Cochlear Implants: Bridging the Sound Gap
by Paul Bacon
If you could choose between a world of silence and a world of sound,
which would it be? For the first time in history, the deaf can make this
choice of their own accord thanks to cochlear implants, a prosthetic
technology allowing the profoundly deaf to experience hearing and spoken language.
By electronically bypassing faulty nerve endings in the ear, the implant
transmits sounds to the brain through the auditory nerve, bridging a
While a remarkable boon for the deaf, the devices have yet to receive
universal acceptance. Some feel that deafness is not something to "fix,"
but simply a natural state of existence for those born without hearing.
Peter Artinian, a profoundly deaf parent of three deaf children featured in SOUND AND FURY, says,
"If somebody gave me a pill that would make me hear ... would I take
it? No way ... I really am happy being deaf. It's very peaceful."
Artinian is like many in the deaf world who feel that cochlear implants
spell an end to their unique culture, while others are embracing the
device, with more than 20,000 people receiving implants since the practice
earned U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 1985.
As with many emerging medical technologies, cochlear implants still
carry a hefty price tag. They can cost as much as $50,000, and while the
Cochlear Implant Association claimed that insurance "covers the costs in
almost all cases," The New York Times reported in August 2000 that
"two-thirds of insurance companies are often unwilling to pay, citing a
lack of evidence that the device is cost-effective." This may change
soon in light of a Johns Hopkins University study published the same
month finding that the cost of the implant pales in comparison to the
reported $1 million burden to society when someone develops deafness as
a young child.
Researchers are still determining the best age for implantation, but
children as young as 18 months are considered qualified
candidates. Many feel that the younger a deaf child is implanted, the
better their odds are of realizing the device's full benefits. The
accompanying rush to intervention has opened the door to fierce moral
debates, with some questioning parents' rights to implant their children
before they are old enough to understand the implications. As of
September 2000, the National Association of the Deaf, initially
unwilling to endorse cochlear implantation for children, was still
retooling its position in light of recent developments.
Paul Bacon is a daily columnist for Inside.com and a frequent
contributor to Thirteen and PBS's online projects, including "The 1900
House" and "Srebrenica: A Cry from the Grave." His writing has appeared
in Mother Jones, The San Francisco Examiner, Wired, Salon and Might