(Image by Jay Morrison used under CC license via)
In the 1990s, Cristina Hartmann was one of the first of a few hundred deaf and hearing impaired children in the United States to undergo surgery for a cochlear implant. She has written extensively about the experience of hearing sound for the first time after the implant in her right ear was activated, most recently this month on Quora.com:
My mother was the one who told me, “Raise your hand when you hear something.” That statement left me baffled. What was I looking for? It was a bit like searching for Waldo when you didn’t know what he looked like.
In that tiny, windowless room deep in the large Manhattan hospital, the audiologist began tapping away at her keyboard. Everyone stared at me, even a woman standing in the doorway whom I had never seen before. I felt the heavy weight of expectations on my shoulders. I had to do something. I concentrated very hard, searching for the mysterious, indefinite Waldo. Whenever I felt anything, an itch or a breeze, I raised my hand slowly, searching everyone’s expressions for whether I had gotten it right or wrong. Nobody gave me any confirmation, so I went on guessing. Twenty-five years later, I realize the whole thing was a show that I performed. I knew this was a momentous event, and I didn’t want to disappoint….
As a congenitally deaf child (who was a bit long in the tooth at 6), I had never formed the neural pathways for my brain to even begin processing auditory stimulation. In the fashion of the ostrich, my brain ignored the strange stuff, and I remained as deaf as I had been an hour prior…
It took months and plenty of therapy for her brain to adapt. Thirteen years later, the activation of a second implant, this time in her left ear, proved a more harrowing experience than the first:
As the audiologist began the beep sequence, I burst into tears and involuntarily clenched the left side of my face. She looked up, puzzled. “Why are you crying? You’ve had this before!” she said. The pain was like sparklers going off on the left side of my head. The stimulation, as little as it was, completely overwhelmed me.
Even though I had already laid the neural pathways for auditory stimuli for my right ear, my brain was unprepared for the stimuli coming from the left side. Since my brain had already experienced this type of stimuli, it could process it, but it was still sensory overload. That stuff hurts. It took me months to acclimate myself to the new implant, but in the meantime, I cringed every time I turned it on. As I said, laying new neural pathways takes work.
Hartmann was later told by the mother of another patient, “Once they started with the beeps, [my daughter] screamed and cried.”
Such narratives exist in stark contrast to the YouTube videos of newly activated implant users laughing and smiling—and, in one case, crying for joy—that have been bouncing around the Internet with far greater frequency. While both narratives provide important information for those considering cochlear implants for themselves or their children, they are also an important contribution for the greater public in our understanding of what it means to be deaf.
It makes sense that crossing out of the world of silence into the world of sound is just as disorienting as its opposite. A hearing person with a middle ear infection strains to perceive the sound of speech, and a deaf person with a new cochlear implant strains to tune out noise pollution: the knocks of a radiator in another room, car doors slamming on the street, wind, footsteps, not to mention the countless background beeps and clicks of the Digital Age. After all, when a baby leaves the womb, she does not instantly adapt to her new home. She comes out crying. There’s too much light and not enough warmth. And, if she is not deaf, there is too much sound.
Speech is no less difficult to learn than Sign language, just as English is no less difficult than Chinese. The ease with which we learn one form of communication or the other depends entirely upon our personal experience and place in the world. For those of us who have grown up hearing speech, the viral videos communicate something very different than for those who grew up in Deaf culture.
While the experiences of utter delight portrayed in the videos are valid, their popularity contributes to an oversimplification of the issue. Watching a toddler smile upon finally hearing his mother’s voice for the first time sends a very strong subliminal message: Being deaf must be worse than not being deaf, and therefore anyone would want to join the world of the hearing. But the general public as an audience is already biased toward the hearing world’s standards of happiness. We are moved by the sound of loved ones uttering our names but not at the image of them signing our names because our culture does not rely on—and therefore does not highly value—Sign language.
This what inspired Lalit Marcus, the daughter of deaf parents and an active promoter of Deaf culture, to pen an article for The Wire titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Share Those Emotional ‘Deaf Person Hears for the First Time’ Videos”:
I want to make it clear that I don’t have a problem with people who choose to get cochlear implants. Medical decisions are painfully personal… I’m all for people making the health choices they think are best for them. What bothers me are the maudlin videos produced out of someone’s intense, private moment that are then taken out of context and broadcast around the world. What bothers me is how the viewer never learns how the individual came to the decision about their implant, which factors they took into account, whether their medical insurance covered it. Sometimes we don’t even learn their names.
This gives me pause. I consider the clip of me removing my casts to look at my newly lengthened legs, which featured 15 years ago in the HBO documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale and last year on Berlin’s public station. The moment was simply joyous—as was the moment I stood up, let go of my friend’s hands and took my first steps—but the story behind it was abundantly complex. Which hopefully both documentaries portray.
I have endeavored to communicate that through this blog and all the media work I have done for the past 20 years.
Limb-lengthening and cochlear implant procedures are markedly different in several ways. Limb-lengthening, for example, does not threaten to endanger another language. But it does threaten to break ranks in the dwarf community through the controversy of altering versus accepting extraordinary bodies. Both procedures have proven to evoke vitriol among their proponents and detractors.
Most of my deaf friends were good about my CI. They didn’t mind it, except for the fact that my speech therapy cut into play time. That being said, people in the Deaf community felt free to make pointed and derisive comments about my CI. I still get these comments, even almost 24 years after my surgery. To some, I’ll always be a CI-wearer and a turncoat.
The CI advocates aren’t any better, if not worse.
I have very pleasant relationships with many parents of implanted children and CI users. I, however, have also been called a failure because I still use [American Sign Language] and don’t speak perfectly. I’ve also seen a mother run across a room to prevent her child from signing to another deaf child. I’ve been scolded for making gestures and looking too “deaf.”
The debate, of course, is ongoing.
But for those of us not faced with opting for or against a cochlear implant, we are faced with the challenge of overcoming our bias and remembering that Deaf culture is no less valid than the hearing culture we inhabit. Especially when those admittedly tantalizing videos wind up in our Facebook feeds.