Cochlear Implants Gain Acceptance

Published: The Rampage, Volume 47 Number 4, Feb. 2015

When junior Malick Gueye was four years old, his daycare counselors noticed something different about him. He often seemed distracted and unresponsive to their calls. Though the daycare workers said he was fine, Gueye’s worried mother took him to the doctor – and found out he was Deaf, mostly in his left ear.

“My mom broke down. She was crying and so was my aunt. It was a little hard,” Gueye said. “At that time, they just came from Africa, started a life here … [the doctor told them] that I can grow up being Deaf and that’s okay. I thankfully learned sign language to communicate and my parents would try and communicate with me.”

The family decided to look into options for assisting Gueye’s damaged hearing. The doctor recommended he get a cochlear implant (CI), a surgically-installed brain signal device, in his worst ear.

“I had nothing to lose. I could have a hearing aid on one ear, and a CI on the other,” Gueye said. His parents, however, decided it would be best for him to use hearing aids instead, as the CI surgery, especially as a child, comes with numerous health risks.

CIs are usually the first option suggested by doctors to hearing parents with Deaf newborns or children. It is the closest thing a Deaf person can get to gaining total hearing and medically, doctors find it to be the most helpful hearing assistant later in life.

“Doctors think fix. They want to fix what they consider is broken,” DHOH teacher Jenna Hubble, who is Deaf, said. “So, most babies that are born from hearing parents are given the option to do hearing aids or cochlear implants, and depending on the family, they may go [either] way.”

The surgery for installing a CI, however, destroys whatever hearing the person may have previously had, in order to position the CI and allow it to essentially take over the job of “hearing.” But if the CI does not work properly once it is installed, it could cause a partially Deaf person to completely lose his or her hearing.

“[My mom] was afraid to take the risk; I am too,” Gueye said.

CIs include one piece of machinery placed inside the skin and one around the side of the head. Both parts work to send electronic signals directly into the brain’s nervous system. Unlike hearing aids, CIs do not make sounds louder, but provide a substitute for sound by bypassing the damaged section of the ear and allowing the user to depict words more easily.

“I can hear words better and then can learn how to talk better because [I hear] the sounds more clearly,” freshman CI-user Adam Snyder said.

Both Snyder and sophomore CI-user Aya Ettayeb had only positive feedback regarding their CIs, expressing that they have not experienced any problems. According to Ettayeb, the technology has helped her advance in school and communication.

But in addition to the health risks of CIs, many Deaf people believe that cochlear implants threaten the continuation of Deaf culture and the traditions the Deaf community has created to bond those with their disability.

“Right when cochlear implants first came out, Deaf people were angered,” Hubble said. “They were afraid of losing their culture. They were afraid of losing American Sign Language (ASL).”

Compared to other assistive hearing methods, like hearing aids, CIs can potentially allow a Deaf person to “hear” most sounds. It is because of this advantage that the Deaf community reacted negatively – and sometimes still does react negatively – to the new technology, though Hubble said the community in general is now more accepting of it.

Another difference between hearing aids and CIs is the cost. According to Hubble, CI surgery, generally given at a young age, costs a flat $50,000 and is covered by most health insurance companies. Hearing aids, however, cost around $2,000 each and in most cases are only covered until the user is 18 years old.

Insurance companies often do not want to commit to paying for hearing aids for the rest of a person’s life. Hearing aids are usually upgraded after 7-8 years of wear, which becomes an expensive investment. This being said, hearing aid users often feel they need and deserve help in paying for the technology. Either way, it comes with immense benefits.

“Every time I get a new hearing aid, it’s improved and better than the last one that I had,” Gueye said. “The technology improves. Five years ago, I could be outside with my friends; they could hear birds chirping, but I couldn’t. Now I can actually hear birds chirping when I’m outside, like real quiet ones. Like right now, if there was a water drop, I could hear it.”

Whether someone has a CI or hearing aid, the most important thing, Hubble said, is for Deaf people to remember they have a community of individuals just like them.

“Either way, the person is Deaf,” she said. “Whether they have the cochlear implant or not, they were hard of hearing or with some hearing loss. They are Deaf … A lot of the Deaf students here don’t have any outside influences [like family members] in the Deaf community. They have each other.”

At RHS, the bond between fellow DHOH students is especially strong because of programs such as the Academic Bowl and ASL classes. The latter also gives hearing students the opportunity to learn an important part of Deaf culture.

“[We like to make sure] everybody sees what it’s like to be in an environment where everyone is Deaf,” Hubble said. “Even myself, I did not grow up in the Deaf community. I’m a part of it now, and part of me wishes I was a part of it my whole life, because I finally feel welcomed, feel like myself. I don’t feel alone anymore. I want them to be proud of who they are and not hide it.”