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The Cochlear Implant Controversy

The controversy over cochlear implants in children has many sides. For some in the deaf community, CIs are an affront to their culture, which as they view it, is a minority threatened by the hearing majority.

The deaf community feels that its way of life is fully functional, and that using American Sign Language instead of oral English gives them no disadvantage in society.

Mary Koch, who started the children's rehabilitation program at Johns Hopkins' Listening Center, says the medical world and the deaf world were split at the outset.

"The (deaf community's) perception is that there's nothing wrong. There's nothing that needs to be fixed. Our perception is, there is something that needs to be fixed. So from the very foundation, we're diverging in our perspectives," Koch says.

The deaf revolution was spawned in the 1970's. The culture rebelled against attempts by some educators in the hearing world to teach deaf children to speak English. The "oral" approach discouraged the use of sign language, yet many children - even with the most powerful hearing aids - had difficulty understanding what was supposed to be their native language.

Sigrid Cerf became deaf at the age of three, but grew up outside the deaf community, speaking English and lipreading. She remembers the strain of trying to grasp the subtleties of spoken English.

"It took a great deal of effort to put words together because all I heard were those vowels and my brain would be working and my whole body would be tensed and stressed from trying to piece words together," Cerf explains.

Cerf received a cochlear implant when she was 53, but says she understands the deaf perspective.

"The deaf community is a culture. They're much like the culture of the Hispanic community, for example, where parents who are Hispanic, or shall we say deaf, would naturally want to retain their family ties by their common language, their primary language, which is either Spanish or in our case its American Sign Language," Cerf says.

"It's difficult to accept something that would take someone's entire culture into question."

Gallaudet University - considered the "Harvard" of the deaf community - has been watched closely by all sides in the debate for its position on CIs.

Mercy Coogan, Director of Public Relations at Gallaudet, says the university doesn't have a stand on cochlear implants.

"We try to be a forum where people can look at it objectively," Coogan says. "A university is where you debate issues, then make judgments based on that debate."

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