What would you do if you were offered the opportunity to redefine your identity? It’s an existential question akin to that of the blue and red pills from The Matrix, but is something which those in the deaf community may have to consider in the future.
Earlier this week, it was reported that a jab or injection into the inner ear could encourage the growth of hair cells, essentially restoring some of an individual’s hearing. As the debate around cochlear implant users and whether they are a part of the community continues to bubble and boil in the background, a far more serious discussion is set to rock Deaf culture to its core: what does it mean to be deaf?
After all, the view of deafness within the community has always been about having deafness at some point in your life. Hearing aids (HAs) and cochlear implants (CIs) can only aid hearing, and is not a ‘cure’ (something of which some hearing people need to be reminded). However, this is the first time a cure has been developed, which could see people leave the community as hearing people. Yet, what happens to their identity? Can the exception given to HA and CI users – that they were born deaf and the technology only helps them hear – be applied to those who could be ‘cured’ by this possible treatment? Their original identity was as a deaf person, so would that be completely erased or would that still remain as a small, old aspect of their new personality?
Identity is a very personal thing – we subscribe ourselves to a culture and say we are a member of a community ourselves, as most subcultures welcome anyone who shares that same ‘label’ or characteristic in society. Yet, the deaf community feels more exclusive. A restricted code in the form of sign language prevents some individuals from accessing the culture and, as previously stated, the community is constantly arguing over whether to accept certain people on the deaf/hearing spectrum. It’s certainly one of the negative discussions amongst what is otherwise a very passionate and loving culture, which could be made worse when the deaf community has to decide whether a ‘cured’ deaf person can still join the community.
There’s a slight hostility in the deaf community over certain issues, and this will no doubt be a future topic up for discussion as more news emerges. If the Deaf culture wishes to be more inclusive, it must respect everyone’s individual decision should this new treatment be offered to them and lower its guard when it comes to British Sign Language. The community has somewhat created poor deaf awareness, division and separation by failing to recognise hearing and deafness as being on a spectrum – instead seeing it as more black and white. A big challenge to Deaf culture is coming, and we must be prepared to have a civilised and respectful debate about its repercussions.
On a more personal note, I would consider the treatment, should it get to that stage. As an aspiring journalist looking to work in an industry which is very audio-based (eg. transcribing interviews, ringing contacts on the phone, taking down shorthand notes and so forth), there’s certain barriers caused by deafness which is quite a nuisance. That being said, a human life is more than just what happens in the workplace, and so it’s a question of how being ‘cured’ of my hearing loss would impact relationships – would my connections with deaf people and organisations working with them feel genuine? As I mention above, it’s a question loaded with existentialism, forcing deaf people to consider whether to reinvent themselves.
There are also two other things to consider: we must not let this possible future treatment become the presumed option. A current issue in the community at the moment is when parents decide to give their child HAs or CIs before they are old enough to make that decision themselves. We must remember that we should allow the individual themselves the opportunity to choose whether they want to be deaf or not. Assuming that everyone wouldn’t want to be deaf is harmful, dangerous, and poses an existential threat to the global deaf community.
Lastly, I’ll be curious to see if this ‘cure’ could also pave the way for treatment for tinnitus. Whilst I would have to consider the decision to have the jab and ‘cure’ my deafness, I wouldn’t hesitate in taking a drug which can get rid of the annoying ringing in my air.
I shall keep an eye on the study with interest.