IM this article to a friend!

November 9, 2004

A new sound

From: The Michigan Daily - Ann Arbor,MI,USA - Nov 9, 2004

Hearing implants gain acceptance in deaf community

By Michael Kan,
Daily Staff Reporter
November 09, 2004

The day Mobin Tawakkul couldn't follow directions in his kindergarten class was the day he began to lose touch with a part of the world. It was the first sign that he was going deaf.

Tawakkul's world began to evaporate away with the onset of his hearing loss. By fourth and fifth grade, surgeries to his ears and his body's resistance to antibiotics degraded his hearing to nothing, said Tawakkul, a University alum. Not even hearing aids could salvage the sounds, he added.

"I felt this was becoming a way of life so I had to deal with it," said Tawakkul, who received his masters in pharmaceutical engineering at the University in 2003.

But Tawakkul persevered with his deafness beyond his expectations, thanks to a device which a University program is helping bring to more deaf ears.

The hearing device, called a cochlear implant, resuscitated Tawakkul's hearing ability when he underwent surgery for the device in 10th grade. The lost sounds of raindrops clattering on the ground, the chirps of birds in the morning and the beats of Islamic music returned to his deaf ears, re-opening the world for him.

"The feeling is like there's more in the world than I ever knew," he said.

Although the device is far from a cure, the cochlear implant has improved Tawakkul's life dramatically by both rectifying his ability to communicate with others and granting him the sounds of everyday life.

Yet Tawakkul's story is just one of the many different stories dealing with the heated history of the cochlear implant.

Developed in the 1980s, the implant functions by altering sounds into electrical energy, which then stimulates a deaf person's surviving auditory nerve fibers to allow the user to hear. The implant is also attached to an external sound processor that both detects sound and powers the hearing device.

Helping to spearhead the promotion of the implants is the University's Cochlear Implant Program, one of the largest programs in the country. Last month, the program implanted its 1000th cochlear device into a patient.

But in the past, many in the deaf community rejected the implant out of the concern that the device would threaten the existence of the deaf culture, said Teresa Zwolan, director of the University's Cochlear Implant Program and professor in otolaryngology.

Many believed the implant would transform a deaf person into a hearing person — which goes against the deaf culture, Zwolan added.

Where the device once faced public outcry from the deaf community though, the cochlear implant draws less ire with each year as the number of surgeries for the implant grows. Moreover, many hard-of-hearing people have accepted the need for the device.

When choosing whether to undergo surgery for the device, deaf people weigh the benefits and drawbacks of the implant like any other surgery

The costs, the patient's degree of deafness and the inability of doctors to know how much hearing wil be restored were all factored in Tawakkul's decision to choose the implant.

Backed by his family and teachers, Tawakkul underwent the surgery, knowing it was one of his best chances to hear again. But, underlining the decision for others is the worry of losing their deaf identity after regaining their hearing.

"Traditionally, the deaf community has been opposed to it since their deafness is a part of the definition of who they are, and if we try to fix their deafness, it will change who they are," Zwolan said.

During the advent of the cochlear implant, Zwolan said the device implied that deafness was a disability rather than another perfectly valid way of living life, she added.

This opposition climaxed when the devices were implanted on deaf children during the early 1990s, causing many in the deaf community to protest against the cochlear implant. Deaf people argued hard-of-hearing children could live their lives perfectly, despite their deafness, so they rejected the surgery, she added.

Since then, much of the division engendered by the device has eroded, Zwolan said. Citing that close to 100 members of Ann Arbor's deaf community have undergone the surgery, Zwolan said the implant has become a personal decision for individuals and for parents of deaf children.

"It's a personal choice that depends on what they want the deaf implant for, and some people just want to hear. It's not a tool to change who they are or where they belong. It's just a tool to help them hear," she said.

Rackham student Richard Eckert, who is deaf, respects that personal decision, but like some in the deaf community, he remains unconvinced about the implants effectiveness.

With his hearing aid and his lip-reading skills, Eckert said there is no need for the device since he can understand speech most of the time.

At the same time, the current cochlear implant would destroy his ability to use a hearing aid since it would also require surgeons to eliminate his residual hearing in order for the device to function.

"So, it is a gamble. For some people it works and if that is what they want — great. I see no reason to take such a gamble, especially with the improvements to digital hearing aids and with future possibilities of cochlea hair regeneration," he said.

Highlighting that risk is Eckert's wife who once wore a cochlear implant but later developed a constant pain in her head.

While the concern that deaf culture was threatened by the implant has dissolved over the years, the device has nonetheless affected the makeup of the deaf community.

As the number of individuals with the cochlear implants grows, Zwolan said the device has resulted in fewer individuals to in the deaf community.

Because the deaf community is primarily made up of people who know sign language, children who receive the cochlear implant generally do not need to rely on signing as a way to communicate, Zwoland added.

"If you don't use sign language, you are not really accepted by the deaf community," she said.

But deaf students at the University's Hearing Impaired Student Organization have broken those barriers, creating a unique community of their own on campus.

Not only have many in the deaf community at the University come to terms with the device, but many also see that the surgery does little to a person's identity.

Even with the surgery, Tawakkul is still seen as a deaf person among his peers in the student organization.

"I explained to them with what my situation is with the cochlear implant and they found it accepting so it was not a problem at all after educating them," he said.

Yet Tawakkul added in order to strike a balance and deepen his relationship with the deaf community, he says that he needs to learn sign language — a trait which unites them into a culture.

© 2004 The Michigan Daily. All rights reserved.