Assisitive tech must consider human factors, not just function

19 May

Patrick Dehahn, born “profoundly deaf” and now with a cochlear implant, wrote How Technology Could Threaten Deaf Identity for The Atlantic last week. In his discussion of new cochlear implants that would be externally invisible, he writes about the divide between the “capital D” Deaf community, who don’t use hearing aids and communicate mostly with American Sign Language, and the “small d” oral-deaf community who use aids to have some level of hearing and speech.  Interesting, yes, but what caught my eye was this section:

Deaf people wearing internal cochlear implants will have trouble validating themselves as deaf to hearing people who don’t see a physical device on their heads. The loss of that visual cue will blur the line between the oral deaf and the hearing. …

When I don’t catch what was said in a conversation, I often casually point to my external cochlear implant and say “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said,” or “I totally misunderstood you.” It’s an easy shortcut that would be lost with the new technology.

Let me emphasize what I see there with a personal example and a more rudimentary technology: a stick. When I don’t use a cane, I walk awkwardly and slowly with small strides. As much as I would like to imagine myself gliding as elegantly as Eliza Doolittle after a comportment lesson, I’m clumsy. However, as I look fairly young and have no outward signs of disability, I hear sighs of exasperation if people are stuck behind me. Eyes roll or I get a thin, overly-polite-but-not-polite-at-all smile when I lean on a railing or table to stand. People pass with a burst of walking speed akin to a sports car blasting around an RV on the highway. When I use a cane, it serves a technical function: it helps me balance so that I can walk with less pain.  There is a secondary effect, however.  People treat me with more consideration. I’m not rushed; in fact, when climbing in and out of rides at an amusement park, I was offered assistance or told to take my time. I don’t get the same rudeness. The cane is a signifier like Dehahn’s visible cochlear implant. Just as he writes later in the article, “I hate that I have a disability, but I do.”  It’s not that we want sympathy, but there’s a reason I move poorly and he can’t hear perfectly, and when people understand that they often behave with more consideration.

An invisible cochlear implant will remove that signifier, but will not give the users perfect hearing.  Dehahn imagines having people doubt that he is deaf, which feels like a stretch, but I think he’s right that it would take away a shortcut, a gesture — pointing to the implant — that spares a long explanation. Having the visible implant might broadcast his condition, but it can help avoid misunderstandings.

This is why I think anthropology is a real asset in cooperation with technical development. It’s the job of anthropologists to look past the surface benefits of hiding the cochlear implant. That might not be best all the time or for everyone.  First there is the conflict between Deaf people who don’t feel their condition is something that needs to be fixed and those who embrace assistive tech.  Then, there are questions about how people with current implants actually use them.  Would the loss of implant visibility be a quality of life improvement or not?  Is it important to keep a visible option?  Observation might reveal things about the lived experience of having an implant that surveys or interviews would not.

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Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical


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