Technology as a Cultural Force
"I was in a mainstream program. I was surrounded by hearing people. I never was segregated into a deaf classroom. My friends, in general, I would say treated me pretty good—with the exception of the cochlear implant which was really obvious. Then the remarks started to come. They called me a freak. They said I was strange. They'd say, what's that? Is it really part of your body?"
Technological change impacts communities in different ways. While hearing people applauded the “talkies” films, they effectively cut deaf people off from access to movies. The radio offered news, music, and weather warnings, but not to deaf people. Telephones became a barrier to employment and access. Technology also changed education and the physical condition of deafness as hearing aids, FM systems, and cochlear implants came to be used. Technological “advancements” were often assessed differently by hearing and Deaf people.
For almost one hundred years after its invention, the telephone separated deaf people from the rest of society. At work, many deaf people were denied promotions when the job required the use of a phone. At home, deaf people used multiple techniques to accomplish what hearing people could complete with a simple call. Deaf people asked children, neighbors, and friends to make calls. They drove long distances to have face-to-face conversations, and enlisted the interpreting skills of hearing friends and family. When faced with an emergency, many deaf people had no way to contact police, fire, or ambulance services.
In 1964, Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf scientist, developed an acoustic coupler that converted sounds into text and vice versa. Weitbrecht’s technical abilities, along with the financial, political, and marketing assistance of James Marsters and Andrew Saks sparked an industry that radically changed the quality of life for deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States. The result of their labors was called a TTY, or teletypewriter, and later a TDD, shorthand for “telecommunications device for the deaf.” By using a standard telephone handset placed on a coupler, the TTY transmitted and received information and translated it into a printed text via a teletype machine. A flashing light connected to the TTY alerted the deaf person that the phone was ringing. Access to this device meant deaf people could place a phone call to a friend, a Deaf club, or anyone who also had a TTY.
"It wasn't until I moved to the residential Deaf school that I started wearing the cochlear implant all the time. It's kind of unusual, just the opposite of what you would think. My parents were very concerned that once I went to the school for the deaf that I would stop wearing it entirely and that I wouldn't speak any longer. But the opposite is what happened and it's because I had confidence in myself. Everybody there was just like I was; everybody had a problem with their hearing so it was okay. It gave me the opportunity to wear my implant and to feel like I fit in and really take advantage of everything that it had to offer."
The development of the TTY mobilized deaf people and their hearing friends to work together to make telephone access available to everyone. Not only did the promise of the TTY spark action by the Deaf community, it also made organizing subsequent political actions easier, as community members could quickly reach each other and share information. By the mid 1980s, TTYs were in widespread use in the homes of deaf people and in many businesses and government agencies.
Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, a host of technological advancements, many of which took advantage of residual hearing, became available to deaf people. Progressively smaller and lighter weight hearing aids were developed. The early electronic hearing aids of the 1950s required large, heavy batteries and came with instructions on how to discretely tuck batteries into underclothing. Later versions could be stored in a pocket or clipped to a belt, and eventually behind-the-ear hearing aids were available.
Photo: Cochlear Implant
Not all technological developments have been universally accepted by the Deaf community. The cochlear implant inspired both strong support and vehement opposition. Among deaf people, the implants are generally hailed as a boon for individuals who lost their hearing later in life, but their use for deaf children became controversial. The effectiveness and risks of the implants are a major part of the debate, but there is an additional conflict between those who view deafness as a physical impairment and those who see it as a valued part of cultural identity. As cochlear implant surgery has become more common in deaf children, have become more widely used, the emphasis of the debate has changed. The focus now is on the child’s exposure to visual language and the type of support and educational services the child receives.