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Michael Russnow

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Political Correctness on TV Sometimes Goes Too Far: Is it Really Better to Be Deaf?

Posted: 04/17/08 08:30 PM ET

I was at a Hallmark Hall of Fame reception the other night, where they presented Sweet Nothing in My Ear starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. The story concerned the trials of a "mixed" marriage -- Daniels could hear and Matlin could not -- in which the main conflict was whether their deaf child should receive a cochlear implant.

I was baffled by the struggle, which struck me as a no-brainer. True, I can hear, but I don't feel I am prejudiced when I say that it is not better to be deaf as some of the characters in this film appear to say. I can understand where there might be fear as to whether the implant will build up the boy's hope or whether he will easily adapt to the hearing world with speech patterns that might not appear up to par without loads of practice.

I can also understand, as in the case of a recent Cold Case episode, the portrayal of resentful family members or friends who might be concerned that once the boy could hear he might look down on those in his circle. It doesn't excuse their bias, but from a human nature standpoint it's an imaginable possibility.

That said, and although there was an attempt to balance the two sides, I cannot for the life of me see how any reasoned person would not want to improve, dare I say fix, a young boy's life. As science has greatly improved the surgical techniques, which are apparently not available to all deaf candidates, when a subject is determined to benefit greatly from such an implant there is no way that anyone will convince me that the absence of sound will better that person's life.

Deafness is a handicap. It does not mean that a deaf person cannot have a constructive, meaningful and successful life. Deafness is not as limiting as, let's say, blindness or paralysis, in that the person is more easily able to function and get around without much assistance, in particular those who can use sign language, lip read and actually talk -- as does Matlin in real life.

And I certainly would urge everyone -- not just the deaf community -- to instill a positive self in those who cannot hear and promote a life fulfillment that encourages people to overcome their limitations by circumventing methods which strengthen the abilities they have, whether physical, creative or intellectual. In so doing, I would also use educational and communication means to tear down stereotypes so that discrimination is not pervasive.

But to bury one's head in the sand like an ostrich, to resent those who are eligible for implants and to deny the possibilities of a fuller, yes fuller, life to utilize all of our senses is extraordinary. The Daniels character said he wanted his son to experience all that nature intended, such as hearing music or to be able to be warned verbally if he were in danger. The Matlin character responded defensively that "nature" had made him deaf, as if this were a sign that deafness is normal, which it is not.

If someone were paralyzed, whether by birth or due to polio, such as Franklin Roosevelt, we should provide support and help him to achieve what he might, and, as in the case of Roosevelt, that was quite a lot. However, if a new surgical technique might rid the paralysis or at the least help greatly -- even if the aftermath was imperfect, such as the person could get out of his wheelchair but might walk with a limp -- is there much question which road would be chosen?

If someone were blind and a cure for glaucoma was discovered, would his blind friends say, "Don't do it," as in it's better to be the way we are?

And yet because the deaf community is not as "helpless" as the aforementioned types and have formed cultural alliances and other bonds to get them through their lives in a meaningful fashion there appears to be a backlash against those who are able to benefit from the scientific advances. A sort of "deaf is better," which is as ridiculous as those in our society who try to put folks in the deaf community down.

 
 
 

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