Cochlear implants; What they
are, how the work, and the controversy surrounding them
By Lisa Watson
May 2, 2006 | There is a battle going on that most
are unaware of. It is centered around the cochlear implant.
A large portion of the deaf community feels as though
the cochlear implant is not a benefit to someone who
is unable to hear. People in the hearing community disagree.
implant is a small, complex electronic device that
can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who
is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. The
implant is surgically placed under the skin behind the
ear. It has four basic parts: a microphone, which picks
up sound from the environment; a speech processor, which
selects and arranges sounds picked up by the microphone;
a transmitter and receiver/stimulator, which receives
signals from the speech processor and converts them
into electric impulses; and electrodes, which collect
the impulses from the stimulator and send them to the
An implant does not restore or create normal hearing.
When the recipient of the implant removes the magnet
that allows the implant to work, they are still deaf.
However, under the appropriate conditions, it can give
a deaf person a useful auditory understanding of the
environment and help them to understand speech when
coupled with post-implantation therapy.
According to researchers at the University of Michigan,
approximately 100,000 people worldwide have received
cochlear implants; roughly half are children and half
adults. The vast majority are in developed countries
due to the prohibitive cost of the device, surgery and
The controversy surrounding the implant has the medical
profession on one side and the deaf community on the
other. While cochlear implants have been welcomed by
late-deafened adults, hearing parents of deaf children,
audiologists, speech pathologists and surgeons, the
implantation of deaf children has been vigorously opposed
by many from the signing deaf community.
Someone who is not able to hear can unintentionally
become an "outcast" in the hearing community. It is
not a conscious decision to make an individual who is
deaf feel that way, but with the obvious language barrier
it does create an automatic disassociation. Many do
not know a person who is deaf, or have the need to communicate
with them. As a result many in the deaf community are
treated badly. Not only by children but adults as well.
Not only are there social challenges, but educational
ones as well. Renae Plumb has been a teachers aid at
a pre-school for the deaf in Orem, Utah, and a sign
language interpreter at junior high and high schools
around the Salt Lake Valley.
"It is hard to keep the attention of a child who is
deaf. Trying to teach one deaf child is like trying
to teach five hearing children. With a hearing child
you can easily get their attention, give them instruction,
and if they get frustrated or have a question it is
easily expressed. A deaf child gets frustrated easier,
acts out more, and it is a very challenging task to
keep them focused."
Renae has not only submersed herself in this silent
world by the teaching opportunities she has had, but
her husband, Kyle Plumb, is deaf. Kyle, however, was
not born deaf. He lost his hearing at the age of two
due to an ear infection that was not treated properly.
"It is not easy to go through life being different
from everyone else. I get treated differently. When
I go somewhere with Renae and people see my hearing
aids, they ignore me. Even if I ask a direct question
they direct the answer to Renae. At work I get treated
as though I dont know anything. I am one of the hardest
workers there, but becuase I have what they perceive
to be a disability, I get treated poorly".
Kyle does not have a Cochlear Implant, but he does
have hearing aids. His hearing aids allow him to hear
somewhat. But there are sounds that are impossible for
his hearing aids to pick up.
I was able to speak with Kyle's mother Sandra Plumb
and ask her if a cochlear implant was something that
they considered in an attempt to restore his hearing.
"Even though a cochlear implant was an opition that
was considered, we decided that ultimately it would
not be to Kyle's benefit. The technology that can improve
a deaf persons hearing is constantly changing. In the
twenty years that Kyle has been deaf we have been able
to improve the technology of his hearing aids 5 times.
With a cochlear implant it is a common practice to only
have the surgery done on one ear. This is because the
technology is constatnly changeing and improveing. What
we considered to be a problem is that when there would
be new or better technology, the old technology would
only be in one ear and the new technology in the other.
That would cause sounds to be different from one ear
to the next causing consant headaches and a change in
is very invasive. A surgeon has to drill into a person's
skull and go deep into the ear canal to implant the
device. The surgery has become less invasive than it
was twenty years ago, but the risks are still very high.
Kyle said, "People in the deaf community feel very
rejected when someone who is deaf wants an implant.
It means that they want to be differnt and they are
not proud of who they are. This is generally centered
around those who sign and have no type of hearing aid.
Personally, I want to hear. At night I remove my hearing
aids, and it is hard to know that for those eight hours
I am in bed I will not be able to hear anything. It
feels helpless. I am always going to be deaf. Putting
my hearing aids on doesn't change that, so I have had
to become fluent in sign. Sign is very differnt from
regular speech. Not only for the obvious reason, but
for the emotion that is conveyed in sign. When deaf
people see hearing people speak, they think that there
is nothing to it. They are just moving their lips. There
is no way for a deaf person to understand the influction
that is used to convey emotion. In sign physical expression
is used to convey every emotion that is being felt.
Sometimes I feel like I am not accepted by the hearing
or even the deaf community".
With a cochlear implant the recipient would still
have to learn to lips read, and like Kyle use sign language
to be able to communicate. A problem that can arrise
with using sign after the implant has been recieved
is it can be used as a crutch. This would mean that
their speech is never fully developed, and learning
how to listen to speech is never mastered. It is also
argued the children who are not able to be fully submersed
in the deaf culture will never learn what it really
means to be deaf.