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Cochlear Implants: the Culture Behind ‘Fixing’ a ‘Problem’

Last updated on April 30, 2020

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device that helps deaf people make out sound. Babies are usually screened for deafness at birth, and if they “fail,” doctors offer them an implant as soon as possible. For some people, this is an amazing thing that can provide them with access to more of the hearing world than they could have if they were hearing. 

Woman with a Cochlear Implant

At first, getting the implant seems like the obvious choice. However, this decision is a lot more complicated than one might think. Access to the hearing world comes with a price; the loss of deaf culture.



Caption: This is an image of a cochlear implant, labeling all the parts and where is properly goes on the ear to work effectively.  


The Culture 

Deafness is more than just a physical aspect of a person; it is also cultural. As James McWilliams explains in the article “When Deafness is Medicalized,” “advocates of deaf culture see themselves as a community, not unlike an ethnic group. Endowed with a distinct language and set of traditions, they conceptualize deafness not as a physical condition but rather as a social distinction,” (McWilliams ). More than anything else, ASL connects deaf people together and introduces them to their culture

In Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability by Aimi Hamraie, they discuss designing to normalize disabilities. “The goal of Universal Design is to maximize the normalcy of disability, but assistive technology will always be needed… But Flexibility in Use also mirrors these ideologies in their contemporary manifestation: neoliberal marketing logic” (Hamraie, 239). Hamraie is discussing how in certain circumstances consumerism of aided technologies can define belonging, by making people with disabilities think they need the extra help to be seen as “normal” in society. Engineers and designers have to have the right idea in mind when making things like cochlear implants and prosthetics for rehabilitation. The right idea should be trying to change the environment around us to make it suitable for all bodies, rather than encouraging people to change their bodies to be the “standard body.” When designing technology to help people with disabilities it’s crucial to consider the friction between the body and the machine, and how this assisted technology can work on numerous different bodies. As Hamarie discussed the idea of Universal Design is an ongoing process, and the definition is not static, because bodies are always changing.

Caption: This video, made by VICE News, shows how deaf culture is shifting as tech gains traction

Kirsteen Allison’s Story

Kirsteen Allison wrote a blog in 2018, called My Cochlear Implant Six Years on, and she exemplifies how here cochlear implants help, but also limits her.  She states that “It’s important to remind those considering an implant that it will not give you 100% hearing, but it is still the best thing I have ever done, and I have no regrets whatsoever about having an implant.” Her limitations from her implant are connected to her only have one implant in one ear, she states that “This creates difficulties for me if I am in a busy environment, such as a large meeting or a conference. It can be hard to hear sound from my non-implanted side, and hard to keep up with multiple conversations.”  

A screen shot of Kirsteen Allison’s Twitter.

 Down below is a link to Kristeen Allison’s Twitter, where she posts insightful videos on her experience being a part of the deaf community.

Raquel Tiana’s Story 

Raquel Tiana, 21, known as @raqtiana on Instagram, posts publicly about her cochlear implant through the #cochlearimplant.  She recently created a YouTube channel where she tells her story of getting a cochlear implant as well as talking about current events like how COVID-19 is affecting the deaf community.  Due to COVID-19, Raquel is currently not able to attend mapping which is where the cochlear implant is adjusted.  “They start with a very low volume to give you time to get used to it and then you go back and they adjust the volume so you can hear more,” said Raquel.  Mapping typically starts out as once every week, with regular appointments then every two weeks, then a month, then 6 months, and then on to once a year.

Project Bloom

In our society, deafness is often thought of as a problem that needs to be fixed. This is untrue; deafness is something that is positive in so many ways. The decision to get a cochlear implant should be thought of in a case by case basis, not as a universal solution. We should apply this way of thinking to Project Bloom. It is important to communicate with communities to see what their wants and needs are, instead of trying to fix things that we perceive to be problems for them.

-Penny Green ’20, Emma Herrick ’21, Nenagh Sheehan ’21, Emma Wright ’21

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