Monday, January 15, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 15, 2001

To hear or not to hear: deafness as a gift

To hear or not to hear: deafness as a gift
Documentary looks at deaf family's struggle
Defining of deaf culture begins with language
Graphic showing how a cochlear implant works

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Assistant Features Editor

Harvey Nathanson, 28, the profoundly deaf son of deaf parents, would never choose to hear, not even for a day.

"I would turn it down flat, immediately," he said in a relay call from the Hawaii Center for the Deaf, where he is doing his teaching practicum. "I don’t see any reason why I’d want to be a hearing (person) for a day. I have fulfilled my life as a deaf (person)."

While he knows that means he’ll never hear a chord strummed on an ukulele, or know the crescendo of the Halona Blowhole, he views deafness as a gift.

If he hadn’t been born deaf, he might never have experienced the learning, the accomplishment and the pride that come with being independent against odds not faced by most others.

"I have traveled across the United States, South America and Mexico and I have not asked for any help," he said. "I also played sports. I have been involved with different organizations and I am in a graduate school — without any help."

Deafness taught him the beautiful visual-spatial art form that is American Sign Language. It taught him to develop his other senses, "hearing" through vibrations. And perhaps most importantly, it helped him learn to reach inside, and in turn reach out to others. Instead of training to be a teacher of the deaf at Western Maryland College, he’s not sure what he might have become.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so adamant about cochlear implants, the issue at the heart of "Sound and Fury," a documentary about a deaf Long Island father, who opposes implants for his 6-year-old deaf daughter, and his hearing brother, who wants them for his deaf newborn.

The film, to be screened today through Wednesday, brought a slew of inquiries to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. At the request of teachers, a Wednesday matinee was added so Highlands Elementary and Pearl City High hearing-impaired students could attend.

"It’s a very controversial issue in the deaf community," said Highlands teacher Kimmy Kawachi. "It’s very good for the kids to learn about the issues concerning the deaf and their culture. I did hear that it was fair to both sides."

Decades ago, cochlear implants were heralded as a way to stamp out deafness. Devices are surgically implanted in the cochlea, the inner-ear organ, bypassing the defective parts of one ear and sending auditory signals to the brain. A sound transmitter picks up sound, then sends the signals to the implanted patient through a magnetized headpiece, which attaches to the scalp (see diagram).

After surgery, patients learn to interpret the signals being detected, to speak and to live more fully in the hearing world.

Hearing a difference

So why wouldn’t you want them? Why wouldn’t you pay the price, no matter how high — the devices themselves cost about $27,000, not to mention the surgery and post-op training — to be part of the hearing world?

"I know, (hearing people) tell me, they just cannot wrap their heads around the idea that a person would not want a cochlear implant," said Jeanne Prickett, administrator of the Hawaii Center for the Deaf and the Blind. "I don’t think they can get to a point where they accept deafness."

First of all, deaf people bristle at the concept that deafness is a negative.

"I have in my lifetime had a number of deaf relatives, all by marriage," said Prickett, who like many familiar with the issue admits to having mixed feelings about cochlear implants. "In those cases, deafness was not seen as a medical deficit to be fixed. It was a seen as a fact of life to be accommodated."

She is a strong proponent of deaf culture. "There is deaf culture, where society will allow it to be," Prickett said. "Society says it’s a bad thing. It still can flourish, but is under duress all the time."

But she also recognizes what a godsend cochlear implants are for those who are deaf and blind. In those cases, a patient is able to reach across the vast expanse of isolation. Knowing something as simple as whether you’re alone in a room is a huge gain in quality of life.

Talk about quality of life with Dennis Mayehara of Kalihi, the hearing father of Gabriane, 12, who was born deaf: He tells about keeping her in eyesight at all times when he and his daughters are out shopping. But since his youngest was implanted eight months ago at her own request, she is more independent.

She can tell when a phone is ringing, for example.

"She won’t answer it, but she’ll pick it up and look for me," he said, the pride spilling from his voice. "She can hear the dog bark, can hear a car making a loud noise.

". . . Ever since she’s had the implant, she hears a lot of things. She talks, talks, talks. (Laugh.) Now, sometimes, I’ve got to tell her to shut up!"

Her Kahala Elementary teacher, Susan Kamida, recalls when Gabriane first recognized a strange sound.

"What’s that?" she asked her teacher.

They both listened for a minute. It was quiet, as far as Kamida could tell.

"The tack-tack-tack," Gabriane pressed.

Kamida, listening more closely, picked up the background noise.

"The birds?" the teacher asked.

At age 11, Gabriane had heard her first mynah.

"I wish she could have had (the implant) earlier," her father said. "The earlier you put it in, the better it is, to me. She could pick up words more."

Preserving deaf culture is just one of the concerns opponents of cochlear implants raise. Another is its effectiveness: The cochlear implant does not turn a deaf person into a hearing person.

Because you’re listening through only one ear, you can pick up single sounds, but party noise or a symphony concerto would not sound the same as to a hearing person. However, the implants do help mainstream deaf people into the hearing world.

To understand the heart of the implant conflict, it’s imperative to understand the different ways deaf children are taught to communicate.

"Manual" communication is the name for the visual-spatial American Sign Language. It’s beautiful to behold, with its own grammar, but there is no speech component.

In oral-aural communication, teachers use speech, language, auditory discrimination — and no sign language. Students learn to lip-read and to speak.

Other teachers combine manual and oral techniques into an English-coded sign language called Signed English, which uses English grammar. Practicing this form, the deaf speak while they sign.

Sign language culture

The deaf culture proponents fear cochlear implants will bring the practice of American Sign Language to the same end as was almost suffered by the Hawaiian language. Prickett calls American Sign Language "an evolving art form." And Nathanson, who said he would rather see deaf children remaining deaf, prefers his students learn a first and second language at the same time — but the first should be American Sign Language, he believes. "If I happen to have some cochlear-implanted students in my classroom, I would treat them equally with an understanding that I will use only American Sign Language," he said. "Nonetheless, in my personal perspective, I’m totally against (implanting children), as it is a robbery."

His fear is that children won’t have the chance to choose whether they’d like to live in a hearing or a deaf world.

Implants are becoming more technologically advanced by the day, and children as young as a year old will be implanted at the behest of their parents. And as most deaf children are born to hearing parents — 90 percent, Bridenbaugh estimates — they have little choice in the matter.

Another person concerned about that is Prickett: "Losing the richness of having a small community, where people know each other worldwide — the very thought of it gives me an ache. Although it’s hard to explain, it would be a substantial loss.

"It’s a sense of community. What happened to the Hawaiian culture when it was suppressed for so long? It survived anyway, but went underground."

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