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Sign Language vs. Cochlear Implants

Dancing With the Stars champion and deaf activist Nyle Dimarco has used his time in the spotlight to spread awareness about the value of sign language and his choice not to have a cochlear implant. “It’s fine if parents want to get their kids implants or hearing aids,” he told People magazine in May. “Depriving them of [sign language] is denying them language.”
Parents of deaf children face this controversy-fraught choice: to make sign language their child’s primary language, or to fit their child with a cochlear implant and rely on technology and therapies to teach their child to speak.
Why the controversy? Since their introduction in the 1980s, cochlear implants have grown in popularity — the FDA estimates there are well over 38,000 children living with CI technologies — and many hearing parents feel an implant is the best way to connect their deaf child to a hearing world. But the therapies that accompany an implant emphasize spoken language over sign language, and that’s where opposition arises.
Katie Laird, an East Dallas deaf education teacher, is deaf and uses sign language. She believes that the decision to outfit a child with an implant in lieu of teaching sign language may be affected by audism, the ingrained belief that a hearing person is somehow superior to a deaf person. “Many people think that not being able to hear is devastating, but I function perfectly fine,” she points out. “I just do it in a different way.”
The expression in her hands, Laird explains, reinforces what she says and adds new depth and dimension to the conversation. Her hearing parents also learned to sign, a move that made Laird feel like her deafness was not a disability, but a difference.
Local mom Sarah Trull and her husband chose the other path for their 6-year-old son Jackson, who is deaf. “Ultimately, we had to choose what aligned with our goals for Jackson,” explains Trull, who is hearing but has a background in speech therapy. “We wanted Jackson to be able to communicate easily with everyone he meets and to be safe.”
The Trulls initially incorporated signing into Jackson’s therapy but found that signing impeded his progress, so they decided to focus on his spoken language skills first, a common practice.
Still, learning to use the implant is a big commitment. “In many ways, it’s much more work [than sign language],” Trull admits, citing the hours of hearing and speech therapies and follow-up procedures. And she points out that implants have their own set of challenges; for instance, Jackson cannot block out ambient noise, so the Trulls had to push for Jackson’s teacher to wear a special microphone to help Jackson hear above the sounds of the classroom.
Trull says it’s all worth it, and some experts agree. Brenda Bliss, a Dallas speech-language pathologist and audiologist who is hearing, celebrates the progress in implant technology and therapies. “With the appropriate technology, early intervention, early identification and access to spoken language, kids today are mainstreamed and thriving,” she says.
On the other hand, many deaf people feel that “mainstreamed” means “deprived of deaf culture,” and that committing to a lifetime of maintaining hardware is a decision better left to the deaf person, not her parents; however, since infancy or early childhood is the best time to get the implant, parents often make the choice before their child is old enough to have a say.
Laird encourages parents to give signing a try before opting for the implant, and to seek out deaf adults to get an accurate picture of what the signing life is like.
“Parents could come to a [deaf meetup] and see adults who have lived their child’s future already,” she suggests.
Emily Robinson, a Fort Worth DARS deaf transition counselor, works with deaf students who have an implant as well as students who sign. Her advice? Keep an open mind.
“When parents make a decision about what to do, they need to be flexible and not rush. There are different paths to success,” Robinson says. She adds that the most crucial step is creating a strong support system that includes family, therapists and the deaf community — both options have merit, Robinson says, but without a strong support system, neither option will work well for the child.
The Trulls say they are very happy with their decision for Jackson, but they understand it’s not right for everyone. “I wish that we could all support each other,” Sarah confesses. “I don’t think anyone is taking this decision lightly.”