On the surface, cochlear implants sound like a promising medical solution to the problems surrounding hearing loss or total deafness. These devices use existing nerves and electronic signals to override damaged auditory nerves, thus restoring a sense of hearing to the recipient. However, this technology has also caused serious divisions within the deaf community concerning the hearing society's position on deafness in general.
A number of members of the deaf community choose to view their deaf status as a subculture of society, in the same sense as a Hispanic person would embrace his or her Hispanic culture. Deafness is not a handicap per se, but a shared experience which gives the deaf community its unique cultural identity. To members of this deaf subculture, cochlear implants are considered disrespectful and insulting, since the medical community views deafness as a handicap which must be treated or corrected.
Certain factions of the deaf community also believe a deaf person's ability to live a full and meaningful life is not compromised by his or her deafness, so the suggestion that cochlear implants provide advantages over a deaf lifestyle is shortsighted and insensitive. Many deaf people cope very well with their deafness, learning sign language and lip reading and adapting their work and home environments to accommodate their loss of hearing.
Another controversy surrounding cochlear implants and the deaf community is the safety and effectiveness of the procedure. Cochlear implantation involves major surgery in an area of the body filled with delicate nerves which control facial movements. One mistake during surgery could cause long-term facial paralysis.
These implants can also destroy any remaining healthy auditory nerves, which means a deaf person could lose all remnants of natural hearing which may have helped them adjust to a deaf lifestyle. They require the recipient to undergo significant fine-tuning sessions, and success can vary widely from recipient to recipient.
The controversy over cochlear implants often pits hearing parents against deaf parents when it comes to raising their deaf children in a hearing world. Many deaf parents would prefer to raise their deaf child in a deaf culture, including the use of sign language and lip reading. Hearing parents who are not familiar with the deaf community may opt for the implant surgery to correct their deaf child's perceived handicap.
The result may be a deaf child who can partially hear, or a hearing child with a deaf cultural heritage. Either way, the child may face social ostracism from both communities if the parents do not consider the long-term effects of cochlear implant surgery. Not all members of the deaf community view implants as an unnecessary procedure, but hearing parents facing a difficult decision concerning a deaf child may want to research both sides of the controversy before committing to cochlear implant surgery.