Search "cochlear implant" on YouTube and the first result that fills in is "hearing for the first time." You'll get 54,000 results for that phrase, with a variety of videos of children, teens and adults sitting in a doctors office, listening to their loved one talk, with shocked expressions on their faces. The latest viral sensation added to that club is of three-year-old Grayson Clamp, who is the first child get an auditory brain stem implant to help his hearing.
An auditory brain stem implant is different than the more commonly known cochlear implant, which uses electronic pulses to stimulate the cochlear nerve which carries sound from the ear to the brain. Instead, a stem implant stimulates just the brain stem, bypassing the nerves. Because they require getting actual brain surgery, these implants have previously only been available for adults. Grayson received a stem implant because his parents tried a cochlear implant and it didn't work, something that's quite common.
His doctors told CBS News that stem implants in adults often don't entirely restore hearing either, but they're hoping to see children like Grayson have a better response because of early implantation (Grayson is part of an FDA approval trial).
In this video, Grayson is clearly a little overwhelmed by the sounds he's hearing and you can see his father trying to explain to him what's happening. Doctors say that Grayson was one of the few chosen for the study "because he had high cognitive abilities and used cued speech, a visual system based on phonetics used to communicate."
People tend to freak out over the cuteness of these videos; they're a version of "first word" or "walking for the first time" moments that appeals to those outside of a child's immediate family. But even the ones for adults are emotional; I watched this one of a 29-year-old girl start to cry after she got hers and welled up. Does the popularity of these videos indicate that the treatment is becoming less stigmatized in the deaf community? Or are they mostly being consumed by non-deaf people who view being deaf as a disability that should be "fixed"?
In 1989, it was found that the vast majority of children who got cochlear implants were from families with hearing parents. That may be changing, however: a 2011 book called Cochlear Implants: Evolving Perspectives interviewed deaf parents who had chosen the implants for their children. Many of them expressed the desire for their children to be able to "switch back and forth between the two" worlds and have "more choices." The study authors also found that:
"The rapid increase in cochlear implantation is due to several factors, including enhanced technologies, improved surgical procedures, and an escalation in the literature on the outcomes for young children."
It'd be great to hear a greater variety of voices from those who have opted to get implants for their kids (part of the controversy entails whether or not it's a choice parents should make for their children), as the people heard in the media are usually hearing parents who have chosen to get cochlear implants for their kids, or from those in the deaf community who are against it. The most well-known representation of these issues is probably the documentary The Sound and the Fury and its follow-up film The Sound and the Fury: 6 Years Later which both follow one family's choice about which direction is best for their children. There are also fewer stories from young adults who choose the implants for themselves after a huge portion of their life was spent not being able to hear. It is nice that in the pop culture sector we still have Switched at Birth, an awesome ABC Family show that is heavy on the soapiness, while also managing to explore these issues in a respectful way.