Navigating Two Cultures

December 9, 2013—At four years old, Heather Artinian (C’15) asked her parents for a cochlear implant, and with that question she became the symbol of a controversial debate between the hearing and Deaf communities.

Artinian’s family was the subject of the documentary Sound and Fury (2000) by Josh Aronson. The film explores her family’s decision to provide cochlear implants to Artinian, her brother, and her cousin. “It was a very contentious issue: give your child hearing or don’t give your child hearing,” Artinian said. But the matter was far more nuanced.

Artinian’s parents, who are also deaf, were criticized by the hearing community for deciding not to let her have the implant. But when Artinian later received an implant, shown in the sequel Sound and Fury: Six Years Later (2006), her family was criticized again, this time by the Deaf community.

The debate, Artinian says, is complicated and different for each family. About 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. “It’s always about the parents wanting to relate to their child,” she explained. Parents also want what’s best for their child, which may include remaining connected to the Deaf community.

Cochlear implants were seen as a threat to Deaf culture because children with implants often didn’t learn sign language. The decision to get an implant seemed like a choice between the hearing community or the Deaf community. Growing up, Artinian felt pulled by each side. “I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to pick one. I can just be in the middle,” she said.

When she received a cochlear implant at the age of nine, the doctor said that it was unlikely she would gain significant speech and hearing skills because she was older. “I was very diligent about going to speech therapy and trying hard,” she said. “It took me three years before I could be understandable and understand others.”

Beyond gaining speech and hearing skills, Artinian felt that she had to be more open and confident in the hearing community—as she met people who knew nothing or little about the Deaf community. She credits a high school mentor with teaching her professional skills, such as public speaking and marketing, that she also needed to handle the notoriety that came with the film.

These skills, Artinian says, allow her to share her story and connect with others. “In a way, my being open to [others] helps people make big life decisions,” she continued. Thirteen years after the first film, she is still asked to tell her story at schools and universities. “Without the movie, there would be a lot of kids who wouldn’t have the implant and a lot of kids who wouldn’t have learned sign language,” she said.

Artinian is not burdened by the role thrust upon her at such a young age or the criticisms and challenges that came along with it. She decided, instead, to teach others the skills she found necessary to navigate her way in the hearing and Deaf cultures.

As a sophomore, she co-founded Girls For Change, a professional development program for high school girls. “I thought I should give back what I had been given in high school,” she explained. Artinian, who is also a Baker scholar, started the program at Anacostia High School, in Southeast Washington, DC. Artinian and her co-founder Elizabeth McCarthy-Alfano (B’15) use business case studies to teach public speaking, marketing, and public relations. “In Anacostia, most of [the girls] go directly into the working world, and I would want them to have some set of business skills to take with them wherever they go,” she said.

According to Artinian, the program builds confidence and helps the girls learn how to connect with others—a skill she has learned much about while finding her place in the hearing and Deaf communities.

At TEDxGeorgetown, Artinian recently spoke about how to build bridges between groups. “The idea of bridging worlds is not new, I know. It’s not some crazy idea I came up with,” she said. “But I think [that telling] my personal story shows that it has been done and it can be done. And that helps people be more open-minded and accepting.”

—Elizabeth Wilson
 


Related information

See Artinian’s recent talk at TEDxGeorgetown 2013.