Anyone who spends time talking to or reading about parents who opt for cochlear implantation for their children becomes accustomed to hearing one particular sentiment expressed over and over again: “We wanted to give our child choices.” What parents mean when they say this is that they choose cochlear implants for their children so that their children have the option to be part of the world where spoken language dominates every interaction. In fact, when he wrote the chapter Deaf in Far From the Tree (a book that shook me deeply and to which I’ve referred before), Andrew Solomon seems to have heard that phrase from parents so frequently that he reported it with what appeared to me to be a hint of scorn. It seemed to me, reading those pages, that he believed that hearing parents were just looking for a justification for choosing the hearing/speaking world for their deaf children, instead of the signing, culturally Deaf one.
To be sure, the idea of offering Grace a choice helped calm me as I deliberated obsessively over her upcoming implant surgery in the time between her sixth and eleventh month of life. The thinking was that if we waited until Grace was old enough to decide for herself whether or not to have implants, we would effectively have missed a crucial language development window – minimizing the usefulness of CI technology and essentially making a choice by NOT choosing for her.
I know opponents of implantation say we don’t mean it when we say we want our children to have more options. That all we really want is for them to be as un-deaf as possible. That we don’t mean it when we say, “Hey, if she decides to take her processors off permanently some day and shift into the signing Deaf world, that’s okay with me…” And maybe they’re right. When I imagine a future in which Grace makes that choice, I feel sad and disappointed. That old sensation I had when I first learned that she was deaf, where I was constantly slashing at an insurmountable wall between us, returns. But regardless of how I feel about that potential future for Grace, the fact is that she can make that choice if she wants to.
Let me tell you about the kinds of choices Grace gets to make now. They are smaller than the philosophical, cultural choices centered around her identity and modes of communication. But I have realized that they are a part of her everyday life.
Grace chooses sometimes to watch her favorite TV show with sound on, and sometimes with the sound off. She is unfazed by subtitles. We have yet to master the bluetooth capabilities now available to her with her new N6 processors; once we figure that out maybe she’ll be more apt to listen to Gray’s Anatomy. But I kind of doubt it.
She chooses when her processors go on in the morning. On weekends, or on other days when she doesn’t have school, she might spend all morning “sound off.” Yesterday, while Jason, Kali, and I went to go see a movie Grace had already seen with her friends, she opted to stay home and work on her science fair data presentation. When we got home at 3:00pm, she was still not wearing her processors. (Also, she was still in her pajamas.)
When she plays guitar on Rock Band, she’s good with her processors on. But when she encounters a particularly difficult song, she’s realized that if she takes her processors off and just focuses on the visual cues to play the notes, somehow it’s easier for her to master the timing.
Grace chose Spanish as her foreign language in middle school. To get ready for our family trip to Italy when she was twelve, she also chose to throw herself into learning Italian. Then, after we finished reading The Book Thief, she decided she really liked knowing how to swear creatively in German, and that she wanted to know more of the language. So she and Jason researched online language programs, she chose one, and then threw herself into learning German. There was a long stretch of time during her 7th grade year when the first thing she did when she got home from school was open her laptop and plug through another German lesson. I picked up a few vocabulary words second-hand. My favorite German word is Kartoffle.
The point is – and I don’t mean to pat myself on the back here so much as to reassure all you newer parents – I was right. Giving her CIs has given her choices. Choice she makes every day. She often chooses spoken language, but sometimes she chooses signing and silence. Usually she’ll opt for Radiohead, Nirvana, or Fiona Apple, but sometimes she turns the radio off and just lets the car rumble along on the highway.