There was a time when a child born deaf had very few choices. For over one hundred years, the only option for parents was to send their son or daughter away to a boarding school for the deaf. In these schools, the children thrived in the shadows, embracing a distinct culture of silent communication.
Recent advances in medicine and technology are now reshaping what it means to be deaf in America. Children who could never hear a sound are now adults who can hear everything. That’s having a dramatic impact on the nation’s historic deaf schools as well as the lives of people.
“Just like our cell phones [and] our laptops, cochlear implants are becoming smarter in terms of bringing in the most important sounds to the ear of the implant listener,” says Dr. John Niparko, an ear specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Experts say that while they know that 1 in 1,000 children are born genetically deaf every year, and these cochlear implants can help them.
The implants take in sound waves much like a hearing aid would, but instead of just amplifying the sound waves, it can take that energy and translate it into an electrical code. This works just like the transducer in a microphone. That code is then sent along a series of contacts placed next to the hearing nerve, and along with small packets of electricity, that hearing nerve is activated, thus re-creating the act of hearing.
The implant works for the vast majority of deaf people, says Niparko, but unfortunately there is a socioeconomic divide that prevents the availability of the device for all deaf cases. The implant costs roughly 32,000 dollars and the surgery to install it can run another 10,000 to 12,000 dollars.
With the invention and the increasing improvements in the cochlear implant technology, Niparko says all children born deaf and without other disabilities have the chance to be fully integrated into a hearing society.
However this leads to an uncertain future for schools for the deaf. More than 80 percent of children who are or were hearing impaired now attend their local schools. Just a couple decades ago, 80 percent of hearing impaired children attended deaf schools.
“In the past, we didn’t have much to offer deaf children so they would automatically be in a sign culture and grow up that way,” Dr. Richard Miyamoto, a former board member of the Indiana School for the Deaf says. “That was comfortable, but when cochlear implants came along and there was something to be done, many of them were successful. So they ended up living their lives in the hearing world rather than the deaf world.”
While this is great for the hearing impaired, it can put many special education teachers out of work.