HOW TECHNOLOGY HAS CHANGED WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE DEAF

01.07.20

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Overview from TED

"Complete silence is very addictive," says Rebecca Knill, a writer who has cochlear implants that enable her to hear.

In this funny, insightful talk, she explores the evolution of assistive listening technology, the outdated way people still respond to deafness and how we can shift our cultural understanding of ability to build a more inclusive world.

"Technology has come so far," Knill says. "Our mindset just needs to catch up."

"Those 16 electrodes, in combination, send signals to my brain, representing all of the sounds in the universe."

White Brick Wall
Rebecca Knill

Writer | Consultant Manager

A writer and part-time cyborg, Rebecca Knill embraces the humor in her bionic journey while balancing life as a deaf person with cochlear implants which enable her to hear.

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MY TAKE...

I found Rebecca Knill’s TED Talk to be entertaining, insightful and inspiring. Sharing her personal experience of deafness, combined with a challenge to see sound differently, made for a truly thought-provoking presentation.


Knill introduces herself as a cyborg. One with 32 computer chips inside her head to rebuild her sense of hearing - otherwise known as a cochlear implant. She likens herself to the Borg from Star Trek, “those aliens who conquered and absorbed everything in sight” before admitting that she’s never actually seen a Star Trek episode. And not because of a dislike of William Shatner…


Television wasn't closed-captioned when I was a kid. I grew up profoundly deaf. I went to regular schools, and I had to lip-read. I didn't meet another deaf person until I was 20. Electronics were mostly audio back then. My alarm clock was my sister Barbara, who would set her alarm and then throw something at me to wake up.


I’ll be the first to admit that I took these things for granted as a child. I didn’t rouse at 7am to the sound of a shrill alarm bell and think “I’m so lucky I can hear that”. I can’t say I thought that this morning either, but perhaps it’s time I did.


Fascinatingly, Knill admits that part of her wanted to be completely deaf before she took the plunge to have her cochlear implant in 2003. She explains:


Complete silence is very addictive. Maybe you've spent time in a sensory deprivation tank, and you know what I mean. Silence has mind-expanding capabilities. In silence, I see sound. When I watch a music video without sound, I can hear music. In the absence of sound, my brain fills in the gaps based on the movement I see. My mind is no longer competing with the distraction of sound. It's freed up to think more creatively.


It makes sense. After all, I expect most of us have plugged our ears at some point – to drown out the kids, the television or the neighbour’s lawnmower – in order to better concentrate. “I can’t hear myself think!” has been uttered more than a few times in my household already this month.


That said, there are – obviously – huge benefits to hearing. As Krill concedes, “it’s undeniably convenient to be able to hear, and I can turn it off any time I want. I'm hearing when I need to be, and the rest of the time, I'm not.” The best of both worlds, it seems.


THE SOUNDS IN THE UNIVERSE

If, like me, you have a vague recollection of biology classes in school then you’ll know the basics of how humans hear. The cochlea - a small organ in your ear - is lined with thousands of receptors (called hair cells) that send signals to your brain which your brain then interprets as sound. Damage to those receptors, however, is more common than you think. Noise exposure, illness and ageing all cause damage that can impact our ability to hear. In Knill’s case, her mother was exposed to German measles during pregnancy.


Knill states that around 5% of the world have significant hearing loss, expected to double to over 900 million people (or one in 10) by the year 2050. Perhaps not surprising when you consider the excessive volume at which the youth of today listen to music – or maybe that’s just me getting old…


Knill then explains how cochlear implants replicate the damaged hair cells:


Imagine a box of 16 crayons, and those 16 crayons, in combination, have to make all of the colours in the universe. Same with the cochlear implant. I have 16 electrodes in each of my cochleas. Those 16 electrodes, in combination, send signals to my brain, representing all of the sounds in the universe.


Beautifully put. I consume a disproportionate amount of technology-based content – podcasts, videos, books – and this is one of the best analogies I’ve heard. To picture sounds as colours is to appreciate the vibrancy, depth and tone that hearing offers, and the opportunities that it unlocks.


The mistake that many of us make, however, is to assume that everyone wants to live their life “in colour”. That all blind people would love to see, given the opportunity, or that all deaf people want to hear. Knill explains this isn’t necessarily the case:


Hearing people assume that the Deaf live in a perpetual state of wanting to hear, because they can't imagine any other way. But I've never once wished to be hearing. I just wanted to be part of a community like me. I wanted everyone else to be deaf. I think that sense of belonging is what ultimately connects our stories, and mine felt incomplete.


It’s easy to identify with this position if you’ve ever felt isolated due to language. Perhaps you were in a business meeting with conversations taking place in Japanese, or on holiday somewhere you couldn’t understand the native language. The human connection that comes from successful communication – in any form - is what is most important. But again, as a native English speaker, that is something I’ve historically taken for granted.

CHANGING PERCEPTION

Knill claims that – thanks to the speed in which technology has progressed – her biggest obstacle as a deaf person is no longer a physical one:


It's the way that people respond to my deafness, the outdated way people respond to my deafness - pity, patronization, even anger-- because that just cancels out the human connection that technology achieves.


Knill shares her interpretation of the play “Children of a Lesser God” by Mark Medoff (the title of which was derived from a poem by Alfred Tennyson):


Humans who are perceived as defective were made by a lesser God and live an inferior existence, while those made by the real God are a superior class, because God doesn't make mistakes.


20th century history sadly serves to perpetuate this theory:


In World War II, an estimated 275,000 people with disabilities were murdered in special death camps, because they didn't fit Hitler's vision of a superior race. Hitler said that he was inspired by the United States, which had enacted involuntary sterilization laws for "the unfit" in the early 1900s. That practice continued in more than 30 states until the '70s, with the last law finally repealed in 2003. So the world is not that far removed from Tennyson's poem.


She points to the tendency of hearing people to make assumptions based on ability, evident in sentences like “You’re so special”, “I couldn’t live like that” or “Thank God that’s not me”. And whilst I’ve never uttered such platitudes myself, the thoughts have crossed my mind. So how can we make a change?


Knill suggests that changing perception is like breaking a habit, and gives the example of the transition from voice calls / voice mails to texting. Millennials, she asserts, have normalised texting:


When it comes to ignoring voice mail, it no longer matters whether you're deaf or just self-absorbed. Millennials changed how people think about messaging. They reset the default…Do you know how thrilling it is to have a visual means of communication that everyone else actually uses?


You could say the same for email and the transformative effect it has had on both life and work. Imagining a world without email would bring me out in a cold sweat. Whilst the likes of text and email communication mean we are more connected than ever before, it has also helped to relieve pressure – especially in the workplace. We can read and respond when we’re ready to – something phone calls could never offer.


Knill concludes with her mission: she wants visual options whenever there’s audio:


It doesn't matter whether I'm deaf or don't want to wake the baby. Both are equally valid. Smart designers include multiple ways to access technology, but segregating that access under "accessibility" - that's just hiding it from mainstream users. In order to change how people think, we need to be more than accessible, we need to be connected.


With big players like Netflix, Hulu, Apple and Amazon already on the case, it’s surely only a matter of time before Knill’s vision is fully realised.

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