Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Sweet Nothing in My Ear"

Tonight at 9pm, Hallmark is airing the original movie "Sweet Nothing in My Ear". Before you decide to lynch me, hear me out: the movie is about a married couple, one hearing and one Deaf, who have to decide whether or not their deaf child should receive a cochlear implant. Director Joseph Sargent has a history of working with Deaf actors and making movies that are considered accurate and respectful towards the Deaf point of view, and the cast is full of both Deaf and hearing actors, including Marlee Matlin in her first full ASL-only role since "Children of a Lesser God."

At its heart, this story is one of medical debate: is hearing the norm? Is a lack of hearing a handicap that needs to be fixed? Or is it just a part of life, a condition to be accepted and dealt with and moved on from?

I know this is a subject that gets a lot of commentary around here, which is why I'm mentioning the movie being on this evening. Given I'm in the finals crunch, I probably won't have time to watch and/or comment on the movie for a few days, but did assume others here would likely be interested - both in the subject matter, and how ethical dilemmas are played out on television.
-Kelly Hills


Pete M. said...

Kelly said:
"is hearing the norm? Is a lack of hearing a handicap that needs to be fixed? Or is it just a part of life, a condition to be accepted and dealt with and moved on from?"

My wife and I had a long discussion about just these questions prompted by my noticing she was dvr-ing that very movie. I'm a first-time commenter here, and I thought I'd share some thoughts.

First I want to note that I recognize that Deaf culture would very likely disappear if no one were hard of hearing anymore. Deaf culture is a thing of value, and so there is a real cost to giving cochlear implants to all children who are hard of hearing.

However, this should not count as a reason to deny a child the implant. A lack of hearing is not merely a condition like any other to be dealt with; it is more fundamental than that. Hearing is an all purpose means of use in pursuing a broad range of human ends. This is not to say that one cannot have a full and valuable life if one is hard of hearing. What this means, instead, is that there are many human activities that will be nearly impossible to pursue, like learning to play music, and an even broader range of others that will be made at least significantly more difficult, like many forms of sport.

I think that it is not right to deny a child such an all purpose means, useful in pursuing a wide range of ends that the child may come to value, just in order to further one of the parent's own ends: the maintenance of a particular form of life that the parent values. I think this is analogous to denying one's child access to education in order to mold them into a religious fundamentalist, like the FLDS community in Texas. A quick clarification: I am not saying that Deaf culture is analogous to religious fundamentalism, only that the parental motive is relevantly similar.

I know that there are a lot of wrinkles in the debate, such as empirical data about how hearing children of deaf parents fare. I can't address all that in a comment, but hopefully this post gives some idea of my basic take on the issue.

Kelly Hills said...

Hey, this looks like a familiar argument...

;-) Hi! Thanks for dropping by! I somehow have this idea I'm going to have time to watch the movie before the semester is over (haaahaha, ahem), and am thinking about holding off commentary til then - but I do want to toss out the idea that, cultural reasons aside, there's a practical reason to shun cochlear implants: you're stuck to the technology of the time. The procedure damages what little residual hearing is left (the cilla in the ear), and you can't - or at least couldn't - upgrade to later models. My experience in the software industry is such that any time you build in technological obsolescence I get nervous; what happens in 15 years when no one is supporting repair on cochlear implants that were installed 5 years ago? Oh well? Too bad? Learn that ASL now?

And right now I think that's probably the least controversial way to tackle the entire controversy, although I do think there's pretty strong argument to be made for authenticity, and realistic expectations for and from technology, too.