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Jewish World Review March 26, 2001 / 2 Nissan, 5761

Mike Harden

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Consumer Reports

Deaf people who don't want to hear -- "I was born deaf," Kathy Nunley signed when asked about cochlear implant surgery and the controversy about the device within the deaf community.

"I've been deaf all my life. I'm proud to be deaf. I'm opposed to the implant. I'm afraid of it changing my life. I'm afraid of losing my friends."

Nunley spoke at Deaf Initiatives, the quilt shop where she works when she isn't teaching American Sign Language. Her opinion differs little from that of many within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

Those who choose to have the device, opponents believe, may become estranged from deaf friends and sometimes their own families.

The cochlear implant bypasses the damaged cochlea (the center of auditory nerve endings) and carries sound messages directly to the brain.

The surgery and debate swirling around use of the implant are addressed in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Sound and Fury." In that film, a Long Island family, the Artinians, is bitterly divided over whether to have the surgery for two children of Artinian brothers - an infant and a 7-year-old.

In heated altercations, the Artinians serve as both prism and microcosm on the issue.

"The implant has been wonderful for some and awful for others," said Claudia Bergquist, a Midwest regional board member of the National Association of the Deaf, which recently softened its opposition to the implant.

"We do not necessarily oppose or support the implant," she said. "We are very neutral at this point."

The association sees its role in the cochlear-implant debate as an educational resource for those weighing the options of the surgery, she said.

Bergquist has decided against having the implant for herself.

"I have been deaf since the age of 14 months from spinal meningitis," she explained. "They put hearing aids on me at 3. I was raised predominantly in a hearing culture. I was 'that kid with the hearing problem.' I was never exposed to the non-hearing world. I never met a deaf person until I was a senior in college. It was horrible going through college trying to lip-read every professor's class."

A class in manual communications that she enrolled in shortly before graduation proved to be a turning point.

Taught by a deaf professor, she said of the class, "That two-hour-credit course changed my life profoundly. Something was missing from my life. I wanted to be with somebody who was like me. The deaf community accepted me."

After college, she so immersed herself in deaf culture and the deaf community that today she cannot fathom leaving it purely for any advantage the implant might offer her.

"I'm very content with my life," she said. "I've been so well-adjusted for so many years as a deaf adult. I can't see myself going through the psychological readjustment right now."

She said she knows deaf adults who have opted for the implant primarily because most of their co-workers can hear. Once they leave the job for the day, she said, they remove the implant's transmitter.

Deaf opponents argue that there is no way of knowing what might happen to an implant in such close proximity to the brain 30 years after the surgery.

Adversaries also contend that hearing parents of congenitally deaf infants inflict their culture and world on a child for whom a community and culture already exists.

Supporters say that deaf parents who deny deaf children implants to thwart estrangement are guilty of abuse.

The issue will not go away anytime soon.

"I can't imagine hearing," Kathy Nunley signed.

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