenile mudslinging, name-calling, and insults. This was in explicit violation of the DeafNotes rules of conduct. And that was just the beginning.

It’s not just that these parents think their children’s progress is miraculous and want to tell the world about it; a few of them have been actively and aggressively promoting implants. We call them the "implant evangelists."

Who are these implant evangelists, anyway?

A relatively small number of parents of deaf children with implants. There are a few of them who are notoriously aggressive and belligerent in their ideological stance. Just nasty characters. They have been regularly interviewed by hearing-media reporters. They see themselves as ambassadors for the cause of implanting deaf kids. They have two faces: the mask of the loving, concerned parent (which they show to the hearing media), and underneath, the face of the intransigent bigot (which they show to the Deaf community). We feel sorry for their kids.

Getting back to DeafNotes–now, this site is supposed to be an open forum for the free discussion of opposing and dissenting views, and we encourage open debate. Although we’ve sought to promote the free exchange of views, this site has been a real ideological minefield. The disagreements have occasionally overstepped the bounds of acceptable behavior. We’ve had some difficulty with Deaf advocates, who can be as extreme in their rhetoric as any diehard oralist. But we’ve have the worst trouble with the implant evangelists. We had to ban a few of them because they repeatedly broke the rules–they showed discourtesy to others, insulted opponents, used sarcasm and profanity, and engaged in illicit promotion of commercial cochlear-implant sites. They interfered with other participants’ enjoyment of the site, and made life difficult for the moderators.

Illicit promotion? How?

What they were doing–or trying hard as hell to do–was providing free advertising for the cochlear-implant industry–posting messages with links to corporate and promotional CI sites. And that is expressly prohibited under the DeafNotes rules. Free advertising of any product, service, company, or commercial site is not allowed. This prohibition has been routinely violated by the implant evangelists. When we removed their offensive posts, they screamed and cussed at us. A few of them sent us obscene E-mails. They called us Nazis. They accused us of censoring their free speech by suppressing their news about the miraculous progress their implanted kids have been making. In reality, we banned them because of their stubborn refusal to abide by the DeafNotes rules.

But aren’t the implant corporations interested in reaching out to your largely deaf readership?

Apparently not. In late 1997, after publishing a cover story containing an interview with Sigrid Cerf, we contacted the company that manufactured the implant she uses, and invited them to advertise in DEAF LIFE. We received no response. Neither did we get a response from the other major CI company, which had been sending us frequent promotional releases and propaganda for years. Neither of these corporations evinced the slightest interest in placing an ad in DEAF LIFE or a banner-ad in any of our Websites. And yet, when we removed posts with promotional links, the implant evangelists cried foul.

But don’t kids with implants make miraculous progress?

That’s what the CI lobby and the implant evangelists would like the public to believe. We’re more apt to read about the "miracle stories" of deaf kids with implants because their parents have been actively publicizing and promoting implants, with the aid of the implant industry, which has one of the slickest propaganda campaigns we’ve ever seen. Kids who start signing at an early age (i.e., native ASL users) are relatively invisible in the mass media, since their parents aren’t engaging in the public promotion of ASL. Open up a women’s magazine and you’re bound to see a glowing testimonial by a happy mother about the joys of having a deaf child with an implant: "our miracle child." But do you ever see an article about the delights of parenting an ASL-using child? My proposal: parents of Deaf kids should mount their own promotional campaign: "Here’s our ‘miracle child!’"

We find it morally questionable, the way some of these parents parade their implanted children around to the media, show them off to legislators, have them testify before Congress . . . More funding for cochlear-implant programs, please, and as long as you’re at it, you can cut the budgets of those sign-language programs. We certainly don’t need them.

Some of these implant evangelists exercise a form of denial. They claim that their children were born hearing, then became deaf, so by giving them implants, they’re restoring their children’s original hearing. Can they prove their children were born hearing? Can they really provide proof? Or are they saying these things to justify their agenda?

If deaf children can benefit from a CI, why deny them the opportunity? Why consign them to a childhood of silence?

The issue is not inflicting a "world of total silence" on deaf children but providing them with a rich, immediately accessible visual language and social life. Deaf kids benefit from a signing environment. They don’t need a CI to derive this benefit.

Aren’t parents who decide to give their deaf kids implants giving them more communication choices, instead of limiting them to signing alone?

Many parents who give their kids implants want them to use the oral/aural mode exclusively–no signing allowed. Parents who make the decision to give their children implants often say things like, "We wanted to give our child a choice. If Jimmy wants to learn sign language later and be deaf and switch off the implant, that’s fine with us." But how is Jimmy going to make a choice when he has no daily exposure to ASL or Deaf mentors? When he’s getting exposed only to an auditory/oral approach? When he’s enrolled in a program that discourages signing? When his attempts to communicate in sign are rebuffed or ignored?

Signing does not limit one’s communication options. It is the communication option preferred by most deaf people who have been exposed to it. It is the most natural, comfortable, and enjoyable mode of communication for many of us. It is simply untrue that skilled signers (i.e., those who claim ASL as their first language) become "lazy," that they cannot develop good speech skills. Signers typically develop better speech skills than those who use the oral/aural approach exclusively.

Unfortunately, there are a number of parents who are adamantly opposed to signing, and those who feel that signing is too difficult to learn, and that the CI approach is easier for everyone. They may be far more committed to the CI than to signing. If they feel this way, the child won’t get exposure to good signing at home, and if s/he’s in a strict oral program, may not be allowed to use sign at all at school. That puts a psychological burden on the child.

Are implants a form of child abuse? That’s what Deaf Culturalists claim. What’s your view?

The extreme culturally-Deaf view is that cochlear implants are a form of child abuse, even genocide–accusations that anger parents and, moreover, would be exceptionally difficult to prove in court. We can understand why Deaf people feel this way, why they feel that implants represent the latest of several organized attempts to wipe out Deaf culture.

To understand what seems to be an irrational, even reprehensible, opposition to biotechnological progress, you need to understand something about Deaf history, the attitudes of the oralists, and the control they have wielded over the lives and destinies of deaf people. You need to understand Alexander Graham Bell’s eugenicist views, his obsession with eradicating the "deaf variety of the human race," his friendship with Edward Miner Gallaudet, and the feud that ensued between them, which led to an ideological rift whose legacy was unhappy, even tragic: the turning of the tide of public opinion in favor of oralism and against signing, the upsurge of oral education with its concomitant suppression of signing, the methodical campaign to eradicate sign language, and the pathological view that still holds sway in the medical profession. E.M. Gallaudet founded Gallaudet University, which remained a bastion of signing, but the influence of the oralists pervaded that institution, too, although not as radically as it pervaded the schools for the deaf. At Gallaudet, oralists were treated with deference. Where oralism reigned (and they had an iron grip on virtually all schools for the deaf for close to half-a-century at the least), signing was proscribed, and the ban was enforced with varying degrees of rigor. You need to understand the terrible punishment meted out to deaf children in these schools for exercising that innate human urge, the need to communicate. And the inauguration of the shameful tradition of "oral failures," and the low expectations that became part of the legacy of education of the deaf.

You need to understand the Milan Congress of 1880, which led to the official suppression, or outright banning, of signing in virtually every school for the deaf in the United States, the forcing-out of deaf people from the profession of teaching other deaf people, where they had served with distinction since Laurent Clerc began teaching at Hartford in 1817. And the misery inflicted on generations of these kids, who were deprived of both language and literacy. Sure, we’ve all read about the oral-deaf successes. We wonder about the thousands of kids whose biographies did not represent glowing success stories.

Opponents of Deaf Culture prefer to focus on the exaggerated, extremist rhetoric: the accusations of genocide, the proposal that hearing parents should surrender their deaf children to Deaf advocates to raise, etc. That’s roughly equivalent to analyzing the feminist movement by jeering at a hypothetical gaggle of bra-burners.

So what do these Deaf advocates really want?

What these advocates are asking is that the parents allow the child to have some degree of contact with the Deaf community, to maintain a connection with the community, to let it be a presence in their lives. Deaf children are often starved for adult Deaf mentors. That’s what this "surrogacy gripe" is about. Naturally, hearing parents who dislike Deaf advocates, or who had had one too many dogmatic quarrels with them, have used this as ammunition against them. Denigrating the Deaf advocates buttresses their own positions. Dismissing the entire Deaf community as nutcases or "ASL militants" makes one’s ideological commitment to the CI and the audiological/oral package that much easier.

If education for the deaf was primarily oral was so many years, and signing was forbidden, how did ASL survive?

It survived because it was as essential to us as air, water, and food, because deaf people needed a language of their own, because ASL served their needs admirably, and because they found they could not live without language. The oral/aural regimen did not give them what they needed. Where signing was forbidden, they signed in secret–in the dormitories, in the lavatories, in the toilets. They signed wherever and whenever they could. They signed at the risk of punishment. One favorite tactic of the oralists was to tie students’ hands behind their backs, secured to a chair, to prevent them from signing surreptitiously in class. At mealtimes, they were strictly supervised by hearing staffers (to varying degrees) to prevent signing among themselves.

The suppression of sign did nothing to make the students happier and more well-adjusted. Indeed, it’s common to read firsthand accounts in which deaf people, products of these repressive regimes, look back at their schooldays with anger, frustration, and grief.

However, on-campus chapel services were typically conducted in sign, because it was far easier for the students to understand. So the organized churches, some of whose institutions played an important role in the oralist movement, nonetheless helped keep ASL alive during what we call the Dark Age of Oralism.

Students at rigorously oral programs still go through this kind of experience, to some degree. True, they don’t punish the kids for signing, but signing is discouraged. Where signing is banned, forbidden, or officially ignored, deaf students find ways to sign to each other.

Do students in oral schools still practice signing? How do they pick it up? What about kids with CIs?

In oral schools for the deaf, there is usually a clandestine ASL subculture. They manage to pick it up, sometimes from signing adults on staff (since there are at least a few deaf adults employed by oral schools, although rarely in the top echelons, and these supposedly oral-deaf adults sometimes know sign very well), or they’ll learn it from each other. There may be one student or a few who already have a background in signing, and these students will teach the others. The others pick it right up.

Clarke School for the Deaf, the oldest bastion of oral/aural education in the U.S., had a long-standing and rigorous anti-sign policy for students. They were not allowed to use sign language in the classrooms or outside of it–the hallways, the dorms, anywhere within the boundaries of campus. Students routinely disregarded this policy, but at their peril. Those who were caught signing were disciplined. For the first offense, they received a teacher’s reprimand. If a reprimand didn’t work, they were sent to the principal’s office. If they were caught in the act again, the parents were summoned to the superintendent’s office. After nearly a century of trying to extirpate signing, the administration finally acknowledged the futility of its policy by decriminalizing it. Although deaf kids were still not allowed to sign in class, they were at least allowed to sign freely outside of class without fear of punishment.

We don’t know what the current policies are at Central Institute for the Deaf or St. Joseph’s Institute (both in St. Louis), but we’d wager that they too have their secret signing groups. And in the newly-opened schools for deaf children with implants, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if the kids found a way to sign in secret, too. But it’s more difficult to do that in a day-school environment. It’s nigh-impossible to do in a mainstream environment where the deaf student may be the only deaf person in the school.

Traditionally, deaf children learned ASL from each other, and learned it quickly. Connecting with other deaf signers gave them a basis for communication and community. It undoubtedly saved their sanity, too. It enabled them to make sense of the environment they were in, the relentless bombardment of speech and speechreading they endured and tried to decode. Without that connection, how does a deaf child thrive? The research of scholars like Goldin-Meadow and Mylander have shown that deaf children, deprived of exposure to real sign languages, invent their own. We are concerned about the emotional and cognitive well-being of these young implantees in mainstreamed or strict-oral environments. Some of them, of course, are receiving exposure to ASL. But most, it seems, are not. What are the repercussions to their emotional health? We’d like to see an objective, scholarly study on their progress.

How is ASL going to survive the CI onslaught?

ASL has survived all previous attempts by oralists to wipe it out, and it will survive the CI too.

Do kids with cochlear implants identify as deaf or hearing?

Very young deaf children who feel most comfortable in a sign-affirmative environment quickly develop a definite sense of self-identity as Deaf. They don’t mind being seen as "different." To them, being deaf is normal. They want to be accepted as they are.

What sort of self-identity will these implanted kids have? Will they consider themselves deaf or hearing? A question: What’s special about being deaf if you’re merely seen as a defective hearing person with bionic hearing? What’s there to celebrate?

We ourselves don’t have the answers to these questions. Only deaf people who have grown up with CIs can answer them. Some reject what they see as a "Deaf-Culture mentality." Others consider themselves Deaf, and cherish their connection to the Deaf community.

Will the Deaf community survive the cochlear implant? Won’t implants ultimately render it obsolete?

As long as there are deaf people, there will be sign language. Deny deaf children access to sign, and they’ll spontaneously create their own sign systems. Put deaf people together, and the creation process is accelerated. Prevent from learning it when they’re young, and they will go to it as soon as they have the opportunity.

The Deaf community has managed to survive all previous attempts, well-meaning and otherwise, to demolish it. We believe that it will survive this latest onslaught. It will survive because it fulfils the innate need of deaf people to seek out and communicate with others like themselves, those who truly understand how it feels and what it means to be deaf.

Will the implant destroy Deaf culture?

No, Deaf culture will not die out. It will survive, and it will evolve. We already know that many young deaf people who have had oral/aural educations choose to learn sign language and join the community when they reach their teens or college age. If this is so, we anticipate that a large number of implantees will do likewise.

No matter how assiduously their parents, clinicians, medical professionals, and the implant industry try to make the Deaf community irrelevant and invisible, we believe that many of these deaf kids with implants will ultimately choose to connect with our community. The reason is fairly simple: deaf people like to be with other deaf people, and we have a richly expressive visual-kinetic language (American Sign Language in this country and Canada), and the bond of shared perceptions and feelings. One of our challenges is to extend a warm welcome to deaf people with implants. We cannot afford to reject any deaf person simply because s/he has a CI. The Deaf community, like any other community, contains its share of purists, elitists, and plain snobs. They do not represent all Deaf people. We will do our best to accord "new arrivals" the warm welcome they deserve. If they want to join the Deaf community, we’re here for them.

What’s so special about Deaf Culture? Why should it be studied by hearing high-school and college students? Why should people with CIs care about it?

Hearing people have been teaching deaf people since deaf-ed began, of course. But we believe that deaf people also have much to teach hearing people about language, cognition, communication, coping, and the wonderful resilience of the human spirit. They’ve transformed a devastating disability into a rich socio-linguistic culture. They’ve created a vibrant language. They’ve established a global community. That is cause for celebration.

Learning about deaf people enhances our understanding about what communication is about, the many varieties of language and approaches to learning, and also increases our understanding of how language is processed in the brain (q.v. the ongoing research of Klima and Bellugi at the Salk Institute). We already know how versatile and useful sign language is, and how babies can learn to communicate in sign before they can talk (q.v. Acredolo and Goodwyn’s work on "baby signs"), and how Deaf people are developing a corpus of ASL literature . . . there’s a lot to be fascinated with. Even the controversies are intriguing, for at the core lie the central questions about what it means to be human and to use language.

Deafness is a disability. Aren’t opponents of CIs denying their disability?

All human beings have disabilities. What we do with our disabilities–how we cope, how we respond–is a reflection of our qualities as human beings. Some of us have physical disabilities–and some of us have attitudinal disabilities. Prejudice, the refusal to accept human different-ness, is an attitudinal disability. Some of the comments we’ve read from implant evangelists and journalists are proof that the cochlear-implant trend has not improved public attitudes towards deaf people. Indeed, it has caused a retrogressive backlash. Culturally-Deaf people have been struggling for centuries to have their languages recognized, and to gain acceptance as they are.

The fact is that many disabled people have achieved greatly not despite their disabilities but because of their disabilities. That is a human paradox worth studying. And a good number of deaf people see their deafness not as a curse but as a gift.

Every day now, we’re faced with the task of combating a super-slick propaganda campaign mounted by a powerful and wealthy industry and aimed at parents who may be in a state of shock, who desperately want their children to be "normal," but may have scant idea of what "normal" encompasses. To us, being deaf is normal, and to be Deaf is to be whole. We do not live in a "silent world." We live in the real one, the same world that hearing people live in. Our lives are just as busy and full as those of hearing people. We may communicate differently–using a visual-kinectic instead of an aural/oral mode–but we have hearts, minds, and capabilities like everyone else’s. That’s what we, as Deaf people, want to make the Hearing community understand. We don’t see ourselves as needing "bionic ears" to give us entry into the world. We’re here, we’re whole, and we want to be accepted as we are. Please take note of that.

EDITORS’ NOTE

This site is to be considered "in progress." We solicit input from deaf people who have firsthand experience with implants, negative and positive. We welcome your participation.


Introduction | History | Forum | Newsflash
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