Technological advances have provided many new options for deaf people, but not without some controversy.
Causes of Deafness
The inability to hear, or deafness, can occur from birth, age, noise, illness, medications, chemicals, or physical trauma, such as head injury. Deafness can range from the mild to the profound. Hearing loss can be genetic. When there are other medical problems involved, this genetic deafness is called syndromic. Nonsyndromic genetic deafness is when no other medical problems are associated at the same time. There are many illnesses that can cause deafness, such as measles, meningitis, mumps, autoimmune disease, fetal alcohol syndrome, some sexually transmitted diseases, and tumors. Hearing loss that occurs before language development is called prelingual deafness. Post-lingual deafness occurs after language acquisition. It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children be tested regularly for hearing difficulties, from birth through high school. Half of the deafness cases could be prevented by certain immunizations and avoiding loud noise exposure.1
New Technology for the Deaf
American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary sign language used by the deaf. It uses the hands, face, and torso, as well as finger spelling, to communicate words and phrases. In ASL, the hands are used in a particular shape, sometimes with motion, with a particular orientation on the body. Some of the signs use the eyebrows, nose, head, torso, and eyes, instead of the hands.2 There are many products on the marketto assist the hearing impaired and deaf. Warning devices, with flashing lights, and closed captioning are common tools. Hearing aids have improved in size and clarity, but they are not helpful when one is completely deaf. Lip reading and sign language can be boosted with technological advances. Some people use video relay service and video remote interpreting. Telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD) are like word processors that send typed text over phone lines. Currently, text messaging, SMS, videophones, and other internet services are starting to take the place of TDD. Cochlear implants can stimulate the cochlear nerve artificially, with an electrical impulses, but they are expensive and leave users at higher risk of meningitis. The meningitis vaccine would be recommended for those users. Cochlear implants have been found to be particularly helpful if they are implanted in children young enough to still acquire effective speech.3
The cochlear implant is not without controversy. When implanted in older people, the new sounds may be overwhelming and hard to interpret. Deafness is not necessarily a problem that needs to be fixed, and it can negatively impact the “deaf culture”. The cochlear implant reduces the need to use ASL, and that “undermines the struggle” for those who need ASL to be recognized as a language and who are unable or unwilling to utilize the newer technology. Deaf activists have concerns over the new genetic advancements in research, which could lead to disturbing interventions. There is even a new implant now that can be“wired directly into (the) brainstem. With the risk of infection from implants, and the fact that “normal” speech may still not be possible for those who receive the implants later in life, there is ongoing controversy over the new technologies.4 Deaf culture views deafness as a “difference in human experience” and not a disability. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes deaf culture. The “Deaf” identity has diversity, but sign language is part of this culture, and there are also shared values and beliefs, such as anti-discrimination and a positive attitude towards deafness.5