How Technology Could Threaten Deaf Identity

When cochlear implants are no longer visible, the solidarity of a deaf community may be lost.
Claudia Daut/Reuters

Hearing aids and cochlear implants have improved the lives of the oral deaf, people with hearing loss who speak and may read lips rather than signing. But as technology advances, deaf people may soon have cochlear implants that are invisible to observers, which could challenge the community’s identity.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is developing an entirely internal cochlear implant. Users would charge the device wirelessly; the prototype charger plugs into a cell phone and charges the implant in two minutes. This middle-ear technology created by MIT, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary has already been tested on a few patients, who were able to hear with it. The University of Utah has also previously worked on a microphone that can be implanted in the middle ear.

The currently available cochlear implant is a physical behind-the-ear piece, which looks like a larger hearing aid. It has a microphone, which brings sound through a wire to an external magnet that connects to an internal magnet by the inner ear. The brain then translates the audio it receives from the microphone into understandable messages.

I am a person with a hearing loss. At nine months of age, I was diagnosed as having been born “profoundly deaf.” I received two hearing aids when I was 10-months-old and began learning American Sign Language (ASL) around the same time. My parents then enrolled me in an oral-deaf educational program from preschool to eighth grade, where I learned how to hear and speak. At 11 years old, I got my cochlear implant. Now, I am a member of the everyday hearing world, living in New York, and about to graduate from Pace University.

Within the deaf population, there is a divide over how people with hearing loss should approach technology. The Deaf (note the capital “D”) subculture, largely using ASL, believes we should embrace our deafness and not treat it as something to be “fixed.” Whereas the deaf (lowercase “d”) community has adopted devices to hear and speak, becoming a part of the hearing world. The conflict is essentially over our individual approaches towards our hearing loss, by way of culture and technology.

While I have many deaf friends in both communities, I am a part of the lowercase “d” deaf culture or the oral-deaf group. The emerging technology of invisible implants will challenge our community in dealings both with hearing and Deaf people.

The Hearing World

When venturing into the hearing world, the oral deaf often bump into many who see the cochlear implant (and also the hearing aid) as a “cure” for hearing loss. We have to argue that it isn’t because, while our hearing is improved, we still have difficulty understanding others.

We don’t know if this new internal cochlear implant is a “cure.” It probably won’t be. But in the eyes of many hearing people, it already is.

Deaf people wearing internal cochlear implants will have trouble validating themselves as deaf to hearing people who don’t see a physical device on their heads. The loss of that visual cue will blur the line between the oral deaf and the hearing.

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Patrick deHahn is a writer based in New York.

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