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Cochlear Implants
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Cochlear Implants: Bridging the Sound Gap
by Paul Bacon

cochlear implant 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 once-impossible gap.

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 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 magazine.