The Huffington Post had an interesting article about the prevalence of cochlear implants for babies born deaf. The technology for the implants is staggeringly good and allows babies to function as fully hearing people.
Two to three children out of every 1,000 are born deaf. And fully 90 percent of these kids are born to hearing parents. That means that most of the deaf babies come into a home where parents are likely in shock and denial. Their baby looks like the kid next door and does all the things newborns do — they even coo and gurgle. But their child is a little different because she cannot hear the sounds that she utters. With the guidance of professionals in their community, the parents quickly face two choices. They can learn sign language and can raise their baby within the deaf community, or they can opt for getting the baby — yes, the baby– cochlear implants. Today with the technology at their fingertips, many are choosing implants…
…A quality of life survey on children 8 and 16 years old tells the tale. Loy et al. reported that children with cochlear implants learn to read, go to college, have friends, and have the same quality of life as their hearing friends. They even practice “selective deafness” when a parent tells the teen that he cannot go to the 9:30 viewing of Matrix 2.
This is miraculous technology and one that I view with equal parts wonder and wariness. You see, my husband is the hearing child of Deaf parents. He grew up fluent in both English and American Sign Language and he’s worked as an ASL interpreter. There’s nothing foreign or intimidating to him about deafness. He, like many Deaf people (and I capitalize Deaf to connote Deaf culture as opposed the the condition of being deaf), see deafness as a trait and a culture but not an insurmountable disability.
When our son was born, he failed the hospital hearing test in both ears. With a direct history of deafness in the family, no one took this lightly. We were referred on for further testing at Georgetown University Hospital’s audiology department. And my husband and I had to consider the possibility of a Deaf child and whether we could choose cochlear implants.
While some in the Deaf community oppose implants, my husband’s family is more pragmatic and would have been accepting of any decision we made. However, I was not 100% sure what direction we would have chosen if tests had not revealed that C’s hearing was fine (now that he’s five his listening sucks but that’s not related to his hearing). One of my dearest friends has a congenitally deaf son and she did choose cochlear implants for him. From watching her experience, I knew that it’s not as simple as an operation that restores hearing. It’s a years-long process of activating the implants, fine tuning their operation, maintaining and upgrading the external hardware, and providing speech therapy to catch up a child who didn’t hear until 12 months or later. My friend also taught herself and her son ASL so he would be capable of communicating in the event that his implants weren’t working. There was actually a three month period where he couldn’t use them because ear and sinus problems were causing him pain when the implants vibrated and he screamed whenever they were on.
All of this is to say, that cochlear implants are a major commitment for an entire family. In our family’s case, a deaf child would not have been out of place and it might have been more natural for us to proceed with choosing Deaf culture over hearing culture for our child. We live in an area with a large Deaf community – at the time we lived literally blocks from Galluadet University – and many resources for deaf children and their families. But I was also aware that cochlear implants would provide a child with a choice: you can turn the implants off and choose to not use them and live life as a Deaf person. Because we never had to make the choice, I don’t know what we would have done but I do know that there are a lot of things to consider in making the choice.
The point remains that cochlear implants are an extraordinary scientific achievement. My friend told me today that her son’s latest hardware for his cochlear implants allows him to plug directly into an iPod or their Wii. That’s right. Her 7 year old can stream video games through his own head. She jokes that he’s a bionic kid with very high-tech means of taking advantage of all the same things as his hearing family. It’s an amazing opportunity for a child who wouldn’t have had such choices even a decade ago. Cochlear implants might not be right for every family with a deaf child but they are a wonderful choice for others.
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