By: Hannah Heitz
When asked why she wants a cochlear implant, the young girl, Heather, explained that she wanted to hear and talk to other kids. Her mother was deeply hurt by Heather’s wishes—going so far as to say that “a part of me died.” After researching, the mother began to contemplate an implant for herself, although at her age it would likely have far less success.
The implant has the best results when inserted early on in development. However, when the surgery is done in early childhood, children are unable to give consent and so the decision comes down to parental judgment. Historically, physicians immediately recommend the implant to parents without addressing the possibility of living a happy, successful life without hearing or the existence of the Deaf community. This was the case for panelist Rachel Kolb, a first year graduate student in the English department, when her parents learned she was deaf.
The doctors presented the option of the cochlear implant as the only option, but Kolb’s mother quickly took matters into her own hands and began researching Deaf culture. Her mother decided not to pursue an implant, and Kolb grew up as a part of Deaf culture. The medical model of immediately suggesting an implant disregards what deafness can be and the unique and valuable culture surrounding the Deaf community.
Morgan Leahy, another panelist, learned about cochlear implants and the Deaf community after suddenly going deaf during her time at Emory as an undergraduate student. Her doctor immediately advised she get the implant and she now uses it to navigate the hearing world. She did not know ASL, though is learning, and had limited exposure to Deaf culture. She describes herself as being a part of both the Deaf and hearing communities. Leahy noted the difficulty of the “little things” she is learning to navigate, particularly in the University setting. Ordering coffee at Starbucks, being a part of class discussion, hearing a friend’s comment—all become an issue when people are not aware that deafness is all around.
There is a lack of social awareness and this is what creates the biggest barrier to equal access for non-hearing individuals. This is the basis of the social model of disability, which promotes equal access and the understanding that all experiences are valuable, despite normative standards.
Editor's Notes: Heather, the young girl featured in the documentary, gave a Ted Talk in 2013 reflecting on her experiences since the filming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhm5OaXJVMQ
*Deaf, with a capital “D” refers to membership of the Deaf cultural group where as deaf with a lowercase ‘d’ refers to the presence of hearing impairment.