Abstract: Cochlear or Not? The Effect of Narrative Transportation and Character Identification on Attitudes toward Cochlear Implants

◆ Tahleen Lattimer, University at Buffalo
◆ Hua Wang, University at Buffalo

Within the past decade, we have seen a steady increase in of portrayals of d/Deaf actors and characters in the media (An et al., 2014). One example would be through the popular Freeform show, Switched at Birth. Throughout its five seasons, Switched at Birth has examined several prominent and even controversial subjects. However, the prominent topic of the show revolves around Deaf culture and identity as well as stigma surrounding deafness ("Switched at Birth", 2019). Through d/Deaf character’s experiences, viewers are able to examine how the life of a d/Deaf person can differ from that of a hearing person, and also explore different areas of Deaf culture and values.
One controversial topic that is highlighted is the use of cochlear implants among the Deaf and the attitudes held towards them in both hearing and d/Deaf communities. Briefly, a cochlear implant is a small electronic device which can help provide a sense of sound to a person who is deaf or hard-or-hearing ("Cochlear Implants," 2019). From a medical standpoint, cochlear implants are generally viewed in a positive light as they do allow for the restoration of some form of hearing in the brain. However, the majority of Deaf individuals view this technology negatively as they believe Deafness is a significant part of their identity, and not something which needs fixing.
Within the second season of the show one of the Deaf characters, Cameron, decides to undergo surgery to receive a cochlear implant. This decision requires much debate, and is influenced by the opinions of his friends and family (who are both hearing and d/Deaf). Through his experience viewers are also able to see the concerns he has in terms of the medical procedure itself and what this choice does for him in terms of his identity and role in the Deaf community. But, he ultimately determines that he is the one who defines his Deaf identity and that his identity can include a cochlear if he so desires.
Given this background, the current study examines the role narrative transportation and character identification play in shaping hearing attitudes towards cochlear implants and d/Deafness. Through a pre-posttest design, hearing participants attitudes towards cochlear implants as well as d/Deafness are examined in light of their exposure to Cameron’s narrative. Results serve to first evaluate the effectiveness of communicating and educating viewers on this issues in light of d/Deaf culture. Additional findings related to facilitating meaningful conversations between d/Deaf and hearing communities, as well as the attitudes towards this device through both individual and cultural lens are also discussed.