I admit it: I'm a total sucker for "inspirational" viral videos that pop up on Facebook and Twitter, especially if there are bunnies involved. But there's one video I'm completely sick of seeing and will be happy to never see again—ones where deaf people are able to hear for the first time.
One of the latest made the rounds today, featuring 40-year-old Joanne Milne of Gateshead, U.K., who was born with Usher Syndrome, a rare genetic disease that affects hearing and vision. News outlets all over the world shared the YouTube video of Milne weeping with joy as she discovered her hearing for the first time, but few looked past the highly emotional moment to explore the scientific explanation behind it, or to explore the question what it's truly like to be deaf.
I'm a CODA—Child of Deaf Adults—and involved in the Deaf activist community. (Note: writing Deaf with a capital D distinguishes people who consider deafness a major part of their identity from people who simply can't hear.) So usually I'm thrilled when people read an article about people in the Deaf community or see a cool video in American Sign Language and think to send it to me. It means that I'm making a difference, however small, in helping to educate people about the Deaf community. However, the "deaf person hears for the first time" videos don't make me smile. They make me want to throw my computer out a window.
These "inspiring" videos continue to push one of the most problematic narratives in the history of the Deaf community: that deaf people are broken and therefore need to be "fixed." In reality, there's no such thing as a happily-ever-after.
Here's what you should know about cochlear implants. Many Deaf people do not qualify for a cochlear implant, regardless of the complicated issue of whether they want one in the first place. Cochlear implants primarily work in one of two situations—a child who is born deaf has the implant put in before they are five years old, or a deaf adult who had full hearing at birth and then lost it at some point along the way can have it put in later.
For the many, many deaf people who do not fall into one of these two camps—like my dad, for instance—the "fix" of a cochlear implant is not an option. So what do these videos say to a deaf person who does not want or cannot have the implant? They say, "this other person is healed now, but you will always be broken."
I want to make it clear that I don’t have a problem with people who choose to get cochlear implants. Medical decisions are painfully personal, and as a woman who doesn’t want politicians telling me what I can and can’t do with my reproductive organs, I’m all for people making the health choices they think are best for them. What bothers me are the maudlin videos produced out of someone’s intense, private moment that are then taken out of context and broadcast around the world. What bothers me is how the viewer never learns how the individual came to the decision about their implant, which factors they took into account, whether their medical insurance covered it. Sometimes we don’t even learn their names.
And although these videos often have a happy tear-jerker of an ending the reality isn't always so shiny and perfect.
Most doctors advise their patients not to leave the house for several weeks after getting a cochlear implant so that they can get used to all kinds of new, but common noises, like water coming out of the faucet or wind hitting a window. Most go through extensive therapy to cope with their newly-altered perspective on life. Some no longer feel welcome in the Deaf community or choose to leave it. Some have trouble relating to old friends.
And then there are the technical issues. While cochlear implants have helped some people regain almost 100 percent hearing, some users report that they can't distinguish between individual voices or that all speech sounds robotic.
There isn't a pill that can eliminate deafness, and videos that make it look like cochlear implants are a miracle cure-all do a disservice to the many Deaf people who think that their lives are plenty inspiring just the way they are.
So, why are these videos so popular, and why does a new one make the rounds on social media every few months? Because viral videos aren't about the people who are in them, they're about the people who watch them. It's much easier to look at a 60-second "uplifting" video and tear up and feel really good about yourself for sharing a post to Facebook than it is to learn anything meaningful about the lives of Deaf individuals around the world. So the next time you see one, don't just cheer for the newly hearing person, but take a moment to think of the others in the Deaf community and the viral videos that won't be made about them.