TOPICS > Science

Technology and Deaf Culture

February 19, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TEACHER: More bubbles? Yay!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dylan Craig was born deaf, but eight months ago, he underwent an operation and received a cochlear implant, an electronic device that stimulates the hearing nerve, enabling a deaf person to perceive sound.

TEACHER: You want to figure out how it works.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today, at age two, Dylan has hearing. He is also doing something his parents never dreamed would be possible. He’s learning to talk.

TEACHER: Big or little?



BETTY ANN BOWSER: Doctors think Dylan’s chances to use spoken language and function someday in the hearing world are excellent, and his parents are thrilled.

DOUG CRAIG: It’s phenomenal, what technology can do. And to this day, when I tell people who find out that Dylan is deaf what we’ve done, they’re just, “that’s incredible.” And I haven’t been able to get over that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Three generations of the Bahan family of Gaithersburg, Maryland, are deaf: Father, Ben; mother, Sue; David, who is almost three years old; 14-month-old old Juliana; and Ben’s mother, Eleanor. The voice you will hear is an interpreter translating the signs that the family make to each other.

INTERPRETER: Sue says, “What animals do we have here?” David says, “deer.” Sue says, “Remember when we saw the deer licking the water?” David: “You have to be careful.” Ben says, “Were you afraid of the deer?” David: “I was scared, so I ran away.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Bahans use American sign language, or ASL, to communicate. Even Baby Juliana signs, here asking for her bottle. They say they function as well as any hearing family, and have as much fun. Here, David watches his favorite movie, “A Bug’s Life.”

INTERPRETER: Then they hear this loud noise, somebody flying. Yes! It’s the bad grasshopper.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Neither Ben nor Sue are interested in hearing, for themselves or their children. That may sound shocking to people who can hear, but it is a sentiment shared by many of the deaf people we spoke to. Here at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, an entire deaf culture has developed around American Sign Language. It’s a world in which deaf people not only feel comfortable, but thrive. Now, with the advent of cochlear implants and other technologies, some observers say that very culture is threatened.

More than 12,000 babies are born deaf every year in the United States. That’s more than for any other birth defect. But cochlear implants are making it possible for increasing numbers of them not to grow up to be deaf adults. The implants work like a miniature computer that is surgically implanted in the head behind the ear. The device transmits electrical signals to the auditory nerve, which the brain interprets as sound in the cochlear, thus producing hearing. In 1995, about 9,000 people had received cochlear implants. Today that number has doubled and is growing, so fast that experts say it won’t be long before they could reduce the number of deaf people from nearly two million to under 100,000. Dr. John Niparko is director of Otology at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, one of the leading implant centers in the world. It’s also where Dylan Craig got his implant.

DR. JOHN NIPARKO: There is no question that in the year 2000, we can provide that sensitive level of hearing to a lot of deaf individuals. We expect that implants will get smaller, faster, smarter. They will simulate more naturally the coding, the translation of sound vibrations into electrical energy that the normal ear provides.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The major caveat for cochlear implants is this: They must be done early, usually in the first three years of life, to be successful. John Wheeler is president of the Deafness Research Foundation.

JOHN WHEELER: When the baby is actually born, that brain is already looking for auditory data, and if it hasn’t been getting it, a process begins where after 18 months or 20 months, somewhere around that length of time, the brain says, “okay, I’m not going to be a hearing brain,” and it starts reallocating memory just like a computer program. And at some point, it’s not reversible. That’s why if a child is five years old and gets a cochlear implant, statistically it won’t benefit as much as an infant who gets them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wheeler’s nonprofit organization will shortly launch a national awareness program, letting parents know about implant technology, and urging that all newborns be screened for deafness. All of this seems unnecessary to many students at Gallaudet, the only college for deaf and hard- of-hearing students in the world. At Gallaudet, the volleyball team is deaf, the captain of the football team is deaf, even King Jordan, the president of the university, has been deaf since he was 21. And he says the deaf culture offered at Gallaudet enriches the lives of students.

KING JORDAN: I’m different when I go out in the hearing world. When I check into a hotel or go to an airline desk or ride a bus, then I stand out. I’m different, I’m a deaf guy. When I’m here I can put that aside, and I’m not a deaf guy. I’m president; I’m a PhD; I’m an athlete; I’m all the things that other people are, and we don’t have to be concerned about the deafness when we’re here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many of these students like student council president Chris Soukup have been death since birth. Soukup signs and after years of speech therapy, has learned to talk. He is also an excellent lip reader. He says he’s not unhappy being deaf, and he resents the notion that hearing society thinks it needs to fix deaf people with things like cochlear implants.

CHRIS SOUKUP: They feel sorry for us. They say, “oh, these poor people, we have to do something to help them.” And what they don’t realize is we are fully capable of helping ourselves. We’re fully capable of living the lives that we want to lead without anyone’s help, and I think that’s something that people really need to wake up to.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And for many of these students, if there was a cochlear implant that worked on large numbers of older people, they would reject it. Jason Lamberton is a 20-year-old junior.

JASON LAMBERTON: (speaking through interpreter) Would it be easier? Yeah. I’m not going to lie, it would. But if I were able to hear and speak, I wouldn’t be deaf anymore. That means my identity would be gone, and I’d be a completely different person, and I don’t want that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Reporter: Jane Fernandez is the provost of Gallaudet. She’s been deaf since birth. She speaks, signs, and also lip reads, and like many of her students, she is proud of her deafness.

JANE FERNANDEZ: I wish hearing people would understand that I am very happy to be deaf. My deafness is not an issue. I don’t think about it every day. I just go on with my life the same way hearing people do. I’m successful. I’m educated. I work. I have a family. I have a home. It just happens that I sign and I have some equipment that helps me to get access to information. What’s all the fuss about?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ben Bahan is the dean of deaf studies at Gallaudet, and even though medically his two young children might be prime candidates for a cochlear implants, he would never consider such a thing.

BEN BAHAN: (speaking through interpreter) If I gave them the cochlear implant and it was great and everything, then my environment would be hard. I don’t talk. I wouldn’t be able to give the English and the speaking to it, so what would be the point? She gets to an age where she can make that decision if she wants it, it’s up to her. I won’t stop her.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the doctors say it will be too late then, that it has to be done in the first three years of life.

BEN BAHAN: (speaking through interpreter) It’s not too late for her, because she already has language. She already signs. She already has that. Really, at one year old, she’s already able to sign several signs. She can tell me… tell me how many children who are one who have a cochlear implant can speak that clearly?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many of the students at Gallaudet will eventually go out into the hearing world to have careers, but they want to keep their deaf culture and all that it symbolizes.

CHRIS SOUKUP: It involves an acceptance and a celebration of who we are as people, and it’s also a celebration of all of the accomplishments that we’ve made since the beginning of time. We have done so much for ourselves in terms of progressing and advancing as a community, and also asserting, you know, the culture that we believe very strongly in to the outside world.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But does technology have the potential to wipe out deaf culture, to perhaps destroy American sign language, as more and more children get hearing and speech with cochlear implants? Gallaudet’s Fernandez doesn’t think so.

JANE FERNANDEZ: Again and again we’ve seen social influences that try to fix deaf people. And again and again we’ve seen deaf people as a group have taken those influences into them and adapted to include them. So I believe technology is going to change the deaf culture just as technology is changing the whole society. No one is going to escape the influence of technology. But the culture itself will stay.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Niparko isn’t so sure.

DR. JOHN NIPARKO: In the case of the deaf culture, in many cases it is based in the signing form of communication. I have been accused of providing cochlear implants as a way of doing away with sign language. And again, that…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does that bother you?

DR. JOHN NIPARKO: Of course it bothers me. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to provide access to spoken language. Now, can we… can we provide that access to spoken language and not crowd out the ability to use sign language? Well, there may be an issue there, and there’s an issue for all of us to deal with.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dylan’s parents provide a clue. On the day the NewsHour met them at Dylan’s hearing therapy, Doug and Karen Craig were excited about the success of the little boy’s implant, and Mother Karen, “it’s great. We don’t have to sign so much anymore.”

TEACHER: That was a nice bubble!