Cochlear Implants, Viral Videos, and Sexism

Once again a video of the miracle of hearing via cochlear implants has gone viral. I find this bothersome, but not for the reasons you might think, given that I’m a member of the signing Deaf* community, a bioethicist, and philosopher. Instead, I’m annoyed by the framing of the cochlear implant narratives and the gendered aspects of cochlear implant videos that go viral.

 

Before I say more, I want to note that I am delighted and touched by the joy of the cochlear implant recipient, Joanne Milne. Joanne Milne has had a life-changing experience. Most hearing people will watch the video, appreciate her happiness, and perhaps reflect on their own capacity to hear. I hope that we can push the conversation further along here at Feminist Philosophers.

My post is not an attack on Milne, nor is it an attack on cochlear implants. Instead, I want to call attention to some of the ways that cochlear implants are framed on these viral videos.

 

First and most importantly, the cochlear implant is not a cure all. It works extremely well for some, very well for others, and is not particularly effective in other cases. Framing the cochlear implant as a cure for deafness, rather than a tool used by deaf and Deaf people, neglects to call attention to a very important issue that is often overlooked: language acquisition.

 

It is evident from watching the video (which thankfully, is captioned by the BBC, but ironically appears uncaptioned elsewhere on the internet) that Joanne Milne is a deaf person who has already acquired a language — in this case, English. The cochlear implant provides her with more auditory resources to rely on when she communicates with people in English. In addition to assisting language comprehension, her cochlear implant also gives her information about the acoustic environment around her.

 

Second, I think the popularity of these viral videos is an interesting marker of the cultural value attached to hearing, which is often assumed by culturally Hearing** people. There considerable misunderstanding and conflation of terms in the packaging of these viral videos. Being able to hear, being deaf, having access to language, and having access to sound are very different things!

 

For one, contrary to the usual framing of these videos, not all deaf people have “never heard sound”. Many, if not most, deaf people have some hearing capacity, though the range of what is heard can be very narrow, e.g. jet engines. Hearing people frequently forget that language exists in different modalities, signed as well as spoken. This latter is very important, since acquiring and maintaining language is a core issue, perhaps the issue for deaf well-being, and not the ability to hear.

 

I’m often asked, as a person who can pass for hearing, why I have chosen to align myself with the signing Deaf community. After all, I have a “history of successful integration,” and don’t “need” to segregate myself from the hearing world. This question in itself is a bit misleading, since I view myself as connected to both signed language and spoken language communities, but that’s not the point.

 

To be hard of hearing or deaf in an auditory spoken language community means that you have to work harder to understand what is being said. You’ll rely on speech-reading at least at some point (whether you are aware of this or not) and there will be times when you misunderstand, or when you don’t understand something at all. Concomitant with this is a lifetime that includes experiences of embarrassment, humiliation, and sometimes even shame because you do not hear or have not heard. This is frequently set in a context that implies it is your fault for not listening, since you’ve heard everything before that “just fine”.  Hearing people can become quite indignant when they are asked to repeat something — the blame is not shared, but rests on the deaf person for not trying hard enough. (This is only partly a caricature view.)

 

Think about it:  jokes about hearing loss are still very much socially acceptable. This Dilbert cartoon published March 2014 is a case in point. These jokes illustrate social schemas about deaf people. I’ve suggested elsewhere that they may also trigger sterotype threat and implicit biases about deaf people.

 

Cochlear implants can make the work of hearing and processing sound easier for deaf people, and I think that’s great. But that is not enough, on my view. I believe that all people ought to experience what it is like to have full access to language. Hearing with hearing aids or cochlear implants provides partial access to language, and in the best of circumstances, this might approach full access with additional work. But that’s not enough.

 

Deaf people ought to be able to enjoy the same effortless connection to language that hearing people do – absent the guesswork of filling in the blanks. Deaf people ought to be able to experience what it is like to just focus on the content of what is said (and this includes what is signed), rather than having to allocate a chunk of one’s cognitive load to puzzle out the meaning.

 

Full access to language in real time is a universal experience taken for granted by hearing people; I believe that deaf people deserve the same. Given the imperfections of technology, deaf people are best positioned to obtain full access to language via a signed language. The joy I felt when I realized that there was a way to experience real-time communication without guesswork is hard to explain, but this is why I spend my time in the signing Deaf community. It’s an important component of the human experience.

 

Cochlear implant hookup viral videos not only mask the difficulty of the work of hearing, they also fail to draw attention to the biggest issue about cochlear implants: what happens if the implant fails to be effective? What happens to the child who receives a cochlear implant and is unable to acquire spoken language?

 

Some professionals still recommend against exposing the implanted child to a signed language because of the worry that signed language will interfere with spoken language acquisition. These recommendations that are not based on scientific evidence, as far as I can tell. Current research on bilingual and bimodal deaf children actually contradicts this, suggesting that the exposure to both languages improves language skills and doesn’t detract from language acquisition.

 

There are too many people in the signing Deaf community who have never fully acquired a language (signed or spoken), and some of these include children who received cochlear implants that did not work for them — not because the device itself wasn’t functional, but for reasons perhaps unknown to medical science. To deprive any person of the opportunity to acquire language is a tragedy. Given that there is a way to ensure (all things being equal) that deaf children can acquire language, I believe it is imperative to provide deaf children with exposure to both signed and spoken language.

 

Even if spoken language acquisition is successful, parents have a moral obligation to continue to expose their child to signed language, given the psychosocial importance of the experience of being in a language environment with full access, not partial. Feeling equal to one’s conversational partners (in terms of access to the conversation) is a powerful thing.

 

The viral videos of cochlear implant initial hook-ups call attention to another feature that I find fascinating, which is the demographic featured in these clips. It has not escaped my attention that most of these viral cochlear implant videos feature relatively young white women who are conventionally attractive. There is a also subset of these cochlear implant initial hook-up videos that feature young white mothers hearing their child’s voice for the first time. I do not think that the popularity of this demographic is accidental, and I’ll have lots to say about this at FAB in Mexico City this June. For now, I’ll sketch out some thoughts in order to invite a conversation, and perhaps, if there is interest, follow-up with another post that sets out my reasoning in more detail.

 

As a deaf woman who has dealt with numerous men who fetishize deaf women as silent, submissive, and dependent, I’ll grant that my experience has influenced my view. Social schemas abound of deaf women as exotic, animal-like (this usually has a sexual connotation), voiceless, and dependent. I think that part of the popularity of these viral videos of young deaf women with cochlear implants is a subtle response to these schemas and social expectations. Women — especially young women — are supposed to listen; mothers are supposed to hear. A woman who doesn’t listen can be very threatening, no? And of course, a mother who doesn’t hear her children is a “bad mother“.

 

Cochlear implant viral videos focus on the restoration of hearing to deaf women, emphasizing the newly gained ability to listen.  Obtaining a cochlear implant still doesn’t negate all of the dependence of the deaf woman, who will always miss some information (maybe just a word in a sentence, maybe just a few words a day) and will be dependent on others to fill these in for her. These videos are silent (ahem) about the role that hearing plays in helping one literally and metaphorically develop one’s voice. What might be the reason for that? I don’t think it is only because of the drama involved in the initial hookup, since I suspect videos showing how women (and men) develop their voices could be equally compelling.

 

A Deaf feminist analysis of cochlear implants can offer insight on much more, including the relationship of voice and auditory speech, social schemas of deaf men, but I’ll leave you with this: consider that one subtext to these viral videos of cochlear implant initial hookups is the paradigm of the young white deaf woman who has acquired the ability to listen, yet is still dependent (and faintly exotic). Medical miracles showing a dramatic change in a person’s life make pleasurable internet entertainment, but when those miracles are packaged in ways that perpetuate and reinforce stereotypes that deaf women rail against, it is time to take a closer look at what’s going on.

 

___________

* The use of Deaf with an upper case ‘D’ signifies the sociolinguistic community of signed language users, deaf with a lower case ‘d’ refers to people with species-atypical auditory status.

** Philosophers interested in my take on Deaf/deaf and a similar move I make with regard to Hearing/hearing may be interested in my forthcoming paper, “Armchairs and Stares”, which will appear in an anthology on deaf gain edited by Joseph Murray and H-Dirksen Baumann, University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

25 thoughts on “Cochlear Implants, Viral Videos, and Sexism

  1. Another narrative that’s common in these sorts of videos – and which I find really frustrating – is the idea that switching on the implant gives the person in the video the experience of ‘what it’s like’ to hear their child’s voice or ‘what it’s like’ to hear music or whatever. The underlying suggestion is that there’s a universal experience – ‘normal’ hearing – which D/deaf people ordinarily lack, but which switching on the implant gives them access to. But most research suggests that ‘what it’s like’ to interpret sound via cochlear implants is very different to ‘what it’s like’ to interpret sound for your average hearing individual. And yet rather than celebrating that there are multiple different ways to usefully and meaningfully interpret sound, we’re often given the narrative that cochlear implants allow D/deaf people to experience sound in a way we’re familiar and comfortable with.

  2. Great post, Teresa!

    I’ve a question about your views on hearing parents with deaf children. You note that:

    “Full access to language in real time is a universal experience taken for granted by hearing people; I believe that deaf people deserve the same. Given the imperfections of technology, deaf people are best positioned to obtain full access to language via a signed language. ”

    Which seems right to me. But, I have heard from some hearing parents with deaf children that they found it very hard to become fluent in a signed language reasonably quickly after the birth of a child with a-typical hearing. These parents, while not at all adverse to exposing their children to a signed language, felt that the requirement that they master a new language, on an imposed schedule, was a very high hurdle. They considered themselves very lucky that cochlear implants were considered medically appropriate and worked, because they honestly weren’t sure that they would be able to master a signed language sufficiently well to give their child full access to a signed language in the required time period for first language acquisition…

    Note that it was not, I think, primarily the fact that it was a signed language that was the hurdle, but the fact that it was another, a new, language at all. One that, to be effective at the goal — providing their child with full access to a “first” language — had to mastered. And that had to be mastered on a time-scale with very little room for maneuvering, with a very high (catastrophic?) cost to failure, during a time when there are of course many many other commitments that cannot be avoided, either. (I did not envy them having to make these decisions!)

    What would these parents had done had cochlear implants *not* been medically appropriate? Would they have been able to successfully master a signed language sufficiently, and sufficiently quickly, to bring their child into a world with full access to a language? I honestly don’t know — I do know that they would have *tried* but…

    The suggestion that one would actively prevent a deaf child from being exposed to a signed language (and having access to the Deaf community) strikes me as obviously misguided and harmful — indeed, even failing to take active steps to help ensure that deaf children can effectively participate in the Deaf community strikes me as a terrible mistake.

    But should we therefore encourage parents of deaf children to themselves try to master a signed language so that their children’s first language can be a signed language, rather than relying on mix of imperfect technology to acquire a spoken language, when that is possible? Is that in fact the best way to maximize the chances that those children will have full access to a language? Is a mix of reliance on imperfect technology to acquire a spoken language, and actively pursuing a signed language simultaneously a poor choice?

    (I honestly don’t know what to think in these cases, and was indeed thankful that I’ve never been in the position of having to make such decisions!)

  3. You seem to have missed the point of the Dilbert cartoon – it’s not a joke about hearing loss, as you claim, but a joke about attitudes towards hearing loss.

  4. To “Jonathan Kaplan”

    Your questions are well written. Just a simple FYI, learning ASL is really simple. You start with signing “eat/food”, “finish”, “no”, with your infant child and from there it grows.

    CI’ing your child requires a tremendous commitment – 3-5 days a week of speech therapy and more at home slowly articulating words/sounds to your child while he or she rather to be outside playing with peers.

    I am born Deaf and I get along with my neighbor kids because at age 5 to 12ish you don’t really need to “talk” about the weather or worldly issues. You just want to ask if he/she is free to play baseball or soccer which is quite easy to communicate with gestures and you go and play and laugh, etc. I have good memories visiting neighbors (including their parents) even though I am fully deaf and my parents are fully deaf. They gave me independence in socializing with hearing people. Through this, I’m never shy to approach hearing people even though I cant speak shit or lipread shit.

    Simply because I am not afraid and have social skills I acquired through my independence, which I’ve noticed that those who were CI’ed lacks. They lack social skills and real world skills.

    Now, I am a father of a beautiful hearing daughter. While my wife speaks Danish to our daughter. It’s quite easier to just sign to her and now my daughter at 14 months old understands about 100 signs and are able to express herself with about 15 signs. Its quite simple. She signs “tired” and I sign “”bed”? She walks to the staircase then I guide her up to her bedroom for nap. What’s so complicated? More time is spent playing with my daughter, I sign ball, she runs to ball and brings it to me to play.

    This was supposed to be a quick reply. But guess I had more to express.

  5. Such a fascinating analysis! As an anthropologist, it made me think of ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger’s wonderful 1975 essay

    “The Meaning of Body Ornaments: A Suyá Example”

    He writes (using an Amazonian case) about how the emphasis and ornamentation of certain parts of the body (ears, lips, etc.) are connected to gendered cultural valuations of performance, orality, and aurality, and about the negative association of sight with animality. I don’t know if it would be useful to you, but fwiw.

  6. You say “jokes about hearing loss are still very much socially acceptable. This Dilbert cartoon published March 2014 is a case in point.”

    I can’t remember ever hearing a joke about hearing loss, but anyway that cartoon isn’t joking about hearing loss at all. So that’s unfair. The cartoon is joking about the stupidity of the man in the blue suit. Right? Am I missing something?

  7. So many responses — thanks for the comments! I especially appreciate the suggestion to check out Seeger’s essay — thank you, Kathleen Lowrey.

    Jonathan Kaplan, as I’ve already noted to you elsewhere, I agree that it asks a lot of parents to learn another language *and* that this isn’t always realistic. I do think that non-signing parents of deaf children should seek out opportunities for their deaf children to be exposed to a signed language (ideally from a native or near-native language model) — whether that is in a bilingual English-ASL school, at deaf culture center programs, state parent-deaf infant programs, or other.

    HappyPhilosopher and Ruth — thanks for pointing this out about the Dilbert cartoon. You’re right that the point of the Dilbert cartoon is the guy’s cluelessness. Another example would have been more apropos. I do wonder whether using race or gender as subject matter to illustrate the cluelessness would have flown, though?

    That said, I think my point still stands — that it is widely viewed as socially acceptable to wisecrack (including making jokes) about hearing loss. As for the difference in our experiences re: jokes about hearing loss, HappyPhilosopher, maybe there’s some kind of selection bias happening, and this sort of thing happens more frequently in the presence of deaf and hard of hearing people.

    Along those lines (and maybe this explains my initial response to the Dilbert cartoon, though I need to think about this some more…) *I* would be thrilled if, upon informing a philosopher (or bioethicist) that I am deaf and a speech-reader, I never again had to deal with the respondent cupping his ear, and loudly saying, “What?” or “Huh?” and laughing. I get that people aren’t always comfortable around people with disabilities, and that sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do around us (just ask!), but this kind of response always feels a little bit micro-aggressive. It doesn’t strike me as an especially collegial response to meeting a junior member of the profession for the first time. A better response would be something like this: “Thanks for letting me know — is there anything I can do to make it easier for us to communicate?”

  8. Really Interesting post! As someone who has quite a severe hearing loss, which aides only partially assist ( and not in the area of clarity of some sounds) I really agree with yr articulate analysis…. thanks muchly Trees

  9. Teresa,
    Wonderful post. And particularly about sexism and fetishism. I am actually conducting research on women, disabilities and fetishism… most of the perspectives are from women who are amputees (I am both an amputee and Deaf) and there is very little research on women who are Deaf and perceived as objects of fetishism. There is the cultural connotation, of course, since Deaf women are not particularly fond of being lumped with others who have disabilities. What are your thoughts?

  10. Thank you, so much. You clearly articulated what I have been trying to get out for a few years now. The issue is so much more complicated and people, mostly well meaning and good people, don’t realize the harm they perpetuate.

  11. Hi Teresa and all – just catching up. From my perspective (deafened and not SL user, and also passionate dedicated Captioning advocate) – what your good essay says about implants can be said also about hearing aid advertisements over longer years; and much hype to sell hearing aids, looping systems, other devices that help some, not all by far.
    This is marketing and it’s with us always. At the same time, we have many “words” and visuals used by some “Deaf” groups that are also misleading and confusing. Am sure I err the same way sometimes too! (but of course, we all do).
    The difference is that we are not “selling” anything, we are volunteers (or professionals like many of you who also go beyond the call of duty to help others), and if there were truly a way for us to converse about these barriers of communication (i.e. videos that are misleading, hoh/deaf lingo that is misleading, cultural contrivances that confuse many), that would be great.
    Our tack is to use group discussion (CCACaptioning dot org that welcomes all who support our mission, one focus there)) as you know. I’m not aware of any “hoh/deafened/deaf” discussion online (other than social media which is too often superficial and going around in circles that allows this for all of us. Best wishes, Lauren

  12. Regarding whether it’s reasonable to ask hearing parents to learn sign…

    Ideally, I’d like it if they already knew sign before having children. I have a dream that someday all children, regardless of hearing status, will learn at least some of their local sign language. The baby signing movement (hearing parents teaching hearing babies to sign so they can communicate better when they’re too young to speak clearly) is a step in that direction, I think, but I’d like more.

    While it’s not easy for a hearing person to learn to sign, it’s a lot easier than it is for a deaf person (even with a cochlear implant) to learn to speak. I don’t think it’s fair how our society tends to ask disabled people to do far more effort to accommodate the non-disabled majority than vice versa (this is something I see across many conditions and not just with deaf people). I know the argument is that it’s so rare to meet a deaf person while deaf people meet hearing people every day, but still, at least the people who interact with deaf people every day should make an equal effort to accommodate them.

    With that said, when a parent who has no signs at all has a deaf child, ot will be a learning curve, and the child will not have as good a language environment as hearing children or Deaf of Deaf children. This is unavoidable. But the outcome will be better if the parents use any sign – even if it’s garbled sim-com. Studies show that kids can easily take a poor-quality language model and build a proper language off of that. For example in Nicaragua, a new sign language evolved because young children were exposed to older children’s home signs.

    I’m a hearing person, and while I’m learning ASL, I’m far from fluent. If I had a deaf child, my plan would be to throw as much language at them as I can – I’d sign as best I can, I’d get them in speech therapy, I’d get them a hearing aid or cochlear implant if the audiologist thought they’d benefit from it, and I’d even try to teach them to read and do picture communication systems (usually only used for developmentally or physically disabled people who can’t talk). I’d throw it all at them and hope they pulled out an effective way to communicate from all that. And I’d be right there learning it with them. Because I want to communicate with my child, and I don’t care how we do it.

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