One of the latest sensations to be headed around Cyberland is a video of 29-year-old Sloan Churman, a woman who had been born deaf and lived with severe-to-profound hearing loss her whole life. Last week, the You Tube video of her hearing her voice for the first time went viral. She had undergone surgery to receive Envoy Medical’s Esteem Implant, which is similar to but not the same thing as a cochlear implant.
To be perfectly honest, I am torn about the popularity of this video. Of course, it’s lovely to see another human being experience the joy that Churman was clearly caught up in. It’s impossible not to feel happy for her.
The issues surrounding language and the deaf, however, are hugely complicated and I couldn’t help but be reminded of them as I watched Churman’s tears of joy. I wondered how many would be saddened or angered by this video for various reasons, and how many more would consider themselves to be actually informed after simply watching this briefest of views into one experience of one deaf woman.
Reading through the comments on YouTube confirmed my suspicions. Comments were dominated by well-wishers, though there were certainly a number of people who were curious about her achievement. They wondered how someone who was born deaf could speak so perfectly, with no trace of a ‘deaf accent.’ Others claimed it was a fake precisely because of her lack of accent. (For the record, her accent is very slight, but you can hear a hint of it when she says “I don’t want to hear myself cry.” at 0:47. Listen for the /s/ in ‘myself’ and a slight nasal quality in the vowel in ‘cry’).
Both groups got flamed, regardless of how their inquiries were worded. To wit:
Comment: “I don’t believe this is a fake, but it is misleading as are many articles and stories about cochlear implants. Chochlear implants are wonderful and amazing. But they do not automatically give you hearing. It takes months of listening through them to understand sound if you were born without it. CI’s work differently for different people. There are many different levels of hearing loss. It’s frustrating when something like this shows up and doesn’t show all the hard work that goes into it.”
Follow-up: “My point is that this video makes it seem to the uneducated (about deafness) viewer that a deaf person can get implanted and suddenly hear and speak like a normal hearing person. And I know from experience that that is not the case. There is a LOT of work involved with using a CI or hearing aids successfully. I think when you show a video like this it gives a wrong impression And I believe this is a video of her first hook-up, Not of her using it after two months.”
Reactions: (imagine a [sic] after every error, please)
- “way to bring the room down. She can hear more than she ever has in her life, stop being so cynical.”
- “wow dick. get a life be happy for this woman!”
- “You are a DOUCHBAG…”
- “Oh Yea, Douchbag. Your the only one who finds a negative thing in a woman hearing for the first time. Another Douchbag TROLL.”
- “dude, just be happy for the chick, whatever she hears has moved her. Wow would you be negative and say such irrelevant things? No one cares about the process, its about being human and watching a sense that this person never had before, come to life. I hope you have a wonderful day and rethink how you go about your life.”
The most depressing thing – aside from the fact that people can’t even spell douche bag anymore – was in the last comment: “no one cares about the process.” I suppose this would be more understandable if the original comment had been mean-spirited. It was not, however. It was merely analytical and a little pessimistic about how this events of the video might be misconstrued by many people.
Perhaps I just share those concerns and so I am biased, but it’s still disconcerting to know that people honestly don’t care to think beyond the visible result of a long, arduous process. They want to see a happy outcome and never care to assess the work that was put into that outcome, nor do they want to admit that they may be witnessing an anomaly. This feels like the original commenter was actually being admonished for trying to be more analytical about what was seen in the video and its implications for others in similar situations. Such a display of the complete and willful disdain for critical thinking makes me throw up in my mouth just a little bit.
More misconceptions littered the comments. Some expressed confusion over how a deaf person could ever learn how to speak. They were quite convinced it would be impossible for Churman to have learned to speak so clearly. It seems they believe that a person who is ‘deaf’ can’t hear a single noise, which isn’t actually the case. Some speech is still discernible in varying degrees depending on both the level of loss and which frequency ranges are audible. Even profoundly deaf people retain the ability to hear some very loud sounds, and of course the vibrations made by even quieter sounds. (You can read a description of the levels of loss here.)
There were other comments that made the claim – quite emphatically – that she obviously knew English because she could lip-read. This is also miles away from the truth. Most of the literature agrees that in the best circumstances, about 30% of language is clearly and distinctly visible on our lips, but because so many sounds can be made using the same facial arrangement, much of the message is actually inferred, not ‘read’.
Even the well-wishers could be inadvertently offensive to some. Generally, the assumption among those of us who hear normally is that all deaf people wish they could hear, or at least should wish for this. Many of the comments reflected this attitude:
“…I started tearing up when I realized how lucky she is to finally hear. We take hearing for granted everyday and she is finally getting a chance…”
Again, let me be careful to say that I feel this woman was lucky because she wanted the chance to hear and she actually got it. But I also know that this feeling of wanting to be ‘fixed’ is not something that is shared by all deaf people. In fact, there are many who consider themselves to be not handicapped (deaf) but simply a person with four rather than five senses who belongs to a cultural and linguistic minority (Deaf), and who might feel the same way a gay person does at the notion that they can be ‘cured’ of their disorder and be ‘lucky’ enough to be ‘normal’ for the first time in their lives.
But the situation is so thoroughly complicated that it can’t be boiled down to a simple “Hearing is good, deaf is bad” (or vice versa) dichotomy. It also can’t be boiled down to one already-too-long blog post – without any pictures, even! – which is possibly why I haven’t even attempted writing about it until this video prompted me to finally do so. I simply didn’t know where to start.
I’ve been writing As a Linguist since June of 2009, though it’s only been since February of this year that I’ve been posting regularly. In this whole time, I haven’t even begun to touch on issues surrounding deaf language acquisition, despite the fact that it was the focus of my graduate work in Linguistics and, after I switched departments, for my M.Ed. in Deaf Education. As I started to work on this post, I found myself getting deeper and deeper into research that has been done since I finished my degree so I could learn about what developments I’ve missed by having changed direction into ESL, teaching, and writing.
I remembered why I devoted long years of my education to this subject. And it makes me want to finally break my silence.