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What is the Controversy Around Cochlear Implants?

External view of cochlear implant.
Woman and man communicating in sign language.
Some people who develop hearing impairments cope by learn sign language.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
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  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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On the surface, cochlear implants sound like a promising medical solution to the problems surrounding hearing loss or total deafness. These devices use existing nerves and electronic signals to override damaged auditory nerves, thus restoring a sense of hearing to the recipient. However, this technology has also caused serious divisions within the deaf community concerning the hearing society's position on deafness in general.

A number of members of the deaf community choose to view their deaf status as a subculture of society, in the same sense as a Hispanic person would embrace his or her Hispanic culture. Deafness is not a handicap per se, but a shared experience which gives the deaf community its unique cultural identity. To members of this deaf subculture, cochlear implants are considered disrespectful and insulting, since the medical community views deafness as a handicap which must be treated or corrected.

Certain factions of the deaf community also believe a deaf person's ability to live a full and meaningful life is not compromised by his or her deafness, so the suggestion that cochlear implants provide advantages over a deaf lifestyle is shortsighted and insensitive. Many deaf people cope very well with their deafness, learning sign language and lip reading and adapting their work and home environments to accommodate their loss of hearing.

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Another controversy surrounding cochlear implants and the deaf community is the safety and effectiveness of the procedure. Cochlear implantation involves major surgery in an area of the body filled with delicate nerves which control facial movements. One mistake during surgery could cause long-term facial paralysis.

These implants can also destroy any remaining healthy auditory nerves, which means a deaf person could lose all remnants of natural hearing which may have helped them adjust to a deaf lifestyle. They require the recipient to undergo significant fine-tuning sessions, and success can vary widely from recipient to recipient.

The controversy over cochlear implants often pits hearing parents against deaf parents when it comes to raising their deaf children in a hearing world. Many deaf parents would prefer to raise their deaf child in a deaf culture, including the use of sign language and lip reading. Hearing parents who are not familiar with the deaf community may opt for the implant surgery to correct their deaf child's perceived handicap.

The result may be a deaf child who can partially hear, or a hearing child with a deaf cultural heritage. Either way, the child may face social ostracism from both communities if the parents do not consider the long-term effects of cochlear implant surgery. Not all members of the deaf community view implants as an unnecessary procedure, but hearing parents facing a difficult decision concerning a deaf child may want to research both sides of the controversy before committing to cochlear implant surgery.

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Discuss this Article

anon942691
Post 51

@Post 3: There is a deaf culture and there is a deaf community. It is not the same as "ours."

I straddled the cultures in corporate America as a woman who was born with a hearing loss in both ears. I worked with those who were part of the Deaf culture outside of work. At work, they were part of the hearing culture. They are different.

@Post 1: Kudos. Well said. (I made the decision to get an implant after wearing hearing aids for about 45 years. For me, it was a mistake because of the learning curve and sound isn't sound, but processed sound). But I'm never going to judge someone else decision. I wish your smart daughter the best.

anon350153
Post 50

"One mistake during surgery could cause long-term facial paralysis." One simple statement. This applies to any ear surgery. I've had many (at least ten or more) and my face isn't paralyzed. The CI controversy goes way beyond the risks.

If you have residual hearing, CI surgery will annihilate what's left. But so what? If you can't hear, you can't hear.

CI is a booming business in the US and there are only three companies that are allowed to do it.

The information about them (pricing, real knowledge through reps and audiologists) is all over the place and inconsistent. I believe this is because it is a booming business. Why would the companies or FDA want to muddy the waters with reality. Rhetorical...

There are deaf parents who prefer to have their child and themselves live in the subculture. Why change that? There are hearing parents who live in another culture who jump at the chance to have their deaf child hear.

There is nothing good or bad about either choice.

I grew up hearing impaired. I knew I would one day go deaf per an excellent ENT. My option is to get an implant because while my hearing wasn't that great, it's what I'm used to.

People with impairments (as we call them - though deafness is not necessarily one) find ways to make their lives work. Don't knock it.

anon334958
Post 47

If Deafness was a "shared experience" and not a handicap and just a different way of being, deaf people wouldn't come with ears! Something went wrong and can be fixed. It sounds totally insane to not fix a handicap that can be helped, especially when it comes to children.

I agree with the person who said it was jealousy of the older deaf generation who it won't work for, wanting another generation of deaf children to justify their lives.

anon328636
Post 46

I was born hearing hearing impaired and am finally getting my first hearing aid at 10 years old, only to have rapidly progressive hearing loss over the years, then I lost all hearing a few years ago. I'm now the recent recipient of a cochlear implant and sustained nerve damage to left side of my face as a result of the surgery, which was totally unexpected.

When the device was activated and after subsequent settings, I am hearing once again, despite the facial nerve damage, which I hope I will recover from over time. Hearing sounds once again is a relief from severe anxiety of not hearing and a sense of knowing what is going on around me is phenomenal.

To those who choose to go this route its either a matter of: 'hear once again' or 'hear now for the first time.'

It is something you will never know if you don't make the choice to take a chance for change that is overall rewarding on so many levels.

anon322944
Post 45

I don't agree with CI for children. They should make that decision on their own when they understand all that entails. There a lot things they cannot do with the CI in. If they swim or play any kind of sport, they cannot have it in, or while they're sleeping, etc.

So either way, they are impaired in their hearing, so parents should embrace their child's deafness and give them support and involve them as if they are normal and just accept the fact they are deaf. It's a beautiful culture.

There are so many avenues and venues for deaf and parents really need to take the time to learn sign language. It's not any harder than learning how to program your computer or a new phone. They have books online classes and pictures as well has classes in school. Let them be children and let them make that decision when they are ready.

anon302625
Post 44

As a counselor, I have seen how Deaf people, who use only sign language, have marginalized themselves from society as a whole.

Many people in this community are willing to exclude themselves from the mainstream in terms of employment and interaction with non-Deaf people and culture. Many are only able to isolate themselves this way because society provides a modest but comfortable safety net that allows them to forgo regular employment opportunities.

Implants are a threat to that lifestyle because they remove the justification for maintaining isolation and economic dependence. Of course, this is not true for all Deaf people. This is an uncomfortable truth that flies in the face of politically correct complaints that society is the source of their isolation.

anon259499
Post 43

I have had two implants done, in spite of most deaf people's protests against the procedures, since I was highly respected in the deaf community, and being asked why or how could you do that to us, etc.

I was able to explain and gained their respect even more. All they need is more education on how, what and why. If we have more workshops on this cochlear stuff, I would assume more deaf people would be satisfied and be able to make a decision.

Many of them don't understand that if they were blind, wouldn't they be interested in being able to see everything? Yes, they would. It's the same for deaf people who try and go for that. In case some of you deaf people are curious about me, yes I am completely deaf. I know ASL and I still get involved with them in just about everything. The kind of deaf people I abhor are the ones who got an implant and then drop out of the deaf world. This is the kind of person I would not be happy to associate with.

anon246589
Post 42

Some facts: Over 99 percent of the world can hear and speak. Over 95 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. 1 in 5,000 people know sign language. Average reading level of a deaf child who signs: fourth grade. Reading levels are directly correlated to your lot in life.

This comes down to a simple choice, and each parent or individual has the right to choose. Based on the facts above, it is undeniable that a child who learns to listen and speak with a chochlear implant will have greater opportunities to engage with society as a whole than one who does not. My daughter has bilateral implants and was mainstreamed with her normal-hearing peers in kindergarten. At six years old, she reads at a third grade level, versus the average 18-year-old signing deaf person who reads at a fourth grade level. She is doing fantastic, and hates to remove the implants!

If you are intellectually honest, my daughter will have fewer barriers and more opportunities in her life as a result of this choice. So for you militants who cry Audism, your arguments are inane. We are not assaulting your culture. We are making a choice that we believe is best for ourselves or our children. As a parent, that is my job.

anon241731
Post 40

Seriously, leftism has made people... whatever. 'Deaf lifestyle'. I would be 100 percent on board to get a new sense. X-Ray vision? Radio wave sensitivity? Where do I sign up? --Crackpots

anon238880
Post 39

I am a 54 year old male who has been completely deaf in my left ear since early childhood and profoundly deaf in my right ear since since 16.

I qualify for a cochlear input but I am deeply concerned about the "natural sound" that I now hear, even as limited as it is, versus the electronic sound I will have to learn. I plan on putting the implant in my left ear if possible and train that one, then possibly do the right ear later. I don't know that I have a cultural issue with losing my natural hearing, but I am scared to death that I will never hear music or my daughter's voice again.

gcarlson
Post 26

This is truly interesting. I am a 45 year old woman in the process of obtaining a CI. I was born deaf and was raised orally in a mainstream setting with no modifications or accommodations throughout all my years in education (college included). I wore two hearing aids throughout my youth and have had great success with them. I have worked hard and learned how to understand and process sounds (not that I could hear them clearly).

About 15 years ago, I began losing more and more of my hearing to the point of not gaining any benefit of a hearing aid in the right ear. I have been watching the CI for the last 20 years. I have researched them for many years. I teach American Sign Language and I teach the CI process both scientifically and culturally to my students. One of the things I teach or “preach” to them is to become educated before making any kind of major decisions. I don’t care if it’s for yourself, your child or another loved one. Be completely informed of all aspects to your decision.

I have been reading a lot of these comments and I am blown away with how ignorant and uneducated people are about both sides of the cochlear implant subject. Seriously. Think about what’s best for the individual, not what’s best for you. My family has been very supportive throughout the last several years as I struggle to decide if I am doing this for me or for them. They have learned more about deaf culture because of me. Should I “expect” them to learn my language in ASL? No, but would I like them to be fluent? Sure, but should I demand that they adapt to my needs? No! Nor would I expect a group of deaf individuals to adapt to one hearing person in the room (since they are now the minority, right?)

I am doing this CI for me. Would I implant my child? No, but I do understand why some people do it. They are uneducated about deaf culture and what it means. Maybe because when the doctors tell them it is what is best for their child, they believe them. Some people are just not capable of making their own choices, especially if it means doing the opposite of what their doctor tells them. God forbid, huh?

I read a lot about how it is important to give a child language within the first five years, but we focus so much on language that everything else becomes delayed. Why not use whatever works? Oh wait. That means the hearing parents will have to learn ASL. Too bad! That’s really what is best for that child --whatever works! I am on oral success and I am thankful for that, but I would not expect all deaf to be like me, nor I them. We are individuals and should be treated as such.. We are not puppets to be controlled.

Oh, and by the way: there is a deaf culture. Those of you who don’t think so, should take my night class. Also, I don’t think of my deafness as a bad thing. I do have struggles but I believe I am deaf for a reason beyond my control. I am who I am and I love who I am, but I use my tools to the best of my abilities, and that’s what this CI will be to me: a tool and nothing else. No different from the hearing aids I had.

KimberlyP
Post 23

To parents of deaf children: My daughter was fitted with a CI when she was younger and hates it. She prefers ASL (because I wanted her to learn both languages). Think of it: the child will still be a deaf child, no matter what device is implanted in their head. If the batteries die, or the implant fails, etc., etc, the child will be even more alone and confused than if you went the ASL route.

She absolutely abhors the CI. She has hated it since it was turned on. She has two friends in her "total communication" school who feel the same as she does. The parents of the other children try to "fix" them and the kids are beginning to feel their parents do not like their deafness. I see them signing it with my daughter all the time (they are 10). These kids (born to hearing parents) feel left out of both worlds and it is a shame.

It's also a shame that audiologists say (and advise) it's wonderful for hearing parents to teach hearing babies sign language, but when a parent teaches a deaf child to sign ASL, it's looked down on. Come on, people.

Sadly, I have seen it over and over as the main driver for people to implant their children. They want the kids to be like them. They want to "fix" a "problem" with a CI. And I feel the main driver is, they don't want to learn ASL for the child. There are four kids in my daughter's school who have a CI, use them all the time, and still cannot speak or hear well. These kids are 8-10 and have the language ability of a 3 year old! Sadly, the limited language they do have is in ASL and none of the parents know it (other then me, and I'm hearing).

The children implanted now have a high likelihood of learning ASL when they are older. Why not first learn the language for your child, instead of making your child learn an impossible one for a deaf person, (yours)?

For the people who say "if you don't get a CI for your kid, you are abusive" I did, she hates it, and she hates the fact that I made her get one. She calls me abusive. Chew on that.

anon149302
Post 20

The idea that the child should be allowed to make their own choice is a false debate. A child who is born deaf will not develop the neurological ability to hear and speak without auditory stimulation.

As a rule, a born-deaf child who does not receive a cochlear implant by the age of 5 will never develop a useful degree of hearing if implanted later. Therefore, by waiting for the child to be old enough to make an informed decision of their own, the parents effectively decide for the child to never be implanted.

Parents make decisions about their child's welfare all the time. That's a parent's job. If children were meant to make their own choices about everything then they would be allowed to vote from birth. It is patently clear that sometimes a parent must make major life decisions for their child before the child is old enough to understand the choices and have meaningful input.

When you ask me if my child should be deaf for life or whether they should endure some extra effort to have a degree of hearing, the choice is clear. To refuse to implant a child is tantamount to child abuse. It is just as irresponsible and just as irrational as the people who refuse to vaccinate their children. When the child dies of some preventable disease it will be cold comfort that their death was of a "natural" disease.

By the same token, I would hate to be the parent trying to explain to my deaf teenager that I had an opportunity to give them hearing but decided that their "natural" condition was a better choice. Philosophical posturing is fine, but it doesn't add up to anything when weighed against the suffering of real people. We all owe it to our children to do the best we can for them: for them, not for us. If you want to feel good about yourself, join a support group. Don't use your child's disability as a tool to make yourself a martyr. Do the right thing. Give the child a chance.

anon149294
Post 19

I wonder what would have happened if the PC police had been around when wheelchairs were invented. Would there be a "crippled community" that would bemoan the loss of their "crawling around" heritage?

A wheelchair is an artificial and obvious appliance, which draws attention to the disability of its user. Is it unethical and insensitive to "impose" the use of a wheelchair on a child who cannot walk, thereby destroying the child's "natural" form of locomotion, i.e., crawling around?

The so-called debate on cochlear implants is thinly disguised jealousy and mean-spiritedness on the part of deaf people who would rather see a new generation of deaf children endure their disability than see their own precious sense of specialness and entitlement questioned.

Would it be better for blind children if we never told them other people could see? Pretending a disability is not a disability does not make it so.

We have become so obsessed with self-esteem and boosting our personal identity we have lost sight of the real issues.

A recent survey of education in the developed world showed that children in the USA ranked near the bottom in most areas, but their own assessment of their abilities were at the top in every area. In other words, we spend more time teaching our children that they are great readers than we do teaching them to *be* great readers. No surprise then, that many would rather teach deaf children they are lucky to be deaf than try to address the actual issue of their deafness, which is, after all, a process that involves actual work and effort.

anon148179
Post 18

You know, I find it hilarious that someone can be so simple-minded that they would compare a deaf person to someone with acne or red or blonde hair. People like that have obviously never had to face any kind of adversity in life and were not taught to be tolerant of anything different.

I'm 27 years old and my sister, who is six years older than me, has been deaf all of my life. I know sign language, and to the person who said sign language is considered a language now, it has always been a language. I teach my children sign so that they can communicate with their aunt, just as we teach our children to speak so that they can communicate.

What I find offensive is that most high schools offer a variety of language courses, but most don't offer sign. Also saying that deafness is a common ailment or trait and that doesn't constitute a "community" is just ridiculous! Not to offend anyone out there, but would the same be said about gays? They consider themselves a community and being homosexual is more common than deafness. Or what about different minority "communities"? Would you dare tell them that their genetic traits are too common so their community doesn't exist?

Deafness is just something that makes a person unique. My sister went to a special school because we were from a small town and the quality of her education was important to my parents, she made lifelong friends there. Deafness doesn't have to be a disability, if the person chooses not to make it one.

I believe all persons with hearing loss profound enough to look into the implant should learn sign and lip-reading as well, since we don't yet know the long term effects of the implants.

As far as the choice of whether or not to get an implant, it should be up to the individual. Just as lasik eye surgery or glasses is a choice for people. No one should be forced to do it, just as no one should be criticized for wanting to have it done. To those of you who don't accept deafness, what if it were autism? Grow up and don't be so self-absorbed!

anon141107
Post 17

I am 100 percent deaf and 20 years of age. I had two choices when i was young and that was to go to a special educational unit or go to a normal public school. Obviously, having no confidence and wanting comfort, i chose the special education unit. I hated it, i hated everyone and i knew the teachers were trying their best but i felt patronized.

In grade four i said to my mother i want to go to a public school. yes, it was the hardest thing ever and I faced major challenges every day, being the only hearing impaired person at a big school but it was the best thing ever.

I am independent, i don't sign and should lip read but i don't. I work at an airport in customer service full time and no one notices i am deaf, as i learned how to speak well and knew what i wanted to hear on my cochlear implant. It frustrates me that people think the cochlear implant is a *profit business*.

To me, it kept me alive. i have confidence and hope. I encourage anyone who has a hard of hearing or deaf child to get a cochlear implant or hearing aid. It takes a lot of patience and the need to face the challenges, as in being a bit more delayed with learning and never giving up.

I wakeboard and kite surf and my instructor had never taught a deaf person before. It was very difficult but i succeeded. That gave me more and more confidence, where a deaf person usually never bothers as it's too embarrassing and frustrating. Too many people give up, and that is the reason why the cochlear implant or hearing aid really doesn't make a change as they choose not to support themselves.

Everyone says i should be a role model and help the young deaf children, but i am so motivated for the best of everything and everyone, i don't think i could stand the look of "i give up" from a child's eyes. Life is what you make it, and i choose to make the best of everything and never give up.

anon140857
Post 16

Cochlear Implant surgery is not brain surgery!

I'm a mother of a nine year old who wears bilateral implants. The decision for him to hear was a no brainer. We live at an amazing time where advances in technology and science can do so much for us. Why as a parent would you not want to do the best for your child. If a child was born with an eye condition that could lead to blindness and there was surgery to correct it wouldn't you have it done?

To the person who said hearing with an implant is not normal: says who? Do you have an implant? Children imitate what they hear and my son's speech sounds just like any other "normal" hearing childs.

There is a lot of ignorance out there about cochlear implants. Cochlear Implants do not "cure" a person from being deaf just like glasses do not cure a person with vision problems.

What if one day scientists did find a way to restore hearing. What would the deaf community say about that?

anon134804
Post 15

Hearing parents of deaf children do not know what to do, how to raise, and life altering. Doctors, audiologists, and medical people bring up the first thing about cochlear implants. They do not care about deaf children's education in the future.

90 percent of hearing parents of deaf children delay in their education. They look at cochlear implants as a quick fix and profitable! The best thing is to teach deaf children to sign in the first five years. They wouldn't be delayed in their education. Also, deaf children have the right to make personal choices, not parents!

anon134801
Post 14

Cochlear implants were designed for senior citizens with hearing loss. However, they focus on deaf children as a profit business! That's pretty sad. It doesn't work for most deaf children. It's impossible for a deaf person to have normal hearing. A cochlear implant equals "fake hearing". It is designed for those people who were born hearing!

anon130484
Post 11

This is a comment for young parents wanting to implant their child. First of all, do your research. there are two companies that manufacture the product. one of them is bankrupt and closing down because of all the lawsuits due to defective devices.

Another problem is cochlear implants have not yet proven the test of time. There are some adults who were implanted as a child but have had to get re-implanted, which causes more damage to the hearing that exists. It is still unknown what will happen to these individuals when they get older, who have had implants their entire lives. It could lead to other health risks due to the fact it's implanted in the brain, and may cause brain damage or who knows what other causalities.

My point is, what is wrong with learning sign language? The parent of a deaf child who made a comment earlier that her daughter does not speak and she can learn sign language later, may not realize that her child will be delayed in language as a result.

Most parents who are deaf with deaf children, they have immediate access to language, while the hearing parent is out trying to figure out what to do with their deaf child. In fact, deaf children of deaf parents have higher intelligence than hearing children because of this immediate access to language before hearing children are biologically capable of producing speech. This is why baby signs are so popular.

Sign language is very important for all deaf children, and parents their parents should learn it as well, so that the child will not be delayed.

My parents are deaf but I am hearing, I'm a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult) and I have a deaf child and I assure you parents with deaf children, sign language is key to education and obviously communication purposes above all!

anon128565
Post 8

My daughter underwent cochlear implant surgery five months ago. She was born completely deaf in one ear, and severely deaf in the other. She wears a hearing aid on the ear that's least affected.

Deaf people do perceive themselves a "community", and rightfully so. Signing is considered a language now, and since not everyone can sign, and communicate with others with sign, deaf people consider others using sign language as a form of communication in their little "community".

I think all deaf people, just like any person missing a helpful sense (like sight etc) should be able to feel proud.

Those who wear a cochlear implant, or hearing-aids, deserve a badge if you ask me. My daughter has to sit through constant speech therapy sessions, auditory testing, is facing the possibility of having to attend a different school to her brother. It's heartbreaking, and i worry constantly about how other kids will treat her if she does end up going mainstream.

She's almost two and still isn't speaking. They say she'll always be a bit behind. I wanted to give my daughter the option of being able to hear close to normally, and go to a mainstream school with her brother. If I'd waited until she was old enough to make that decision for herself, it would have been too late.

She always has the option of using sign language later on if she prefers.

anon126311
Post 7

I became totally deaf at the age of 35. I lived with normal hearing before then. After living 20 years in a totally deaf world, i decided to get a cochlear implant. I consider it an amazing miracle. I can now have normal conversations.

My hearing isn't perfect, but i am so thankful for my implant. I have experienced both the hearing and deaf worlds and I choose the hearing world.

anon121742
Post 6

As long as it is at the choice of the deaf individual then I don't believe it to be a problem but when a parent pushes a surgery like that onto a child, then it bothers me.

My parents are deaf and I am so glad to have grown up in the culture that I grew up in. I'm also offended by the comment comparing deafness to acne or even hair color. I think before anyone judges this culture they should spend a little time in it and educate themselves before judging.

It is a community and they do survive even without their hearing. As for the 27 year old who chose to get a cochlear implant, that is her choice and every choice we make in life will be criticized by someone. The difference is how we deal with the criticism.

She wants an implant, then more power to her. But just as if a woman were to get a breast implant when its not exactly necessary she will be criticized by someone out there and that is just life in general.

We learn to ignore and move on. She will make her own choices in life and adapt.

anon118284
Post 5

To the person who posted "Deaf people aren't a community," you should really take a minute to do some research on the history of Deaf culture.

Comparing deafness to acne is offensive even to me and I'm a hearing person. Having acne doesn't make it impossible for you to learn and communicate like the majority of society, deafness does.

And since less than 1 percent of the world is deaf, I wouldn't call it a "common ailment." Why would deaf people considering themselves a community invoke prejudice? It's not like they're brutal gang members. Prejudice against a deaf person because they are deaf and embrace and celebrate their culture, that's laughable. Deaf people are and should be proud of their culture.

anon117082
Post 3

Deaf people are not a 'Community'. They are simply a group of people who can't hear properly.

Like people with acne are not a community, or people with ginger/blonde/brown/curly/straight hair, or who lisp, or are overly tall /short or who have below/above average IQs aren't.

Common ailments/traits does not a community make.

Balkanising themselves into a community is guaranteed to increase prejudice against them as they are already different, but now they want to be different *and* wear a 'badge'. Sheesh!

anon117079
Post 2

It's pretty small-minded to complain about *other* people wanting to get an implant if they want to.

What's next? People with dwarfism shouldn't get bone lengthening surgery?

Deaf people's hearing is *broken*. Don't be such a whining martyr and say "it's part of who I am". It may be for *you*, but clearly some people aren't having such a 'fun' time with it.

If you fell down the stairs at an early age, broke a leg and couldn't walk and then surgery came along to allow you to, are you going to say "Heck no, I'll carry on with my crutches?"

Let people do what they want to improve their lot in life. Any complaints about that are just jealousy: of their luck, access to treatment and funds, and bravery in taking the risk.

anon111098
Post 1

I am a parent of a 27 year old young woman who was born deaf. Our whole family learned sign. My daughter attended both special programs and deaf schools. She now works at a deaf school.

My daughter has now decided to get an implant. I don't understand why it is anyone's business what she does. She feels it will help her have a better quality life. Just as she moved to different part of town to improve her life She is getting grief from deaf friends and the deaf community. My daughter is proud of who she is. A young woman who supports herself, lives on her own and still trying to figure life out. She feels she will benefit from getting this implant.

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