Cochlear Implants, Viral Videos, and Sexism

(This post first appeared on the Feminist Philosophers blog on March 29, 2014)


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.

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