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Deaf community divides over cochlear implants
Surgery is seen as no miracle, but the start of hard work.

By Don Mayhew
The Fresno Bee
(Published Tuesday, October 14, 2003, 7:44 AM)

While all men may have been created equal, not all deafness is.

Not only are there different levels of hearing ability among deaf people, but how they learn to communicate and where they are educated play key roles in whether they will benefit from a cochlear implant.

People who lost hearing late in life are good candidates. They have a long history of hearing and speaking. Audiologists also consider most deaf infants and toddlers candidates. Children acquire language easily from ages 2 through 6.

Whether that language should be spoken English or American Sign Language strikes at the heart of an oft-troubled relationship between the hearing and deaf worlds.

In "Sound and Fury," a 2000 documentary about implanting devices in children, a father speaks for a lot of deaf culturalists when he recalls learning to sign as a child: "That's when, I think, my life really began."

The sign for an implant is a two-fingered, vampirelike stab in the back of the neck. Some deaf people think of implants as nothing short of cultural genocide. They believe deafness is something to cherish, not to cure.

They argue that children are not guinea pigs and fear that implanting microcomputers will turn deaf people into robots. They say implanting at an early age will force kids to live in the worst of two worlds, neither deaf nor hearing.

So while most hearing people don't understand why a deaf person wouldn't want a cochlear implant, many deaf people wonder why anyone would.

Jimmy Bronson's family is divided. When he and his wife, Michelle, told his parents they had decided to have the surgery, they were all for it.

Jimmy's sister, Cindy, was not. Her initial reaction was disappointment mixed with disbelief. But after talking to Michelle, Cindy realized they had given it a lot of thought.

"I couldn't say I agree with it 100%," Cindy Bronson says. "But I respect it."

She never would consider an implant for herself. She compared it to putting a fake eyeball in a socket.

"If I were going to have a procedure done, I'd wait until the technology improved so that I don't have to have part of my skull dug out," she says.

Even then, she's not convinced hearing would make much difference: "After 30 years of visual input, then switching to audio input, it would be hard."

Bob Shannon, an audiologist at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, says she makes a good point. People don't realize how long hearing takes to develop.

"A lot of senses are like that," Shannon says. "There are complex things about what you see and hear that don't fully mature until you're about 12. ... In childhood, most of us forgot about it because it was effortless.

"Your brain is learning how to deal with all the information your sensory systems are providing. When you're missing that sense and then have the information restored, you don't have that brainpower that most of us have to fall back on."

That's one reason why audiologists promote cochlear implants for infants and toddlers.

But Cindy Bronson says hearing is unnecessary for good communication between parents and children. Many deaf adolescents with implants don't use their devices.

California State University, Fresno, professor Paul Ogden, a deaf man who teaches deaf studies, has seen teens who had surgery that didn't work out. "Some were forced by parents to get cochlear implants, and those parents expected their children to be normal," Ogden says through an interpreter. "They were desperate for a cure.

"One kid told me, 'I had it so my parents would stop bugging me.' Imagine the reaction of the deaf community upon hearing a story like that."

According to the Department of Finance's 1999 census report, more than 68,000 people in Fresno County are classified as deaf or hard of hearing.

But Rosemary W. Diaz, executive director of the Valley's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center, estimates only about a tenth of those people use sign language or identify as culturally deaf.

Shannon says the deaf community is underappreciated.

"It's a very close and tight culture, very rewarding and loving," Shannon says. "It's a wonderful thing."

But Shannon also believes that implants are beneficial. "You can live a full and complete life within deaf culture," she says. "But if you want to interact with the rest of the world, deafness is a big disadvantage."

Most audiologists and deaf people agree that implants are no miracle. The acquired skills take a lot of work. Success can require hundreds of hours of speech therapy and auditory training.

Nevertheless, anti-implant sentiment in the deaf community appears to be softening.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center has strived to be more inclusive. Michelle Bronson, who worked off and on there for four years, says it wasn't always so.

But Diaz, the center's director the past 21/2 years, says times are changing. Two of her employees use cochlear devices.

She says people with implants are more readily embraced by the deaf community when they stay involved, continue to sign and don't reject their deaf identity.

The National Association for the Deaf once condemned the use of implants in children. The organization has changed its stance to embrace "all individuals regardless of race, religion, ethnic background ... and use of technologies."

Michelle Bronson says she's not surprised by the change in attitude.

"Like anything controversial -- religion, sex, politics -- parents never talk about it," Michelle says. "Younger people talk about it. So the younger deaf are talking about it. The climate is starting to change."

Yet deaf identity remains a touchy subject. Michelle used to tease her husband, Jimmy.

Even before his implant, "I noticed he heard more than he lip-read," Michelle says. "I'd always say, 'You're hard of hearing.' He'd say, 'No, I'm deaf.' Back then, he was very sensitive about it. Now it's an old joke between us."

Some people have strict definitions of what it takes to be culturally deaf: You must have deaf parents, go to schools for the deaf and use sign language to communicate.

Jimmy sets the bar elsewhere: If you can talk on the phone and watch TV without captioning, you're hard of hearing. "Otherwise, you're deaf."

The reporter can be reached at or 441-6322.



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