How Technology Could Threaten Deaf Identity

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

I can already imagine a situation in which I’m wearing an internal cochlear implant and ask my hearing friends to set up subtitles for a movie. What kind of response would I get? “But you don’t have a hearing aid.” “Are you wearing a cochlear implant? I don’t see one.” “You don’t need captions.”

When I don’t catch what was said in a conversation, I often casually point to my external cochlear implant and say “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said,” or “I totally misunderstood you.” It’s an easy shortcut that would be lost with the new technology.

It will be harder to explain to friends that it may be difficult for us to understand them sometimes if they don’t see us sporting hearing aids or cochlear implants. Will they forget to face us so we can read their lips?

I hate to say I have a disability, but I do. The oral-deaf community often has to ask for accommodations such as captions, note-takers, strobe-light fire alarms, or vibrating alarm clocks. How will perplexed movie theaters, event hosts, school districts, colleges, universities, hotels, and employers receive invisible-implant users requesting disability services?

Will we have to prove we are deaf?

The Deaf Community

The Deaf subculture is able to separate itself from the lowercase “d” deaf group by spotting speaking individuals with hearing aids and cochlear implants. When no one is able to see these hearing devices, internal implant adoptees will likely be seen as purely hearing people.

This isn’t going to improve the divide in the deaf population. If anything, hidden hearing technology could further estrange the two groups.

I imagine in the early stages of adoption, there will still be a core oral-deaf population with visible devices due to cost, interest, and access. The new internal-implant adoptees could feel entirely out of place. They could easily be labeled as hearing, but there may be an entirely new distinction created, a third subculture—something like “new deaf” or “hearing deaf.”

Interestingly, if that divide occurs—if there becomes a third subculture of people who appear, from looks alone, to be hearing—that could give the lowercase “d” deaf community perspective on how the Deaf group feels about oral-deaf people’s current use of technology. As we integrate more fully into the hearing world, what happens to the deaf community? And what happens to the individual’s identity as a deaf person?

The "hearing deaf" might share their deafness while in the hearing world and get perplexed responses. And the Deaf, or oral deaf who wear visible devices, might not accept the "new deaf" as fellow deaf people. If these internal implant adoptees want to identify as deaf people, will anyone believe them? They might feel alone—more so than any oral-deaf person has before. 

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Patrick deHahn is a writer based in New York.

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