Cochlear Implants: A History Of Controversy

Cochlear implants are small electronic devices that can help provide people who are deaf or severely hard of hearing with a sense of sound. These implants are composed of four major parts: the microphone, which picks up sound; the processor, which selects and arranges sound; the transmitter, which converts the sound into electric impulses; and the electrode array, which sends the impulses to the auditory nerves. While it is very important to remember that these devices cannot restore normal hearing to a person who is deaf, they can create useful representations of sound that can help him or her understand speech.

Interestingly, the first attempt to stimulate hearing with electricity dates all the way back to 1790 when a researcher named Volta (more famous for inventing the battery) stuck metal rods in his ears and zapped himself with about 50V of electricity – he reported hearing a sound that was “like a thick boiling soup” Obviously there have been a lot of medical and scientific advancements since the 18th century, and the first modern cochlear implants arrived on the scene in the 1960s. The 1960’s version utilized only one electrode and was considered experimental. It wasn’t until late 1984 that the FDA approved the use of cochlear implants in adults, and it took until 1990 for the device to get approval for use in children. For more information about the technology and history surrounding cochlear implants, you could consult the following sites:

[http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/coch.asp]

[http://www.fda.gov/cdrh/cochlear/index.html]

You might be asking yourself, where’s the controversy? A devise that is approved by the FDA and helps people who are deaf recognize sound and better understand speech, what’s the problem? I have to admit that I only knew of the controversy and didn’t totally get it myself until I read up on it. As it turns out, some members of the deaf community see cochlear implants as an attack on deaf culture. Spokespeople for the deaf community report that they do not wish to be viewed as disabled people in need of “fixing”. The deaf community strengthens its position by pointing to the many successful, functional, non-implanted, deaf Americans. For people many people who are deaf, sign language serves as their primary language and being part of the deaf community is a very important part of their cultural identify. An identity, opponents of cochlear implant argue, that is threatened by medical advancements that improve sound recognition for the deaf. In my search, I came across several site that helped me to better understand the tension that cochlear implants cause between the medical community and the deaf community, some of the best are here
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/1998/06/02/sunday/main10794.shtml

[http://www.pbs.org/saf/1205/features/cochlear.htm]

While there are several reports that the controversy has been settling down a little in recent year, there is still a great deal of concern about cochlear implants in children. The concern is not about whether or no the implants are safe or effective, because there is no questions about that – they are both. The concern is about how parents make the decision to go with cochlear implants. Some members of the deaf community argue that parents who decide to get implants for their children might be making a decision that the child would not make for him/herself if they had the option. In light of this argument, some prominent deaf organizations, like the National Association of the Deaf and the American Academy or Audiology, have issued position statements recognizing that the decision to receive a cochlear implant is a personal choice, but recommending that potential recipients and families of recipients should be referred to experts in deafness and deaf culture as well as medical professionals so that they can make a balanced and informed decision. The full position statements are available here:

[http://www.nad.org/site/pp.asp?c=foINKQMBF&b=138140]

[http://www.audiology.org/publications/documents/positions/PedRehab/cochlear.htm?PF=1]

One last thing for those of us who like to think about what this means in the classroom – here is a link to a fact sheet about how to best serve students who have received cochlear implants.

[http://www.netac.rit.edu/downloads/TPSHT_Cochlear_Implants.pdf]

Added by Jennifer Kirmes