If you’re a Deaf teen with a Cochlear Implant, you may struggle with your Deaf identity. It can be confusing to sit on the border between Deaf and hearing communities. The conflict can make you feel depressed, anxious, or isolated.

However, your experience gives a chance to explore the complexity of Deaf identity from a different perspective. Deaf teens can learn the intricacies of Deaf culture while staying connected to the hearing world. 

In this article, read about the struggles that can come with combined Deaf and ‘Hearing’ identity – and about your opportunities for connection and community.

First, for allies: what to know about describing Deaf identity

Deaf people who use American Sign Language (ASL) are part of Deaf culture. They can also be called part of the Deaf community. 

You might have noticed I capitalize the ‘D’ in Deaf. That is because this community is recognized as an ethnic group. Because there is a long history of values unique to ASL, it is recognized as its own linguistic culture. 

However, if you’re just talking a lack of hearing, you would use a lower case ‘d’ since you are not referring to Deaf culture. 

Learn Deaf identity terms!

It is always best practice to be mindful of the language you use when talking about disabilities. The language you use matters, since it reflects your perspective on it. 

Don’t be afraid to say Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH)! You should not hesitate to use these words. If you use softer language such as “handicapable“ or “differently-abled“, it has a patronizing effect. These words are passive and can feel demeaning.

As the National Association of the Deaf states, “Although special education law and policies utilize the term ‘hearing impairment’ and ‘hearing impaired,’ such terminology is archaic and offensive to the deaf and hard of hearing community.” 

Remember that Deaf people aren’t victims

Another reason passive language is discouraged? It implies we are victims to our disability. Deafness in Deaf culture is not viewed as a true disability. Deafness is only disabling if you don’t have the proper support to succeed in your community. 

So within Deaf culture, being deaf is just a fact of life. It doesn’t keep us from living a full and rich life. Instead, it adds to our unique identity. 

One of the young women I interviewed for this article is Bella. She grew up in Brazil and moved to the United States at a young age. Her family is hearing but she is deaf. Despite their differences, Bella’s mom was a big advocate. She educated people about deafness and encouraged Bella’s school to be accommodating. 

Bella’s family didn’t view her deafness as a disability, but rather saw it as part of her identity. This allowed her to feel comfortable in her deafness. With the proper support, Deaf people find strength and beauty in their deafness.  

One more piece of context: some Deaf teens may have Cochlear Implants

With advancements in technology, science has found a way to give hearing to deaf people. This can be in the form of hearing aids and Cochlear Implants (CIs).

Hearing aids are for HoH people who have mild to moderate hearing. People who are diagnosed with severe or profound hearing loss would be a better fit for a CI, which involves surgery.

It is important to understand that CIs aren’t perfect. Amelia Cooper’s ‘Hear Me Out’ article shares, “The most successful cochlear surgeries never restore full, natural hearing. Many recipients struggle to distinguish sounds, particularly in environments with a lot of background noise.”

CIs are most successful if you are young when you have the surgery. This is because your brain can better adjust to the new type of stimuli that it is hearing. People who receive a CI later in life may find the new sounds overwhelming. Or, it’s just not the right fit for them.

The usefulness of CIs is unique to each person.

Deaf Identity vs the Hearing World with a Cochlear Implant

When interviewing families, Richard Tyler found that “Deaf parents are happy when their newborn is deaf. They note, for example, ‘the great joy in observing a young deaf baby learning its first few signs’. Deafness is seen as a family trait, like curly hair, height, or skin color.”

However, most young deaf teens are born to hearing parents. In fact, over 90% are! As a result, more often than not, deaf children receive CIs or hearing aids. This allows them to communicate by speaking and hearing. This also creates some sense of belonging in the hearing world. 

But because CIs are not a true replacement for hearing, many deaf and CI people feel like they fall in a grey area. They may feel “not quite hearing” but “not Deaf enough.” Standing between both communities can increase feelings of depression or anxiety. You may not fit in with your peers, which can make you feel even more alone. 

But just know that you’re not alone. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. Think of your CI as providing you access to two different communities versus excluding you from both of them. You can have one foot in each world.

Next, let’s talk through how that looks.

Why might a Deaf person choose to be ‘Hearing’ over embracing Deaf identity?

There are many reasons why some people choose to have a cochlear implant, despite its controversy. One motivation is resource accessibility. Another is to avoid some difficulties that can be solved through use of a CI.

Avoiding the experience of poor disability accommodations

Despite how the Deaf community views deafness, American culture generally regards deafness as a disability. Schooling systems typically don’t offer education around Deaf culture. K-12 schools also provide limited ASL interpreters and few ASL classes compared to other languages. In her interview, Surabhi noticed that technology based accommodations are easier to access than ASL interpreters.

If you can assimilate into the hearing community, it becomes much easier to function. It eliminates the language barrier between ASL and English. Surabhi is a young woman who was born and raised in India, and moved to the USA in her early teens. She has had two CIs since she was three years old. In her interview, Surabhi noticed that technological based accommodations are typically easier to access than ASL interpreters.

People who commit to embracing their Deaf identity in the hearing world also face a higher exposure to discrimination in the form of prejudice and reduced scope of accommodations in social settings. Having a cochlear implant would alleviate some of the problem of accommodations.

Why Cochlear Implants can be ideal

Having a cochlear implant increases social, academic, and professional possibilities. Being able to participate in the hearing world by speaking and hearing creates access within certain careers that might otherwise be much harder to navigate. However, this depends on an individual’s environment, experiences and circumstances.

Surabhi describes that her family’s decision to get her a CI was intentional: “My parents wanted me to have the best chances and opportunities to succeed career-wise, so that is why I got a cochlear implant.”

CIs mask deafness more discreetly and set deaf teens up to succeed in the hearing world. This is especially important if they want to go into a speech-heavy profession. “Being able to hear and speak has opened up a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have if I’d forgone the surgeries (to receive CIs),” Surabhi states. However, cochlear implants aren’t a perfect solution.

Unfortunately, kids can be cruel

Because everyone is insecure in middle and high school, kids often lash out at those who are different. Deaf teens who have a CI can struggle to understand their peers or teachers. This can result in getting picked on. Or worse, people may mess with their hearing devices.

Deaf teens can also struggle in classes, because they don’t have the help they need. Teachers may not understand or be aware of how to provide the extra assistance needed. This, in turn, can make teens feel stupid or like they’re not trying hard enough.

Accessing a greater breadth of information and culture

Yael Bat-Chava, a researcher exploring Deaf experiences, describes another reason why CIs can be appealing. He asserts that Deaf people with a culturally deaf background may seek greater involvement in the hearing world if they become frustrated with their more limited access to information and to mainstream culture.”

A CI allows you to experience a new side of media with auditory cues, such as movies and music. That’s not to say Deaf people can’t enjoy these media at all. They absolutely have the ability to appreciate these mediums. However, having a CI just gives you another way to appreciate media in a different form. 

Why might a Deaf person choose to embrace the Deaf identity over assimilating?

The Deaf community can appeal to teens who feel they don’t fit in hearing spaces. There is connection in the shared experience of being Deaf. Deaf culture is incredibly diverse and has a rich social sphere. Sign language, as the main form of communication, brings Deaf people together to build a strong community.

Jemina Napier shares, “Deaf people are described as sharing a sense of pride in forming an identity based on their linguistic and cultural experiences.”

Bat-Chava shares that for “deaf people who grow up culturally hearing, frustration with oral communication and a desire for a richer social life may prompt the learning of sign language and involvement in the Deaf community.” 

Deaf circles

In Kersting’s study on preferences for Deaf spaces, the students she interviewed reported that they “relied on social networks of deaf peers, deaf clubs, and deaf organizations because of the ease of communication, group identification, and the (lowered) influence of social prejudice.”

Some Deaf groups exist in universities, some career fields, and living communities as well. Most notably, Gallaudet University is a hotspot for young adults who use ASL to communicate. Students there use ASL whether they’re Deaf, HoH, hearing with CI, or just hearing!

Summer camps for Deaf and HoH teens help young Deaf people build community. Bella shares her opinion about working at a camp with other teens. Attendees had cochlear implants and used ASL: “It was relieving to know there were people just like me in the world.”

What’s the controversy in using CIs?

Amelia Cooper explains how Deaf circles are also important for preserving Deaf culture: “Because 90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents, cultural transmission of Deaf culture does not occur within families, but rather, through Deaf institutions. As cochlear implants will inevitably lead to a decline in the number of ASL speakers, there is a fear that fewer people will participate in Deaf institutions, and eventually Deaf culture will disappear.”

CIs have become ‘standard’ for deaf kids in hearing families. But, this trend may threaten Deaf culture. It explains why Deaf culturalists fight so hard against blending the Deaf and Hearing worlds. 

CIs can be controversial due to medical perspectives

There is also a clash of perspectives between medicine and hearing people versus the Deaf community.

Within the medical world, deafness and being hard of hearing is considered first and foremost a disability. Cochlear implants, in this context, are seen as a cure or a way to ‘remove’ the disability. The medical view is that CIs allow the individual to live a full life.

Richard Tyler’s article on AshaWire describes how Deaf culture may perceive this view. “To many Deaf culture members, cochlear implants are another example, perhaps the ultimate example, of the desire to cure their hearing loss—a clear statement of unacceptance.”

Deaf communities perceive the medical view as offensive. It can be seen as an attempt to erase the unique Deaf cultural identity. A ScienceDirect article captures this sentiment: “Deafness is not an illness, although it may follow an illness. The child is not sick and will not die of it – so framing deafness negatively should have no part in the discussion.”

Deaf communities do not see their deafness as a disability. To be deaf is just a fact of life. Deafness does not inhibit one’s ability to live a full and rewarding life. So, having a CI should be the individual’s choice, rather than a medical standard.

Can CIs and Deaf culture coexist?

Amelia Cooper summarizes how Kevin Wildes argument relates to the Deaf and CI discourse. “We cannot categorize the perspectives on the cochlear implant controversy as ethically ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ We can, however, accept moral ambiguity and cultivate open-mindedness and empathy.”

Tyler on AshaWire states, “Diversity within any culture is desirable. Many individuals within the Deaf culture use and benefit from hearing aids. The Deaf need to accept those within their own culture who choose to use hearing aids and cochlear implants. Diversity, whether in the hearing or Deaf culture, should be protected and encouraged.”

Despite receiving a CI, a young woman in an article on Deaf Action shared: “But to me, a cochlear implant is just another hearing aid. I will always be deaf, and I will always be part of the Deaf community.”

Not all Deaf people may benefit from CIs, but CIs don’t have to erase Deaf culture. They simply connect young deaf teens to both the Deaf and hearing communities. 

Re-thinking your deaf identity if you grew up with a Cochlear Implant (CI)

Departing from our families’ (and even professionals’) understanding

Many of us Deaf teens grow up in the ‘grey area’ of having a CI. Our families may not have had information to make informed decisions regarding deafness. 

Since hearing families rarely explore their child’s deaf identity, many look to cochlear implants to give their kid a more accessible, hearing life.

Bat-Chava describes the typical experience: ”Most deaf children (90%) are born to hearing parents, who previously never thought much about deafness. Therefore, health professionals and educators, who hold the view that deafness is a disability, shape parents’ initial views of deafness. These hearing parents then transmit this view to their deaf children.”

This view of deafness as purely a disability closes the door for families to explore the Deaf community. This may also prevent hearing families from learning ASL for their deaf children. 

Audiologists often fail to educate hearing families that Deaf communities exist. They may not explain how ASL is a part of Deaf culture. Bella shares that “My doctor advised against learning sign language because it would affect my ability to orally communicate. So, my family did not learn ASL under audiologist advice.” 

Typical schooling and missed opportunities to connect with Deaf culture

Whether a deaf teen has a cochlear implant or purely relies on sign, they often go to mainstream schools. Surabhi said, “There were few Deaf resources or education growing up, so I went to oral schools.” On a similar note, in Bella’s elementary years in America, she “went mainstream,” and her mother had to take initiative on educating her classroom and teachers about deafness. 

Residential deaf schools exist in America. But, they have significantly smaller numbers compared to public schools. When both Surabhi and Bella started school in the USA, they went to mainstream public schools. 

The conflict with mainstream schooling is there is no Deaf community within the system. Surabhi shares her thoughts on this topic: “I deeply regret not having a deeper connection with the Deaf community. Because I did not know of it until I was 18. I was only surrounded by other deaf people with CIs who could speak.” 

The internal conflict young deaf teens may have when going to mainstream schools is you don’t identify with Deaf culture by default. Because it is the norm to communicate with others by speaking, there is no opportunity to use ASL. The lack of exposure to Deaf culture may have led some of us to never realize such a community existed. 

Do I need to know ASL?

If you have the chance or resources to learn ASL, it is a great learning opportunity – whether you are on the deaf spectrum or not. As people grow older, the chance of developing hearing loss increases drastically. Unexpected situations can lead young adults to develop deafness as well. Anybody can become auditorily disabled later in their lifetime, so learning ASL is a wise investment.

ASL is expressive and can communicate a plethora of ideas and feelings. Knowing ASL also provides a valuable connection with the Deaf community. They communicate primarily through ASL, and this language builds their culture.

Growing up with CIs along with knowing sign language offers the best chance of communication and language success. ScienceDirect shares that “whole family communication is greatly improved by including a sign language, thereby granting deaf children the involvement in family life necessary for feeling their identity is recognized, respected, and valued, and allowing them to develop social tools that will stand them in good stead outside the family, as well.”

But not knowing ASL does not invalidate your deaf identity. ASL is a crucial part to the Deaf community’s culture. However, recognizing your deafness as a disability and persevering (despite the challenges that comes with navigating the hearing world) can be an element of your identity. 

So, what is my cultural identity?

This is entirely up to you. I will be frank, it’s a complicated topic with no right answer. But you may have the best of both worlds by having a cochlear implant and using ASL to communicate within your community. 

Or, you can decide to identify as either just hearing or completely Deaf. It is up to you and what feels like the best fit in your life.

Surabhi has a CI and is confident in her Deaf identity. She shares: “I identify with the big D Deaf. It defines my experience but does not limit me. Knowing basic ASL allows me to be connected to the Deaf community, but being hearing through technology and speaking allows me to be a part of the hearing community. I feel connected to both communities. The Deaf community I am a part of has been very accepting of me and my CIs.” 

Sometimes it can be hard to connect to the Deaf community if you don’t even know where to start. Thankfully, the internet in this day and age gives us better resources and education.

Bella advocates for taking initiative, stating: “If you’re looking for more info and resources to connect to the Deaf community, social media groups and the internet are a great place to dip your toes and learn more through that.”