Cochlear implants change deaf culture as importance of American Sign Language diminishes

Around these parts, Christopher Caulfield is a bit of a celebrity. After 1,500 hours of speech therapy and intensive surgery, Christopher’s cochlear implants finally paid off — not only in the realm of academics, but also in athleticism, earning himself a feature in ESPN for his skilled basketball sportsmanship. He will graduate from Centennial High School as a National Honors Society member and matriculate at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the fall as a Presidential Scholar.

To say he has outdone himself would be an understatement.

But since he acquired normal speech, he has little been immersed in deaf culture – which his dad, Tom Caulfield, refers to as “the Big D.” In fact, Christopher goes months without interacting with other users of American Sign Language.

Except when he sees his neighbor. Once in a while, Christopher pours himself a bowl of cereal in the morning before he heads off for school. He chats with his parents about plans for the day and what’s been happening in the news. Then his neighbor, a profoundly deaf man a couple generations his senior, pulls back the blinds to his kitchen windows. From a dozen yards and two kitchen walls away, the two sign a quick exchange of hellos and “How are you this morning?”

American Sign Language bonds Christopher and his neighbor, just as it unites the deaf community.

“The value of a sign language lies in the value of language. There’s nothing particular about sign language; it’s just that language is valuable to human beings,” said Matt Dye, professor in speech and hearing sciences. “We seem to be pre-disposed and attracted to language as infants, whether it’s signed or spoken, deaf or hearing.”

From language, societies form. It is how people convey values, morals and stories; it is the most essential tool to establishing laws, rights and wrongs. Since its advent through the course of evolution, language has become so grokked with the identity of humanity. And through generations of flourishing, so has ASL to Illinois’ deaf community.

But as cochlear implants have improved over the past decade, the need for individuals with profound hearing loss to know ASL has diminished, and, consequently, the need to be established in the deaf community. In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration approved implanting children as young as 12 months of age. Today, implants on an individual are virtually undetectable with the accelerating advancement of the device’s design.

Heralded as one of the best medical advancements of the century, cochlear implants offer people with profound hearing loss a chance at mainstreaming with hearing society.

But to some members of the deaf community, they deliver a death sentence to the culture: They catalyze a “genocide.”


Tina Childress came upon her implants at a much different point in her life than did Christopher. As an audiologist for the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, Ill., Childress was very familiar with cochlear implant technology: how they sounded, how kids acclimated, how to put them on and off.

But her understanding of the deaf community altered very drastically when she underwent sudden hearing loss herself in her late 20s. Today, she immerses herself in the community, but describes herself as an immigrant townie, someone who adopted the culture without being a native.

“If you have to pick one thing that is the unifying factor for deaf culture, it’s the use of ASL. And because of that, they cherish things that are visual,” Childress said.

For instance, users of ASL tend to exaggerate body language and hold eye contact.

But the deaf community represents a much smaller portion of medically deaf individuals than one would expect. Out of the entire group that suffers from hearing loss, there are 10 percent that suffer severe hearing loss. Due to limitations in technology, Childress says hearing aids and implants may not help. That’s where deaf culture comes in.

“Historically, this group of kids gravitate (with severe hearing loss) toward deaf culture,” Childress said. “But now, with cochlear implants, parents have this option to perhaps have their kids be more like them. So this group that used to gravitate toward deaf culture is going to cochlear implants, and so deaf culture shrinks. I don’t think it’ll ever go away, but that’s what people are scared of. They think about cochlear implants being a cultural genocide.”

According to a study published in Sign Language Studies in 2002, roughly 96 percent of deaf students are born to hearing parents, who are more likely to opt for implants as the technology improves. For the 4 percent who are born deaf via genetic inheritance, it is less likely because when it comes to conceptualizing deafness, there are two trains of thought: the medical and the cultural.

“People that are in deaf culture, they don’t see themselves as broken. It is like me being Filipino; am I going to lighten my skin because I’m Filipino? No,” Childress said.

Hearing parents face a schism between themselves and their child, though, if their child falls far from the apple tree, said Dye.

“Those hearing parents have a child with a vertical identity; it’d be like if a white family gave birth to an African-American baby. Do I raise this child as a white child, or do I acknowledge their identity?” he said.


Twelve-year-old Nate Elliott suffered severe jaundice when he was born, recalls his mother, Jamie Elliot. It caused kernicterus, a condition that led to his subsequent deafness and cerebral palsy due to underdeveloped cortical auditory responses.

But if you were to talk to him today, you would never know. Jamie raised her son to embrace speaking society, with the aid of cued speech. Today, Jamie endearingly describes Nate as a “geeky and very astute” kid with bilateral implants, a straight-A student in Mahomet, Ill., and fond of playing the drums. Just like she does with her other two children, Jamie chides Nate for not doing his chores, scolds him for chewing on candy while talking with a guest and pushes him to “grow up to be an upstanding, tax-paying man.”

There was a time, though, when Jamie could not connect with her son. She once enrolled Nate in the Illinois School for the Deaf for summer camp. There, kids who used implants, ASL, signed exact language and cued speech could come together for arts and crafts, playtime and all kinds of camp hooligans. Except Nate was not encouraged to wear his implants.

“By the time he came back, he had this attitude of ‘I’m special; I’m deaf,’” Jamie said. “He never had that attitude before. You’re special because you’re you, but you’re not special because you’re deaf. You don’t get special treatment because you’re deaf. You’re an Elliott, and you get treated like an Elliott. Some days poorly, and some days better.”

Nate tried to explain a joke he learned at camp, based off a sign for the word “bee” and the letter “B,” but the joke was lost on Jamie and her husband, Matt. It was this experience that reaffirmed their reasons for implanting Nate.

“We would play emotional catch-up for the rest of our lives. We would never have an emotional relationship with our son,” Jamie said. “To sign is … it has nothing to do with written language, nothing to do with oral language. It is its own language. If you’re not a native ASL-speaking individual, you’re going to try the rest of your life to play catch up to your kid who’s attending (the Illinois School for the Deaf summer camp). And you’re not going to talk to your kid. That’s not the kind of relationship I want with my child.”


At the time when doctors diagnosed Christopher as profoundly deaf, cochlear implants in children were still highly controversial. Little was known about how the implants would affect language development and whether patients risked serious damage through the operation.

But Tom Caulfield and his wife, Jennifer, set on mainstreaming Christopher from the get-go, just like Jamie Elliott. As educators, they wanted to give their son ample opportunity to fully integrate outside of deaf society. As soon as he received an implant for his left ear at 13 months of age, he began intensive speech therapy at the Carle Auditory Oral School in Urbana — also known as the St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf at Carle.

At 9 years old, Christopher was on the highway to academic excellence. That’s when he was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Illinois School for the Deaf, to speak on the success of the implants and speech therapy.

Tom describes the Caulfield family’s friendship with their ASL-using neighbor as long-lasting.

“We get along with him very well. But I have to say, if there isn’t a signer around, he’s out of luck communicating with the outside world,” Tom said.

Christopher first started off with plain speaking before he was drawn into sign language in high school. Once he met people who only knew how to sign, he knew he had to learn the language if he wanted to be able to communicate with them.

He took his first class at Parkland College his sophomore year of high school and is now proficient in the third level. With his acquired use of ASL, Christopher rides the brink between both the speaking world and the signing world.

“It’s weird to describe, but I feel like I’m part of the hearing side only. I don’t necessarily like that. I like being able to communicate with both sides,” Christopher said.

Being able to draw from his experience from both hearing and deaf cultures inspired his career aspirations, such as building software for mobile devices that are ASL-friendly. At the Rochester Institute of Technology, where about 10 percent of the students enrolled have implants, use ASL or are hard of hearing, he believes he can channel his academic determination and put it to good use.

“If I were to go back to when I was born, I wouldn’t want to be hearing. If I didn’t experience being deaf, I wouldn’t have ever been interested in RIT or in software engineering,” Christopher said. “My Deafness was a source of empowerment, and allowed me to achieve large goals even with my disability.”

Nora can be reached at [email protected]