A Hero Who Works Against All Obstacles

December 3, 2011
For a long time the world was silent for people who were profoundly deaf and couldn’t benefit from hearing aids. They could not hear any noises, converse on the phone, listen to music, or communicate in any way other than by writing, signing face to face with American Sign Language, or lip reading. This is what the world was like until 1978 when the first cochlear implant was invented by Professor Graeme Clark. The cochlear implant is a device that is implanted inside a person’s head that enables a deaf person to hear. Clark thought all deaf people should have the opportunity to hear because he wanted them to be able to communicate through talking face to face or on the phone. He also wanted them to be able to listen to music, and hear environmental sounds. From Clark’s point of view the deaf community was isolated, frustrated, and treated differently due to their lack of communication with the outside world. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also dealing with a task that was similar to Graeme Clark’s. The groups of people that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Professor Graeme Clark were dealing with were marginalized, and both groups felt and were treated like outsiders, causing them to create their own insular communities. Professor Graeme Clark wanted deaf people to have the same opportunities as the hearing community, even though it was at a time when no scientist believed it was possible to get a deaf person to hear. Clark’s invention of the cochlear implant has impacted people from around the world. Both Professor Graeme Clark and Martin Luther King, Jr., were fighting for a goal at a time when some people thought their tasks were beyond impossible and other people were against them.
Graeme Clark was born in Camden in New South Wales, Australia, on August 16, 1935. Most of Clark’s family members were hearing; however, his father, a local pharmacist, was deaf. When Clark was ten years old he worked in the pharmacy with his father, who would often ask customers to speak louder so he could hear them. Since Clark grew up seeing his father’s struggles with deafness and the isolation his father felt, he was inspired to invent the cochlear implant.
Clark dreamed of the idea of inventing a bionic ear piece when, in the mid 1960’s, he came upon a scientific paper that explained how a deaf person can receive hearing sensations through electrical stimulations. The first cochlear implant surgery was performed on Rod Saunders in 1978 and was a major success. Rod Saunders was a candidate for the first cochlear implant because he lost his hearing at the age of forty-six. Saunders’ implant was turned on weeks later, and he was able to recognize the tune “Waltzing Matilda.” The first cochlear implant processor, the outer part, weighed about 2.2 pounds, and it was the size of a textbook. According to statistics there over 80,000 cochlear implant users as of today, and without Clark’s invention of the implant, deaf people wouldn’t have the opportunities that they have currently. A profoundly deaf person is able to communicate face to face without the use of American Sign Language, can listen to music, talk on the phone, or hear any sort of noise that is around him or her.
When Graeme Clark started working on his research for the cochlear implant in the 1960’s it was at a time when no one thought it possible to invent a device that would enable a deaf person to hear. Clark’s colleagues from the University of Melbourne said to him that the cochlear implant probably would not work because the inner ear was too complex, there were unknown risks, and there would be technological difficulties. Around that same time Martin Luther King, Jr., was fighting for equal rights for all Americans by advocating for African Americans. Before the implant and the civil rights movement, both deaf people and African Americans felt that they were treated like outsiders of their own communities. In King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963, he says, “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. […] The Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.” King explains that despite the fact slaves were free from slavery at the end of the American Civil War in 1865, African Americans are still treated like outsiders. Clark recently said that while he was working on his invention, “I was seen as a… well they used to refer to me as ‘that clown Clark.’” When Clark and King were working their way towards their goals, not only did people think their goals were impossible, but also people were against both of them. Many scientists were against Clark’s idea of inventing a device that would allow a deaf person to hear and speak, and no one was willing to provide funding for Clark’s research.

Professor Graeme Clark not only had hearing people against him, but also had the Deaf Community against him because they felt that the cochlear implant was a threat to their culture. The Deaf Community has a long and rich history that goes back over one hundred years. The first known deaf community in America was developed on an isolated island off the coast of Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the early settlers had a gene for deafness and after generations, more people were born with hearing loss. With an extensively large population of profoundly deaf people, a sign language developed. On Martha’s Vineyard all deaf and hearing people signed. The Deaf Community began to expand beyond the Vineyard when schools for the deaf were founded. The first deaf school was founded in Hartford, Connecticut: the American School for the Deaf in 1817. Deaf people started attending schools for the deaf, and learned to read, to write, and to use American Sign Language. Throughout all of this, the deaf people began to develop their own unique culture and, to a larger extent, their own world that would no longer exist if everyone received Professor Clark’s invention. Graeme Clark hoped to be the benefactor to the Deaf Community, but instead was seen as a monster.
Professor Graeme Clark has impacted many people in many ways through his invention. I was born profoundly deaf. Being deaf is not easy for me. It has brought me many difficulties in my life, both socially and academically. However, if Clark’s invention did not exist I would not be where I am today. I would probably be at a school for deaf students and the only communication that would be available to me would be American Sign Language, which is different from my lifetime of hearing and what I am used to. At the time when I received my cochlear implant I was fifteen months old and the youngest child in the country to receive an implant. With the cochlear implant I am able to talk on the phone with family and friends, listen to music, and communicate with people without the use of sign language. Although I have a cochlear implant and I am able to be like everyone else, I am still at times excluded or made fun of for my deafness. Martin Luther King, Jr., mentions in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.” Thanks to Clark’s invention, I am able to consider myself mostly hearing, but I also have a dream that one day I will be able to go out in public without having to worry about being embarrassed about my deafness. I believe now is the time to lift the barriers of separation and unite as a nation of deaf and hearing people.
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Professor Graeme Clark were two men who shared a similar belief of lifting the barriers for people who were treated like outsiders in their communities. Even though people were against them, they still managed to succeed. Both King and Clark were common people with no super powers like Superman or Capitan America. A hero does not have to be someone who has laser vision or super strength. My own definition of a hero is someone who performs an act or deed that benefits others, such as saving someone from a house that is on fire or taking a stand for something that he or she believes in. Dr. Clark and Dr. King both took a stand for what they truly believed in. Clark continued his work on the cochlear implant even though people said to him it was impossible. King refused to step down from the tasks that were set for him even though he had many obstacles, such as being taken to jail in Birmingham, Alabama. My favorite quote from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.” Just as Martin Luther King, Jr., believed, I believe now is the time to lift all barriers of separation and give everyone equal opportunities.

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