The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness

The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness

The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness

The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness


When it was first developed, the cochlear implant was hailed as a "miracle cure" for deafness. That relatively few deaf adults seemed to want it was puzzling. The technology was then modified for use with deaf children, 90 percent of whom have hearing parents. Then, controversy struck as the Deaf community overwhelmingly protested the use of the device and procedure. For them, the cochlear implant was not viewed in the context of medical progress and advances in the physiology of hearing, but instead represented the historic oppression of deaf people and of sign languages.

Part ethnography and part historical study, The Artificial Ear is based on interviews with researchers who were pivotal in the early development and implementation of the new technology. Through an analysis of the scientific and clinical literature, Stuart Blume reconstructs the history of artificial hearing from its conceptual origins in the 1930s, to the first attempt at cochlear implantation in Paris in the 1950s, and to the widespread clinical application of the "bionic ear" since the 1980s.


This book has been long in the making and has deep roots. My interest in the development and the consequences of new technologies of health care was the result of my work, in the 1970s, as secretary of a British government committee on Social Inequalities in Health. How and why innovation in health care technology seems so often to exacerbate social inequalities, to be the cause of ethical, social, and economic problems in addition to providing cures, is a question that has preoccupied me ever since. It has roots in personal experience too. In 1989, my son Jascha, born in 1987, was found to be deaf. His brother Boaz, born in 1992, is hard of hearing. What did medical technology have to offer them? I decided that I would spend some time on a study that in one way or another would help me understand. How and why this became a study of the cochlear implant is discussed in the first chapter of this book. When I started work, more than fifteen years ago, I had little sense of how long it would take or how difficult it would be.

Early in 1999, on vacation in Switzerland, I read Arthur W. Frank’s wonderful book The Wounded Storyteller. The insights that it provided in the relations between suffering, coping, and storytelling came as a revelation. If I had not read Frank’s book at that time I do not know if this one would ever have been completed. I read The Wounded Storyteller at a time in which I seemed no longer able to work on my study of the cochlear implant. I had begun a quite different, unrelated project, and returning to this one seemed too painful and too difficult. Slowly, and thanks to Frank’s book, I started to understand why this was so, but also to understand why, despite everything, I needed to finish my own.

My difficulties had to do with the fact that the study was part of my attempt to come to terms with the place that deafness now had in my life, and that that “coming to terms” had ended. I had come to see my children no longer as “deaf” but simply as “my children.” Frank’s book showed me that not only was I too a “wounded storyteller” but that the storyteller has responsibilities not . . .

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