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Letter to The Economist Editor: “I am extremely disappointed in The Economist’s article on cochlear implants.”

July 21st, 2013 by | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Leah Vitello, a young adult cochlear implant recipient, who first received her cochlear implant as a very young child and is heading to her senior year in college, shared her letter to The Economist to express her disappointment in the article about cochlear implants.

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To Whom It May Concern:

I am extremely disappointed in The Economist’s article on cochlear implants, “Listen up”. The unnamed author is sorely misinformed and makes negative, extremely general statements about cochlear implant technology. As a college student with bilateral cochlear implants, I am upset over the most generalized statement the author makes in the entire article, which is that “Deaf children with implants who use only spoken language perform worse at school than their peers who learn sign language”. This is a very broad statement that hints at no research to support it. I would like to ask the author to attribute whatever biased study they used to make that statement. I will use myself as an example to refute it. I am a senior at a small liberal arts college in Virginia with a GPA of 3.62. I am heavily involved on campus, hold 3 jobs, and am an active member of a nationally recognized sorority. When my parents discovered I was profoundly deaf in both ears, they were advised to prepare me for a life as a seamstress because it was expected that I would not make it beyond a third grade education. However, after receiving a cochlear implant on my left ear at a very early age and undergoing intensive speech therapy that lasted until the beginning of high school, I managed to read at an incredibly above average level compared to my peers, could write well, and interacted with my peers easily. I am now finishing out my last year at college studying English literature and have plans to attend graduate school next fall to pursue a career in academia. Since the FDA approved the technology in the 1980s, I was one of the trailblazer children who were implanted with the device. Today, my generation of cochlear implant recipients is among the most successful college students who are active in their communities. I am only one example of a successful cochlear implant recipient, and I am sure you will be hearing from numerous others or parents of children with cochlear implants that are greatly benefitting from the technology.

Another argument I would like to make is that the author makes only negative statements about the cochlear implant by using examples of recipients who are not happy with theirs. In any great publication within the realm of journalism, it is expected that writers arguing a position will present both sides to an issue. However, in this case, only the negative side is presented to us. The author’s citing only people with cochlear implants who are unhappy with the technology is incredibly unprofessional. There are thousands upon thousands more who praise the technology. One of the unhappy recipients, William Mager, it seems, was not completely informed about his implant before he received it. It is expected that sounds will sound alien and strange at first when the device is activated. The cochlear implant is not the kind of instant technology we are used to today – hearing does not come immediately to a deaf person after it is activated. It would be silly to expect that a person who has never heard before would be able to hear just as well as a hearing person will upon activation of the implant. Hearing well with a cochlear implant requires massive amounts of practice and speech therapy. I must argue two things regarding Cristina Hartmann’s argument that despite a decade of speech therapy she could not “talk or hear like a normal person” and that “70% hearing is still a handicap”. One, by receiving the implant at age six, Hartmann missed the “window” of hearing. This window is a metaphor that exists to describe the best time for children to acquire the skills necessary to communicate. From birth to age three, a child is learning to speak and hear in order to grasp the world around them. It is obvious that this time period is crucial for deaf children, especially those that want to hear. Getting a cochlear implant at this time is recommended because it offers a higher success rate in acquiring the skills needed to communicate and absorb the noise within the world around them. Those who receive implants later in life are also just as likely to do as well as those who get them very young, but may need to work even harder to hear and speak well, only because they have missed out on those crucial first three years. The second point I would like to make is that 70% hearing is better than no hearing. I am forever grateful for my parents making the decision to have me implanted. It has allowed me to be successful in mainstream schools and in all aspects of life. While the technology is not perfect (and honestly, no technology is perfect), I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to hear and do anything I want with my life. 70% hearing is not a handicap or disability – it is an opportunity to be a part of the rich deaf culture as well as part of the “hearing world”.

Even though the article jumps from one negative and poorly researched generalization to another, it does have one argument: that sign language is on the decline and that cochlear implants are threatening deaf culture. I disagree, because just as elevators have not threatened the use of stairs, nor have e-books threatened the readership of books, the cochlear implant is in no way threatening a well-established language, nor is it threatening deaf culture. Sign language is a beautiful language that deaf and hearing people alike use to communicate. As long as it is being used, there is no threat to it solely because of cochlear implant technology.

I would like to ask that “Listen up” either be withdrawn from the publication or rewritten in a way that presents both sides of the issue. The author must inform him/herself on the technology as well as the deaf culture that exists before he or she can even make any kind of statement about the topic at hand.

Thank you,

Leah Vitello

1 Comment

Karen Young

July 25, 2013 at 3:41 pm

I am saddened by the article, “Listen up” in the July 20, 2013 edition of The Economist online.

As the mother of a 17 year old deaf daughter who wears bilateral cochlear implants, the pervasive negative attitude and viewpoint of this article is astonishing in its arrogance. Additionally, there is a lack of perspective and a telling of the other side of the argument.

The article correctly stated that 90% of deaf kids are born to hearing parents, including our daughter. It says, in part, “… (hearing) parents… typically make decisions with little knowledge of deaf culture or politics.” This is a very loaded statement and one which amazing in its arrogance.

When our daughter was diagnosed we gave exactly NO consideration to Deaf culture or politics. And why should we? Our daughter was OURS, not the property of the Deaf culture. We were entrusted to care for her, raise her and provide for her. Were they going to do that? No, they were not. They have no rights to deaf children. Yes, deaf kids face challenges in this world. Many people do. But to say that a parent owes some form of allegiance to the Deaf culture is ridiculous. Parents who decide to implant their children are not saying that people within the Deaf culture should change to accommodate us or our children. But we should change what is best for our families to accommodate them? We have to agree with Elizabeth Bennett, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as she asserts,”… I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”

We decided, once we found she qualified, to have her implanted in order to give her opportunity; the opportunity to hear and interact with ALL of American culture, deaf and hearing alike. We knew that as she grew, she may decide to turn her implant off. That would be her decision. But, as her parents, it was our job to provide ability to learn and grow into a woman. Not a deaf woman, but a woman who had choices about her life and her future. To have denied her that would have limited her.

Regarding the experience of William Mager, was he so ill informed not to know that it takes time for the brain to adjust to hearing? The best time to receive an implant is before three years old, because the brain is its most plastic in that time. So, the older one is, generally the longer it takes for the brain to make sense of the sound. And it takes LOTS of work. Years of auditory therapy. Years of work and effort. Parents of children who receive cochlear implants clearly understand that, or they would not have made the monetary and time sacrifice necessary for their child to succeed. Adults who decide to get implanted have been given, as have parents of children who are to be implanted, lengthy counseling in understanding the pros, cons and limitations of the technology.

Additionally, as other commentors have stated, sign language is not the only communication method available for the deaf and hard of hearing. Cued American English, which we chose, is a tool for literacy. If the anonymous writer had done their homework, they would have found that Cued Speech was created originally to enable parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing to easily make their spoken language clearly visible, so that their children could internalize the appropriate phonemic language base for literacy through exposure. ( )

Our daughter was reading at a college level in the 7th grade. She is a voracious reader. In contrast,“… deaf children, whose average reading level by age 18 has remained relatively stable at the third to fourth grade level for more than half a century.”

Do all kids who use Cued Speech and/or with cochlear implants do as well as our daughter? No. However, her life has been greatly enriched by the ability to hear. She loves music and video. Loves to sing. Loves to hear. Those are her words, not mine.
Regarding the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, “The structure of this Convention is troubling because it would grant to a United Nations body an ongoing supervisory role over more than 25 distinct areas of American domestic law. Every four years the United States – which already leads the world in legal protections for persons with disabilities – would have to appear before the United Nations to be scrutinized and criticized by nations who do not match our standard.”{5518816F-CE05-4294-8F90-C41AD67C94D2}&DE= .

Additionally, as stated in the article, it will bias the government and schools toward sign language users, and, by extension, to those without implants.
In summary, this article was one-sided and poorly researched. It gives a false impression of cochlear implants and those who wear them. It insults and demonizes the cochlear implant community in favor of the Deaf culture and encourages others to do the same. No thanks. Our family wouldn’t give up the implants for our daughter, nor would she. Perhaps next time The Economist wants to jump into a discussion, it should make sure it has all the facts first.

Karen Young