Between worlds

An adult who received a cochlear implant at age six reports that the brain interprets any unfamiliar sensation as pain.  He also reflects on the identity issues that have roiled the deaf community in recent decades:
Sometimes, I think back to one of the questions that I asked my mom before I got my [cochlear implant].  I asked her if I would be deaf or hearing.  She told me that I'd be both. I don't think that's true.  I'm neither deaf nor hearing.  I don't sign as often anymore, but I don't speak or hear well enough to be like hearing people.
Oliver Sacks wrote an excellent book about this: "Seeing Voices."  He spent time on an island -- Martha's Vineyard, I think -- with a very high proportion of congenitally deaf residents.  So many were deaf that an unusual number even of hearing people were fluent in ASL.   If he asked someone whether Joe So-and-So was deaf, they would stop and consider.  "Joe? Let me think.  Yes, I think old Joe was deaf."


MikeD said...

It's really quite a bizarre controversy. There are members of the deaf community who think it's tantamount to child abuse to give children cochlear implants. This idea that you're "stealing their identity" is something I find disturbing. Being deaf isn't a skin color, it's not a religion, it's not a culture (though I know many who would debate me on the last). It's a sensory loss. It's not how we're meant to be, and in the vast majority of cases, it's not a choice they made. It is a dis-ability, and to try and sanctify it into some great culture that needs to be protected against those who would try to help them hear is fetishizing their health issue. And while I will never be one for telling someone "if you can have this done, you must (or even should)", I think I fall more on the "lighten up, Francis" side of the house.

douglas said...

One issue people neglect in this is the way sign language works- and how that affects the person 'speaking' in it. It's a symbolic language, and as such, doesn't have the many variables for tense, among others, and loses a great deal of nuance- or you could say it is in some ways more like Asian languages which use symbolic written language, and therefore, is less specific, but in some ways more nuanced- the thing is, I don't think it's true for ASL users, as they're mimicking a non-symbolic language, and so don't have the cultural conventions for interpreting the nuances as the Asians can. As a result, you'll find deaf people who have a tough time being good writers or rigorous thinkers in certain ways.

Not to mention, hearing a train coming might save your life, however poorly you hear it.

Texan99 said...

One of Sacks's biggest points was that it's crucial to engage the language centers of the brain at a very early age, so even if you're going to use cochlear implants later on, you should be signing with a deaf baby almost immediately.

I would never advocate remaining deaf when technological methods for hearing were available, but I found poignant this young man's feeling of being dropped between two worlds. It's very hard to integrate the two worlds: it takes something as rare as an island habitat with a very high proportion of deaf people.

Grim said...

One wishes, nevertheless, for the hour when deafness might pass away. This is indeed sad, as you say, but we hope for a final healing: that the blind might see, and the deaf might hear. Perhaps we might even learn to hear new things, and see new things as well.