More and more parents are choosing cochlear implants for their deaf children, but the devices may not be for everyone, and some deaf people believe parents should wait until children are old enough to decide for themselves.
How the cochlear implant works: Sound is picked up through a tiny microphone contained in a removable headpiece that’s worn near the ear. The sound is sent along a small cable to a processor, a mini-computer that converts the sound into digital signals. The processor is worn on a belt, or in some models, at ear level. Once processed, the digital signals go back to a transmitter. In some models, the transmitter and the microphone are in the same piece; in other models, the microphone is in a behind-the-ear piece that looks like a hearing aid. The transmitter, which is held by a magnet on the side of the head behind the ear, sends the coded signals via radio waves through the skin to the implant. The implant then delivers the signals to electrodes that have been inserted into the cochlea of the ear. The electrodes stimulate the auditory nerve, sending impulses to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound.
Approximately one in a thousand American children are born deaf, and many doctors believe that children, even babies, tend to adjust to implants better than adults because their language learning areas of the brain are more adaptable. In the United States, more than 15,000 children have received cochlear implants. Dr. Bruce Gantz, who leads the cochlear implant program at the University of Iowa, recently told DesMoines Register Reporter Tony Leys: “We know that the earlier you implant a child who is profoundly deaf, the better they do. If you get the device in by 12 months, most of these kids are going to grow up with pretty normal speech and language.”
Those expressing caution and opposition include many deaf people, who believe their lack of hearing makes them different than others, but not disabled or broken as though they need to be treated or fixed. They claim that hearing impaired and deaf people find comfort and a common bond with others in their distinct deaf culture, with its own language and traditions. They point out that many deaf people live happy and fulfilled lives without implants, by using sign language, interpreters, or reading lips. Others, unhappy with their implants, have been known to turn them off and communicate more comfortably without them. Some parents who cannot afford implants for their children, or who chose not to get them, have expressed concern that if some predictions are accurate, it will be rare to see a deaf child without implants. There are also concerns that implant recipients face a higher risk of bacterial meningitis, as well as the inherent risks that go with any surgery. Also, the implants are permanent and cannot be removed if the child decides at a later time that he doesn’t like them and isn’t using them.
Parents in favor of getting implants for their children believe that with special training, their children have a reasonably good chance of hearing and speaking well enough to participate in regular school classes without an interpreter. It’s also been stated that parents have to make serious decisions for their children all the time, and whether to get cochlear implants is just another such decision.