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The Problem With Viral Videos Of Deaf Kids Hearing For The 1st Time

The underlying message is that hearing is better than deaf, which is audism.
Videos of babies hearing after getting cochlear implants are perpetuating misconceptions, some Deaf people say.
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Videos of babies hearing after getting cochlear implants are perpetuating misconceptions, some Deaf people say.

In a world of negativity, videos of Deaf babies and toddlers hearing for the first time after cochlear implant surgery warm hearts.

But within the Deaf community, there are conflicting opinions on various aspects of cochlear implants and the misleading or false messages the baby videos portray. Some who identify as Deaf feel they are the latest technology and the best option to achieve hearing, while other Deaf Canadians take exception to "medicalizing" their deafness.

The most obvious concern are the videos' message that being hearing is better than deaf. It's a form of audism; discrimination against deaf or hard of hearing individuals in favour of those who are hearing.

Canada has approximately 3.21 million hard of hearing people and 357,000 profoundly deaf individuals, according to the Canadian Association of the Deaf (CAD). There is a thriving global culture of Deaf people who live productive, successful and happy lives without cochlear implants.

WATCH: Viral videos of babies hearing for the first time. Story continues below.

An individual's right to decide

While parents may want to give their child the best chance they can to live life without challenges, some who have had cochlear implants feel it's an individual's right to decide for themselves if they want implants, and babies are too young to have agency over their own bodies and identity to make that decision.

Alina Biehn, a financial services executive assistant in Saskatoon, Sask. had implants when she was 18 years old and says she is glad her parents waited for her to decide herself. She grew up learning to read lips and signing with Signed Exact English (SEE), and learned American Sign Language (ASL) as a teenager.

"If I had a Deaf baby, I wouldn't give my child cochlear implants. I'd want my child to make her/his own choice," she told HuffPost Canada. "I enjoyed growing up in a small town being the only Deaf kid. Later on, I embraced who I am and enjoy being in both the hearing and the Deaf world."

Biehn says she loves her implants and hasn't experienced any issues with them, but knows others who have. She cautions parents of Deaf babies that cochlear implants don't mean babies can, all of a sudden, function as hearing. She encourages parents to learn to Sign with their babies so they can communicate optimally, with or without implants.

Biehn didn't grow up in the Deaf community, but is glad she learned ASL in high school when she began to interact with other Deaf teens, and now feels more a part of the Deaf culture as a result.

WATCH: Deaf man signs to his newborn deaf daughter. Story continues below.

Risks of cochlear implants

Widespread assumption that cochlear implants replace a need for Sign language is inaccurate; not everyone is a good candidate for the implants and the surgeries are not always fully successful.

There are risks and technical limitations associated with cochlear implants to consider as well, along with a required avoidance of some medical therapies, such as MRI tests or some recreational activities.

Children given cochlear implants don't always receive pre- or post-surgery training in Sign language, which can potentially make them even more challenged in linguistic acquisition and without a means of communication in a supportive and educational Deaf community, the CAD notes in a position statement on cochlear implants in children.

And language acquisition and speech are critical for Deaf kids. Scientists have established that some form of language acquisition (separate from speech) needs to occur before a child turns five, after which, their ability to learn and absorb language skills declines.

A 2012 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal revealed deprivation of early communication skills can lead to serious outcomes later in life like poor academic performance, social segregation, mental illness, substance abuse, poverty and higher rates of incarceration.

There's more to language than speech.
inhauscreative via Getty Images
There's more to language than speech.

The realities of cochlear implants

Despite what the viral videos might imply, children — and adults — don't suddenly have full sound and speech understanding upon activation of the implants, Sick Kids in Toronto points out.

Depending on a child's age and level of language acquired pre-surgery, it can often take a long time for them to understand and fully process the sounds, convert the sounds into words and then understand meaning behind those words, while also trying to create their own comprehendible sounds and words verbally.

A 2014 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, along with the CAD strongly suggests the best way to achieve optimal results in linguistic acquisition via cochlear implants is by also learning and using Sign language.

The need for education about Deaf culture

Approximately 41 countries globally recognize Sign as an official language, according to the World Federation of the Deaf. Canada is not one of them, but Deaf Canadians are hopeful this will soon change.

"People don't see the possibilities of ASL and don't know Deaf culture, so they only consider cochlear implants," Mathew Kuntz, a Deaf ASL tutor in Montreal who teaches ASL privately and at schools, told HuffPost Canada. He does not have cochlear implants, but knows a number of people in his social circle who do.

"Parents need education from our Deaf community to understand other positive options and that we have successful lives. Doctors also have a responsibility to help parents know all the options. Implants can improve life for some; but they're not a blanket solution for everyone. It's an individual preference that babies aren't equipped to determine."

Kuntz said he's not opposed to implants for adults who want them, but would also like to see social media videos of deaf babies and toddlers signing for the first time.

It all comes down to ensuring a Deaf baby is happy. Kuntz said individual opinions will always vary based on a person's experiences, their early access to support of deafness and a Deaf person's ability to communicate while they were growing up.

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