Hear No Evil: Choosing Deaf
GNST 290: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender & Sexuality
Due: Wednesday, October 30th, 2009
Title: Hear No Evil: Choosing Deaf
In 2002, BBC News published an article about a lesbian couple in the United States interested in conceiving a child. Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough decided, like the many women before them, to visit a sperm bank. Unfortunately, the couple was turned down by a number of banks, not because of their sexual orientation but, because of their request: they wanted sperm from a donor with congenital deafness. Sharon and Candy were both born deaf and wanted to conceive a deaf baby. Without a sperm donor, the couple sought the help of their friend with generations of deafness in his family. With his donation, the couple succeeded in conceiving a son with minimal hearing in a single ear. The decision made by the couple has been highly criticized by the British Deaf Association and the British Medical Association. A staff member at the US National Association for the Deaf stated: “I can’t understand why anybody would want to bring a disabled child into the world.” For a growing population of people who are hearing impaired, deafness is not a disability but instead a cultural identity. In an effort to explain her decision, Candy states: “But you know, Black people have harder lives. Why shouldn’t people be able to go ahead and pick a black donor if that’s what they want?” While I don’t recall my Blackness ever being classified as a disability (though now that I think of it, maybe it should…), her point is rather clear: she agrees that it comes with a unique set of challenges but her deafness is an integral part of her self-identity. Whether we agree or disagree with the couple’s decision, the fact remains that deafness is still seen as a disability, one that ‘needs’ to, and sometimes can be, corrected. The couple agreed that they would let their son decide, once he was older, whether or not he would use a hearing aid. Although the couple gives the illusion of allowing their child to decide whether he wanted to be deaf, it was still their initial choice that led to his deafness. (BBC News 2002) It was this very concept from which two burning questions arose: in instances of deaf children, who is entitled to choose whether they remain deaf and how does the decision maker go about making such a decision?
For many deaf families, the decision to correct the severe hearing loss of their child begins with discussion of the cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is an artificial replacement for the cochlea, the inner ear. The implant has both an internal and external component. The internal portion of the cochlear implant is surgically inserted through the skull into the cochlea and stimulates the surviving cochlear nerve cells. The external components consist of a sound processor with a microphone worn on the ear or attached elsewhere (DeLuca 12). The microphone picks up sound which the processor converts to electrical pulses. The signal is transferred to the piece worn over the ear and transmitted across the skin to the implant where dendrites and ganglion cells in the inner ear are stimulated. The signal is then sent to the brain where the auditory centers perceive it as sound (DeLuca 44). In instances where hearing loss is profound and the cochlear implant is the most successful option, it is a team of technicians and physicians who decide whether the child is eligible for the
surgery. As stated in Access: Multiple Avenues for Deaf People, one “must be a candidate for cochlear transplant” (DeLuca 47). In addition, studies have shown that the greatest benefit occurs when the cochlear implant is inserted into children at an early age (DeLuca 49-50). The following chart includes the chances that the child will be able to enter mainstream education:
|Age (Years)||Probability of Entering Mainstream Education
|Less than 2||90%|
The likelihood of a deaf child entering a mainstream education after cochlear implantation drops significantly each year after his or her 2nd birthday. The ability to enter mainstream education is an important step in the child’s academic career. Data shows that by the age of 16, less than 12% of deaf students can read at a 4th grade level (Lindgren 123). While the family initiates discussion of the cochlear implants for their child, age and a series of tests performed by the medical staff will be the initial decision factors for whether the child will remain deaf.
Due to the low literacy of deaf children, education plays a large role in the decision to obtain a cochlear implant. In the documentary "Sound and Fury", directed by Josh Aronson, a deaf couple, Peter and Nita, consider giving their 5 year old daughter, Heather, a cochlear implant. The decision isn’t made by the couple alone; family and friends give their input. Peter and Nita are one example of deaf people who embrace their deafness as a vital part of their character. Discussions about Heather obtaining a cochlear implant arose from Heather’s own interest in having one, not from the family’s desire to rid her of deafness. When asked why she wanted a cochlear implant, she responded with: “because hearing people don’t sign”. She also begins to mention the things that she would be able to hear, everyday sounds like cars honking and telephones ringing that many of us take for granted. Thus, for children, the interest in choosing to no longer be deaf arises from an interest to communicate with a diverse group of people (hearing people) and a sense of curiosity about the 'wonders' of the world.
Heather was determined to be, by the medical staff, a prime candidate for the implant: she’s young, she’s healthy and she’s an avid learner. However, even with the approval of the medical staff and her own desire to obtain hearing, Heather did not yet receive her cochlear implant. The most weighted decision had not yet been made: the decision of the parents. Throughout the documentary, the parents tried to obtain as much information about the cochlear implant as humanly possible. They visited schools for the deaf and mainstream schools that had children with cochlear implants, they met young girls who had cochlear implants and most importantly, they talked with Heather. Heather was very excited about the idea however the family wasn’t as supportive. Peter’s parents wanted Heather to get the implant and arguments between him and his parents were frequent. Peter's mother constantly reminds Nita that she wants the best for Heather and brings up the fact that Nita is unable to read a recipe, adding the fact that deafness has been known to limit academic achievement. Peter’s mother also mentioned that she wanted her granddaughter to be successful. Peter began to question whether she considered him unsuccessful. These are valid points for in the business world, deaf people do not always advance in their career. Peter and Nita considered all these facts when determining if a cochlear implant was right for Heather. At the institute where the cochlear implant would occur, they learned that if Heather was to obtain the cochlear implant, she would not be able to use ASL for it was common for deaf children to use signing as a crutch and not become as efficient at listening comprehension and in their speech. (Aronson 2000)
As previously stated, deaf people have begun to see their condition as a cultural identity and sign language, their own language, is an essential part of that identity. It becomes eerily clear that while Peter and Nita want the best for their daughter (best being the option that makes Heather happiest and most successful) they wanted her to accept deafness as a part of her cultural identity too. One of the girls with a cochlear implant seemed unaware that she was even deaf and she didn’t use sign language at all. For a couple who wanted their family to embrace their deafness and all the aspects of deaf culture, they didn’t want to risk their daughter giving up her deaf identity. It was ultimately decided, by the parents, that Heather would not receive a cochlear implant.
The decision to obtain a cochlear implant can be first conceived by the child and supported by the medical staff but is ultimately up to the parents. Since age affects the success of the cochlear implant, sometimes, the child is unable to state whether or not he or she wants to remain deaf or become part of the hearing world. It is thus up to the parent to determine what is best for the child. In making said decision, families first must ensure their child is an eligible candidate with tests performed by the cochlear implanting staff. Some of the factors that contribute to deciding on the cochlear implant include: improved literacy after entering into mainstream education, greater career opportunities and the ability to experience all the pleasures of life. I honestly believe that deafness offers a unique life experience that should be appreciated and respected. In addition, the lower literacy rates and career opportunities indicate a need to reform alternative forms of education and not a need to correct what many deaf people consider, their cultural identity. While I do not believe that deafness needs to be corrected or that it is a handicap, I do agree that it alters the deaf person’s life. However, if deafness is all you know, then the alteration comes from trying to change, not from remaining deaf. Deaf people have their own language, a diverse community and a way of living that is different, not impeded. I believe the decision to enter the hearing world should be done solely by the deaf person. Unfortunately, the current correction to deafness is most effective at an age where children cannot make these decisions. For now, giving the child the cochlear implant and aiding in its success while retaining most aspects of deaf culture seems to be a reasonable solution. However, while older ages reduce cochlear implant success, there is still a chance of success. The best option is to allow the child to determine her identity; whether she chooses to remain deaf or enter the world of the hearing she should be solely up to her.
Bacon, Paul. “Sound and Fury”. PBS. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/soundandfury/culture/index.html>
“Couple ‘choose’ to have deaf baby”. Health 2002, April 8. BBC News.
DeLuca, Doreen, Lindgren, Kristin A., Leigh, Irene W., Napoli, Donna Jo. Access: Multiple Avenues for Deaf People. Washington: Gallaudet University Press, 2008.
Lindgren, Kristin A., DeLuca, Doreen and, Napoli, Donna Jo. Signs & Voices: Deaf Culture, Identity, Language and Arts. Washington: Gallaudet University Press, 2008.
Sound and Fury. Aronson, Josh. Artistic License Films, 2000.