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April 9, 2005

Implants stir fight over deaf education

From: Houston Chronicle - Apr 9, 2005

As more parents opt for devices that help children hear, some are decrying the loss of culture

The Wall Street Journal

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Preschool teacher Kathy Stephens asked 4-year-old Kordell Waldner, "Do you need to go to the potty?" The boy got up and walked to the bathroom. When he finished, she told him to wash his hands. He stopped at the sink to do so.

It would be an unremarkable exchange, except Kordell is deaf.

His school, the South Dakota School for the Deaf, shows the transformation and some of the conflict unleashed in the world of deaf education by implants such as the one in Kordell's ear that helps him hear.

The superintendent who created a track for children with implants faced protests from a group of mostly deaf parents and eventually left the job.

Cochlear implants electronic devices surgically placed in the bone behind the ear have been around for two decades. But it was only five years ago that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the devices for use in children as young as 12 months.

Now a new generation of children is entering deaf schools with the hope that they may someday hear and speak almost as naturally as those who hear.

As this happens, it is reshaping a long battle over how deaf children should be educated. Supporters of the culture built up by deaf people believe deaf children should get a strong grounding in American Sign Language. But others including some deaf children's parents who can hear want more emphasis on hearing and speaking English to prepare the children for the mainstream.

Now the implants are boosting their cause. More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.

Some steeped in deaf culture don't see themselves as disabled and view implants as an attempt to "fix" something that isn't broken.

They especially oppose hearing parents deciding to get implants for their deaf children, believing the children should make those decisions themselves when they get older.

"This is a major intervention, and the ethics of operating on a healthy child can be questioned," says Harlan Lane, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Research shows, however, that the implants work best in very young children, who develop language more quickly.

The implants don't create perfect replicas of sounds, but recent models come fairly close.

Michelle Foy, of Sioux Falls, says the implant was a godsend for her 7-year-old, Catherine, who underwent the surgery in June 2001.

"My only regret is we didn't get it sooner," says Foy. "One of the coolest things was this summer she was in a tap class and could hear everything."

Sign language and deaf communities built around it have come under attack before and survived.

In the 1870s, Alexander Graham Bell led a movement that argued deaf children should be taught lip reading and vocalizing so they could communicate as well as possible with hearing people.

Such views were dominant for much of the next century, but in the 1970s American Sign Language underwent a resurgence as linguists demonstrated it was a complete language.

Deaf pride reached its peak in 1988 when student protests at Gallaudet University, known as the deaf Harvard, led to the hiring of I. King Jordan as its first deaf president.


APPROVED: The Nucleus Freedom system, which received FDA approval in March, offers a combination of three unique sound technologies designed to enable better hearing in everyday listening situations.

Cochlear implants are beginning to take hold in much younger people.
In 1995: Only 95 implant operations were performed in the United States on children under the age of 3.
Last year: Implant operations rose to 662 for patients under 3, and another 369 were performed on those between 3 and 5.
Overall: 10,000 children nationwide have implants, according to the FDA.

© 2005 Houston Chronicle