Implants save hearing, prompt worries over deaf community’s future

Amy Hackbarth

Cassie Bunker started losing her hearing when she was 34. As her problem worsened, Bunker compensated for her increasing deafness by writing notes, talking on speakerphones and asking people to repeat things.

“It was a big dance,” she said. “I did everything I could do to keep it from stopping me.”

At age 53 – when hearing aids no longer helped and she could only hear noises like jackhammers and airplanes – Bunker received cochlear implants from the University’s implant program.

Bunker underwent surgery to implant a half-dollar-sized electronic piece in the bone behind her ear. Now, when she wears a headpiece and a speech processor that collaborate with the electronic piece in her ear, her hearing is almost fully restored.

But some instructors at the University’s American Sign Language department dispute the benefits of the implants and question the perspective of the program, which has provided more than 300 people with implants since its 1984 creation.

Instructors decried a recent ad campaign launched by the program and implant production company, Advanced Bionics, promoting cochlear implant technology.

Three half-page ads that touted the technology for adults and children with deafness or significant hearing loss ran last month in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Dr. Sharon Smith, the University’s Cochlear Implant Program coordinator, said most people in the deaf community wouldn’t qualify for the surgery anyway.

In order for implants to be effective, Smith said, a recipient must have some sort of hearing or language definition ability. Therefore, she said, the majority of implant recipients are born with hearing and become deaf later in their lives or are young children.

Most of the people who receive the implants are able to talk, wear hearing aids and don’t use sign language, she said.

“If someone doesn’t wear a hearing aid, uses sign language and is part of the deaf community, why would they want to start hearing now?” Smith said.

Instructors also expressed outrage that the ads focused only on the medical view of receiving implants, which implies that being deaf is a negative thing.

“I live a normal life,” said Denise Egbert, an ASL instructor who has been deaf since birth. “I see nothing wrong with myself. But someone with a medical view would look at me and say there’s something wrong with me – my ears don’t work.”

Instructor Cara Barnett said she worried the increased implant surgeries would deplete the culture of the deaf community.

“We love our culture and our community,” Barnett said. “We have a very rich culture. If all the deaf people get implants, will we have a community in 10 years?”

The program does want to attract deaf people who are eligible for implants, said Sarah Barker, communications coordinator for the University Medical School’s otolaryngology department.

“We wanted to make the market more aware of the center and to let people know that they can get implants,” Barker said.

The University’s program is one of three cochlear implant centers in Minnesota and one of 200 nationwide.

Amy Hackbarth welcomes comments at [email protected]