The day Mobin Tawakkul couldn’t follow directions in his
kindergarten class was the day he began to lose touch with a part
of the world. It was the first sign that he was going deaf.
Tawakkul’s world began to evaporate away with the onset of
his hearing loss. By fourth and fifth grade, surgeries to his ears
and his body’s resistance to antibiotics degraded his hearing
to nothing, said Tawakkul, a University alum. Not even hearing aids
could salvage the sounds, he added.
“I felt this was becoming a way of life so I had to deal
with it,” said Tawakkul, who received his masters in
pharmaceutical engineering at the University in 2003.
But Tawakkul persevered with his deafness beyond his
expectations, thanks to a device which a University program is
helping bring to more deaf ears.
The hearing device, called a cochlear implant, resuscitated
Tawakkul’s hearing ability when he underwent surgery for the
device in 10th grade. The lost sounds of raindrops clattering on
the ground, the chirps of birds in the morning and the beats of
Islamic music returned to his deaf ears, re-opening the world for
“The feeling is like there’s more in the world than
I ever knew,” he said.
Although the device is far from a cure, the cochlear implant has
improved Tawakkul’s life dramatically by both rectifying his
ability to communicate with others and granting him the sounds of
Yet Tawakkul’s story is just one of the many different
stories dealing with the heated history of the cochlear
Developed in the 1980s, the implant functions by altering sounds
into electrical energy, which then stimulates a deaf person’s
surviving auditory nerve fibers to allow the user to hear. The
implant is also attached to an external sound processor that both
detects sound and powers the hearing device.
Helping to spearhead the promotion of the implants is the
University’s Cochlear Implant Program, one of the largest
programs in the country. Last month, the program implanted its
1000th cochlear device into a patient.
But in the past, many in the deaf community rejected the implant
out of the concern that the device would threaten the existence of
the deaf culture, said Teresa Zwolan, director of the
University’s Cochlear Implant Program and professor in
Many believed the implant would transform a deaf person into a
hearing person — which goes against the deaf culture, Zwolan
Where the device once faced public outcry from the deaf
community though, the cochlear implant draws less ire with each
year as the number of surgeries for the implant grows. Moreover,
many hard-of-hearing people have accepted the need for the
When choosing whether to undergo surgery for the device, deaf
people weigh the benefits and drawbacks of the implant like any
The costs, the patient’s degree of deafness and the
inability of doctors to know how much hearing wil be restored were
all factored in Tawakkul’s decision to choose the
Backed by his family and teachers, Tawakkul underwent the
surgery, knowing it was one of his best chances to hear again. But,
underlining the decision for others is the worry of losing their
deaf identity after regaining their hearing.
“Traditionally, the deaf community has been opposed to it
since their deafness is a part of the definition of who they are,
and if we try to fix their deafness, it will change who they
are,” Zwolan said.
During the advent of the cochlear implant, Zwolan said the
device implied that deafness was a disability rather than another
perfectly valid way of living life, she added.
This opposition climaxed when the devices were implanted on deaf
children during the early 1990s, causing many in the deaf community
to protest against the cochlear implant. Deaf people argued
hard-of-hearing children could live their lives perfectly, despite
their deafness, so they rejected the surgery, she added.
Since then, much of the division engendered by the device has
eroded, Zwolan said. Citing that close to 100 members of Ann
Arbor’s deaf community have undergone the surgery, Zwolan
said the implant has become a personal decision for individuals and
for parents of deaf children.
“It’s a personal choice that depends on what they
want the deaf implant for, and some people just want to hear.
It’s not a tool to change who they are or where they belong.
It’s just a tool to help them hear,” she said.
Rackham student Richard Eckert, who is deaf, respects that
personal decision, but like some in the deaf community, he remains
unconvinced about the implants effectiveness.
With his hearing aid and his lip-reading skills, Eckert said
there is no need for the device since he can understand speech most
of the time.
At the same time, the current cochlear implant would destroy his
ability to use a hearing aid since it would also require surgeons
to eliminate his residual hearing in order for the device to
“So, it is a gamble. For some people it works and if
that is what they want — great. I see no reason to take
such a gamble, especially with the improvements to digital hearing
aids and with future possibilities of cochlea hair
regeneration,” he said.
Highlighting that risk is Eckert’s wife who once wore a
cochlear implant but later developed a constant pain in her
While the concern that deaf culture was threatened by the
implant has dissolved over the years, the device has nonetheless
affected the makeup of the deaf community.
As the number of individuals with the cochlear implants grows,
Zwolan said the device has resulted in fewer individuals to in the
Because the deaf community is primarily made up of people who
know sign language, children who receive the cochlear implant
generally do not need to rely on signing as a way to communicate,
“If you don’t use sign language, you are not really
accepted by the deaf community,” she said.
But deaf students at the University’s Hearing Impaired
Student Organization have broken those barriers, creating a unique
community of their own on campus.
Not only have many in the deaf community at the University come
to terms with the device, but many also see that the surgery does
little to a person’s identity.
Even with the surgery, Tawakkul is still seen as a deaf person
among his peers in the student organization.
“I explained to them with what my situation is with the
cochlear implant and they found it accepting so it was not a
problem at all after educating them,” he said.
Yet Tawakkul added in order to strike a balance and deepen his
relationship with the deaf community, he says that he needs to
learn sign language — a trait which unites them into a