I love my cochlear implant, but I won’t shout about it

Decision to get an implant is a very serious one that must be considered very carefully

Cochlear implant device for deaf or hearing impaired people

Cochlear implant device for deaf or hearing impaired people

 

I’ve had a cochlear implant in my left ear since 2011 and, barring one major technical hiccup last year that was resolved quickly, it has been a great success.

A weekly column by writers with a disability.
A weekly column by writers with a disability.

As an almost lifelong hearing aid user (I still wear one in my right ear), I find that I hear better in many ways through my implant than I ever could through a hearing aid.

I’m not entirely surprised, knowing the degree to which this technology has been developed continuously over several decades to the point where it is now among the most common and most successful types of medical electronic implant available today.

In most countries, the provision of cochlear implants – which can cost up to €40,000-€50,000 per person – are funded mostly by state-sponsored programmes, but not every deaf person would be entitled to one.

To qualify in Ireland, you need to be unable to hear sounds above 80 decibels at two or more frequencies, which basically means you are severely or profoundly deaf.

In the UK, the NHS’s benchmark was 90 decibels, but was just this month lowered to 80 after it obtained new advice. This means that hundreds more deaf or deafened people in the UK who may not have qualified before should be able to get one one now, especially adults.

Generally speaking, cochlear implant teams are happy to implant any young child who qualifies, but for adults the criteria is slightly more complex.

In a nutshell, you would need to have previously had normal hearing, or else be deaf but had obtained some benefit in the past from hearing aid technology. In other words, you have enough auditory ‘memory’ to eventually make sense of the new sound sensations you would get through an implant.

So, if you are an adult who was born deaf and never wore hearing aids, have no speech and use sign language as your primary or only language, you are unlikely to benefit. Then again, even if you did qualify, the chances are you’d be unlikely to want one anyway.

This leads me to my major bugbear about the skewed way cochlear implants have been reported and written about over the years, and which has been reamplified by social media.

First of all, cochlear implants are not a cure for ‘fixing’ deafness – not even close.

Those heartwarming videos on YouTube and elsewhere of CI patients being ‘switched-on’ for the first time and then bawling their eyes out with joy are almost always missing vital context and qualification. Sure, they might hear a sensation of sound, but it doesn’t mean you will understand straight off the bat what the sounds are or where they come from. It takes months – if not years.

Very specialised

Sometimes, even if everything goes according to plan, they don’t work as expected and not even the experts can explain why. But it’s true that most implantees do get some useful benefit and a good few do absolutely brilliantly – and I can confidently include myself in that category.

That said, I don’t go round telling every other deaf person I meet that they should get one. Getting a CI is not like buying your first smartphone. It remains a very specialised type of technology, and the decision to get an implant is a serious one that must be considered very carefully in conjunction not just with doctors, audiologists and possibly social workers, but also family, friends and colleagues.

But I also don’t cheerlead for CIs out of respect for how the subject of them remains somewhat toxic within the Deaf community, particularly among older members.

When CI technology started to come of age around the late 1980s, it was hailed so loudly as a ‘cure’ for deafness that it led signing deaf communities worldwide to feel utterly threatened. Here was a technology that, going by what had been written and said about it, would eradicate their community, their language, their culture and way of life.

Fast-forward to today, and some deaf people still come under undue pressure to get a cochlear implant, even if they don’t want one. I don’t get the sense that it happens here that much any more, but anecdotal evidence from other countries, including the UK, suggests it is still very prevalent.

Getting an implant should be a decision that a deaf person researches and makes themselves, in their own time and on their own terms. They certainly shouldn’t be pressured or strong-armed into getting one if they don’t want one or at the very least are not certain about it – and that includes older children.

It’s worth noting as well that some adult members of the deaf community who do get implants often feel compelled to reassure fellow members that they’ve made the right decision.

One well-known member here who recently posted a video log to a Facebook page explaining the reasons why he got one, said: “I haven’t changed. I’m still Deaf.”

Platform Series: John Cradden
1) ‘Deaf, but also iPhone-compatible
2) ‘Deaf’ rather than ‘deaf’
3) Telling it like it is in subtitles
4) ‘Deaf gain’: my enhanced abilities
5) Missing out on incidental learning
6) Deaf clubs: binding the community
7) I love my cochlear implant
8) Joining the Deaf community
9) Deaf people making ourselves heard

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