There’s a right to hear or not to hear, but none to deny another’s right to hear

Hearing Health & Technology Matters
November 15, 2016

Editors Note: This post was originally posted February 2012.

By David H. Kirkwood

Two recent posts at Hearing Views addressed basic rights related to hearing health care: the right to have access to hearing care technology and services and the right not to use that access.



The February 8 Hearing View contained the text of a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It was signed by the leaders of 19 organizations that advocate for people with hearing loss and/or other disabilities.

The signatories argued that under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health reform bill enacted in 2010, hearing aids and related services should be designated as “essential health benefits.” And accordingly, the writers said, HHS should require coverage of properly fitted hearing aids in every state.

Although quite a few other countries already guarantee hearing aid coverage for their citizens, it’s unlikely to happen very soon in the U.S., where universal healthcare coverage of any kind faces enormous resistance. However, there is clearly a trend toward increased coverage of hearing aids.

More and more states now require that health insurance policies include hearing aid coverage for children, and other states are considering such legislation. The number of Americans eligible for free audiologic services from the Department of Veterans Affairs has greatly increased over the past decade.

There are also a good number of private, non-profit organizations that provide free hearing care to people—in this country and abroad–who could not afford it otherwise. While these worthy philanthropic efforts can never reach everyone who needs hearing help, they do promote the basic principle that no one with hearing loss should be denied care for lack of money. So far, the universal right to hearing care is more aspirational than actual in America, but support is building.



While far too many hard-of-American still go without hearing aids because of their cost, even more choose to go unaided.

As I noted on this blog on February 1, millions of adults, regardless of how poorly they hear, simply don’t believe they need hearing aids. And, no matter how strongly their spouses, children, and friends may disagree, the deniers are going to exercise their right not to hear as long as they wish. That’s frustrating for all of us advocates of hearing health, but, as the noted philosopher Tony Soprano often said, “Whadda ya gonna do?”



On a more serious note, there are still some children being born unable to hear who are denied hearing help by their parents. Such cases typically involve an infant with genetic deafness born to pre-lingually deaf parents who are part of the Deaf community. The parents reject the larger societal belief that deafness is a disability that can be fixed and they sincerely believe their child will be better off being immersed in Deaf culture and communicating in American Sign Language (ASL), than if they get an implant and grow up at least partly in the hearing world.

It is hard not to sympathize with parents in this situation. They may feel that by getting a cochlear implant for their child they would be rejecting their own way of life. It is also natural for them to fear that if their child is educated in mainstream schools and functions well in hearing and speaking society, he or she may become distant from them.

But surely, what all parents should want for their children is to have every opportunity to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Certainly being deaf does not preclude them from doing so. Nor do parents need to view their own or their child’s deafness as a disability. But can they really deny that hearing is a precious ability, one that offers a wealth of benefits and pleasures to those lucky enough to hear, either naturally or with assistive technology?



Fortunately, the opposition to enabling deaf children to hear has faded considerably over the past 20 years or so. One reason is the tremendous improvement in cochlear implant technology. Now, children who are implanted soon after birth have an excellent prospect of being able to thrive in mainstream schools and in the workplace.

Also tipping the scale in favor of cochlear implants for children is that research has found that the best time for implantation is very early in life when a child’s brain plasticity is at its greatest. The younger the child is implanted, the more effective the system is likely to be and the more easily the child develops speech and language skills. These findings have made parents more likely to opt for early implantation.

However, I continue to run across reports of opposition to implants. For example, consider Audism Free America, which describes itself as “a national grassroots network, committed to combating audism.” What is “audism”? “Attitudes and practices based on the assumption that behaving in the ways of those who speak and hear is desired and best.” And, the site adds, audism “produces a system of privilege, thus resulting in stigma, bias, discrimination, and prejudice…against Deaf culture, American Sign Language, and Deaf people of all walks of life.”

Not surprisingly, Audism Free America is no fan of cochlear implants. In one e-newsletter, it wrote “Hearing people’s obsession and enchantment with the world of sound creates a false hope for Deaf children to hear like them via cochlear implants and/or hearing aids; this significantly contributes to Deaf children’s education being misguided and misdirected.”

While this level of hostility to hearing healthcare is not typical of most deaf people in America, it does persist. Therefore, I urge readers to be prepared to defend the right of all people to hear as well as they can—above all the youngest among us who have the most to gain from hearing help.

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  1. It is frustrating for me to read a “professional” offer such a simplistic response to a complicated issue. If you could say that every child that is implanted will have exactly the same benefit and that benefit would be normal hearing than you might have a point. While young children implanted typically do very well, it is never normal hearing. It is also important that a child who is implanted receive appropriate after care for their implant and that the family 100% supports this effort. For me it is like the pro life and pro choice discussion. It is NOT my decision to make for another family what THEY decide to do. If I say a mother has to carry her baby to term, will I also be making sure that mother does everything she is supposed to carry a healthy baby? Beliefs are exactly that, beliefs…and as a professional I hope you are able to separate your personal beliefs with your professional ethics.

  2. Hearing parents of deaf/hard of hearing children should be encouraged to provide hearing access to their children as soon as possible even when they are babies. With cochlear implants, latest state of the art hearing aids, Communication Accessible RealTime Translation (CART), and personal amplifiers these children of hearing parents should be encouraged to have their children listen to words and conversation as soon as possible. Some professionals tell parents let these children make their own decision to hear when they become adults. By that time it is too late

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