Rebecca Knill: Technology Has Come So Far—When Will Our Mindset Catch-Up? As a deaf person, Rebecca Knill is anti-noise and "neutral" on sound. She explains how technology allows her to hear what she wants to hear, and asks why our mindset about ability hasn't caught up.
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Rebecca Knill: Technology Has Come So Far—When Will Our Mindset Catch-Up?

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Rebecca Knill: Technology Has Come So Far—When Will Our Mindset Catch-Up?

Rebecca Knill: Technology Has Come So Far—When Will Our Mindset Catch-Up?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On the show today, ideas about Sound and Silence and technology - because the way devices can help us hear now, it's almost like science fiction.

REBECCA KNILL: Hello. My name is Rebecca, and I am a cyborg.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT")

ALICE KRIGE: (As Borg Queen) We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. Resistance is futile.

ZOMORODI: OK, so maybe not that kind of cyborg, but Rebecca Knill does think of herself as part robot.

KNILL: So a cyborg is somebody who has both organic or natural body parts, as well as, like, biomechanical body parts, plus a computer interface, which relies on some sort of feedback. So with the cochlear implant, which is what I have, I do have computer chips inside my head, which basically rebuild my sense of hearing because I have no natural hearing.

ZOMORODI: Rebecca describes how she became a cyborg from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KNILL: The good news is I come for your technology and not for your human life forms.

(LAUGHTER)

KNILL: Actually, I've never seen an episode of "Star Trek."

(LAUGHTER)

KNILL: But there's a reason for that - 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.

(LAUGHTER)

KNILL: My hearing aids were industrial-strength, sledgehammer volume. But they helped me more than they helped most people. With them, I could hear music and the sound of my own voice. Did you know that hearing occurs in the brain? In your ear is a small organ called the cochlea, and the cochlea is lined with thousands of receptors called hair cells. My hair cells were damaged before I was even born. My mother was exposed to German measles when she was pregnant with me.

With a cochlear implant, computer chips do the job for the damaged hair cells. Imagine a box of 16 crayons, and those 16 crayons, in combination, have to make all of the colors 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. I have electronics inside and outside of my head to make that happen, including magnets inside my skull and a rechargeable power source. Radio waves transmit sound through the magnets.

The No. 1 question that I get about the cochlear implant when people hear about the magnets is whether my head sticks to the refrigerator.

(LAUGHTER)

KNILL: No, it does not.

(LAUGHTER)

KNILL: I know this because I tried.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: Before we talk more about your implant, just tell us a little bit more about what it was like growing up deaf.

KNILL: It really wasn't that different. I mean, I didn't have anything to compare it against. I was raised orally. The oral method is basically lip reading and speaking versus signing and not using speech at all. And it was very controversial back then because deaf children were forced to be raised orally.

And I think over time, people have come into the perspective of total communication of, you know, letting kids sign as well as speak, or maybe they won't speak at all. It's just an individual type of thing with what a kid is comfortable with and really how much hearing you have and how were you raised. Were you raised in a deaf family? - which I was not. I'm not culturally deaf, but there are many deaf kids who were. And sign language is their primary - their first language.

But for me, I am a very, very good lip reader. I probably functioned more like a hard of hearing person, even though on paper, the scores were just horrible. I mean, they were profoundly deaf. And my family was very - it wasn't something we ever talked about.

ZOMORODI: Really?

KNILL: I don't think I ever once had a conversation with my parents about hearing loss. It was just what we did. It was just what was there. It was what it was. And we just went on with life.

ZOMORODI: How would you describe your relationship with sound growing up? I feel like that would be a really weird question to ask someone with typical hearing capabilities. But as someone who had atypical hearing capabilities, do you think that you related to sound differently?

KNILL: I do. I did, and I do. I would say I'm neutral on sound. I think that people with - people - I don't dislike sound. But I do think that people who would be considered to be hearing people are very pro-sound. And they romanticize it and have very complex emotions about sound. And I'm neutral. I personally couldn't care less whether I experienced the world through audio or visual. Frankly, I prefer visual because that's just less work for me. And I'm used to that. That's normal to me. So I really - I am just neutral on the concept of sound. I am anti-noise.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KNILL: But sound in general is - it's not something that I feel a longing for or really care about in any way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KNILL: 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 think that sense of belonging is what ultimately connects our stories, and mine felt incomplete.

When cochlear implants first got going back in the '80s, the operation was Frankenstein-monster scary. By 2001, the procedure had evolved considerably, but it still wiped out any natural hearing that you had. The success rate then for speech comprehension was low, maybe 50%. So if it didn't work, you couldn't go back.

At that time, implants were also controversial in the deaf culture. Basically, it was considered the equivalent of changing the color of your skin. I held off for a while, but my hearing was going downhill fast, and hearing aids were no longer helping. So in 2003, I made the tough decision to have the cochlear implant. I just needed to stop that soul-sucking cycle of loss, regardless of whether the operation worked, and I really didn't think that it would. I saw it as one last box to check off before I made the transition to being completely deaf, which a part of me wanted.

ZOMORODI: Can you explain that?

KNILL: You know, for me, it wasn't so much about hearing, but it was about authenticity. I felt like I was getting to the point where, you know, my hearing loss really had eroded so much. And to be honest, it was much easier to live as a deaf person, at least at my job. I felt I was more my authentic self as I stopped using the voice telephone and stopped having to work so hard to hear. The possibility of being completely deaf was not threatening. It wasn't, again, anti-hearing or not wanting it to work, but it was just the idea that I could be myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KNILL: 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.

ZOMORODI: I'm so intrigued by this idea that you sometimes prefer to be in complete silence. And I know you can switch your device off whenever you want, right?

KNILL: Yes, that's the beauty of it. And I turn it off a lot. I call it being unplugged. And it's something I look forward to. And I even crave it like an addiction to chocolate. I keep it on for work and when I go out. But my favorite part of the day is turning it off at home and just enjoying the silence. And again, when I travel, you know, there's always a screaming baby on the plane, and I would turn it off for that. Or if the work is too noisy when we were at the office, I would turn it off for that, and I would put a little sign in front of my desk that just said unplugged so that people would know.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KNILL: And it's the best of both worlds, I think.

ZOMORODI: In a moment, we'll hear more from Rebecca Knill on her cochlear implant and why she says the way people perceive deafness is outdated. On the show today, ideas about Sound and Silence. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm a Manoush Zomorodi. And just before the break, we were hearing from Rebecca Knill on her decision to get a cochlear implant. And Rebecca says that today, her device allows her to do just about anything a hearing person can, with a few added benefits.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KNILL: With the cochlear implant, I can stream music from my iPod into my head without earbuds. Recently, I went to a friend's long, tedious concert. And unknown to anyone else, I listened to the Beatles for three hours instead.

(APPLAUSE)

KNILL: Technology has come so far so fast. The biggest obstacle I face as a deaf person is no longer a physical barrier. 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.

You might know a play, later a movie, called "Children Of A Lesser God" by Mark Medoff. That play, that title actually comes from a poem by Alfred Tennyson. And I interpret both the play and title to say that 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.

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. That tendency to make assumptions about people based on ability comes out in sentences like, you're so special, I couldn't live like that, or thank God that's not me.

ZOMORODI: Rebecca, you talk about how people presume that someone like you won't have a full life without being able to hear. And I can imagine that that's pretty upsetting to you.

KNILL: Right. But it's true. People do make that assumption. And, you know, it kind of annoys me, I have to say, because I think it betrays a little bit of a sense of entitlement that their state of being was better than mine. The reality is every function in life can be performed multiple ways, but people get very narrow-minded.

I think 40 to even 20 years ago, people had a very specific impression of deafness as being, you know, a lesser way of life, being maybe not as smart, not having opportunities. When you talk to parents who have newborns who are deaf, the first thought is, oh, my child won't have any opportunities. And all that - none of that is true anymore because you have so much technology that can bridge those gaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KNILL: So I am on a mission now. As a consumer of technology, I want 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. Apple did this recently. On my iPhone, it automatically displays a visual transcript of my voicemail right next to the audio button. I couldn't turn it off even if I wanted to. You know what else? Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime no longer say closed-captioned for the hearing impaired. They say subtitles on or off, with a list of languages underneath, including English. Technology has come so far. Our mindset just needs to catch up. Resistance is futile.

(LAUGHTER)

KNILL: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That's Rebecca Knill. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

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