Is the Cochlear Implant a Cure or a Cultural Cleansing?

The market of assistive technologies has expanded dramatically in recent years. More and more researchers, engineers, and rehabilitation experts collaborate to build technologies that help enable people with disabilities. However, when we look at the statistics, 70% of all assistive technologies are not being used at all, or being used for a very short time. Why is that? Would disabled people not want to use devices that supposedly help them to overcome their disabilities? The answer to these questions is more complex than one might think, as the case of the ongoing debate over the use of cochlear implant demonstrates.

The Controversy

The cochlear implant is a small electronic device that is surgically implanted into the skull and inner ear,  substituting for the damaged parts of the inner ear, with an external piece worn behind the ear. In contrast to hearing aids that amplify sounds in the environment, the cochlear implant functions as an integral part of the inner ear, by sending signals to the brain (see picture).

For the enabled person, it is easy to see the advantages of a cochlear implant. This device can help deaf people to communicate with others, which eventually may lead to a better and easier integration into society. However, many people in the deaf community reject this product for several reasons. First, the Deaf community believes that there is nothing wrong with being deaf, so we should not try to “fix something that isn’t broken.” Second, some deaf people consider their hearing disability to be an integral and important part of their identity, so taking away their deafness will take away an important part of who they are. Third, some deaf people see themselves as a subculture in society, with their own language (sign language), and set of beliefs and values. Many people in the deaf community believe that implementing the device, especially in the younger generation, will eventually cause their unique culture to disappear, as young people will not learn or use sign language as a means of communication. Watch and learn more about the different sides of the Cochlear Implant Debate.

What I have learned

When I first heard about the cochlear implant, I thought that it was a great idea and that every deaf person would love to have this device, but I was wrong. I perceived hearing impairment as a disability that a deaf person would surely like to overcome, while many deaf people perceive their hearing impairments as part of their personality. This kind of discrepancy between the perceptions of an enabled person to that of a disabled person regarding their disability is the reason why disabled people often abandon their assistive technologies. Many times, the planning of the assistive device fails to take into consideration the perspectives of the disabled population that the assistive device is built for. By doing so, the device may be technologically very impressive, but be unsuccessful in addressing the real needs or problems of the disabled population, or it addresses problems that are not real.

I now really understand the importance of including disabled people in the process of creating their own assistive technology, if not, we will keep building assistive products that no one will use.

Hen Hochman
Physical Therapy Master’s Student

This post was written as part of the Design of Assistive Technologies POTH 625D, where students are given the opportunity to write about their course experiences.

 

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