About nine weeks ago, a 29-year-old deaf woman heard her voice for the first time. She broke into tears—”I don’t want to hear myself cry”—before laughing at her husband, who filmed her.
“My laughter sounds loud.”
Since the video’s upload onto YouTube on September 26, Sarah Churman’s first experience with her Esteem hearing aid from Envoy Medical has gone viral, with over 5 million people worldwide sharing in her happiness. Many Internet commenters admitted they cried too. Others were skeptical.
Just before the weekend (and before the video was linked on the front page of social news site reddit), “29 years old and hearing myself for the 1st time!” sat at a couple hundred thousand views.
But on Friday, the video was picked up by numerous blogs, featured on the Huffington Post, and the husband and wife were even interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer on the Today Show on Monday. When speaking of his hesitation to put the video online, Sloan Churman, Sarah’s husband, told Lauer:
“I wouldn’t have done it, because this was intimate for us; this was like getting married or having a child. I mean, seriously.”
Sarah Churman went on to comment on her happiness at being able to hear her daughters, and “the fear of the unknown” that awaited her once the device was turned on.
All a very touching story. Except reddit, being the skeptical group of Internet users that they are, couldn’t let Churman’s video rest as the miracle it was described as without a healthy debate.
Redditors took to aim at the video’s description — “I was born deaf” — which they found to be misleading. Churman said in the Today Show interview that she was able to hear before she was fitted with an Esteem hearing implant from Envoy Medical. (Churman had hearing aids since she was a child.) But her hearing was very muffled and murky. Redditors also maintained if she truly could not hear herself, she wouldn’t be able to talk as smoothly, linking to another video of a deaf woman hearing for the first time.
“She’s not actually completely deaf as the video title and description implies; she has a hearing (not cochlear) implant which provides improved auditory input compared to a hearing aid… It’s extremely likely that she could hear herself and others without hearing aids, and probably did fairly well with hearing aids considering how easily she can understand her audiologist. If she were truly completely deaf and hearing her voice for the first time, she would have absolutely no clue what she was listening to” wrote swinejihad on a reddit thread about the video.
Redditor jellyfishjosh defended Churman against redditors similar to swinejihad in the more popular thread on the video:
“Deaf people are taught to speak by reproducing the sounds with their mouths based on the vibrations, air, and articulations of the mouth, tongue, and teeth rather than simply by listening. Most deaf people can speak, but their voices have a distinct “muffled” quality about them.”
Is it all a case of semantics? Does it really matter if she only heard a little bit, as opposed to not at all?
In the accompanying article with the Good Morning America interview video, Churman’s hearing ability was described as if she “were under water.” The same article closes with an assessment from the Today Show’s medical correspondent, Dr. Nancy Snyderman. Snyderman is paraphrased as saying “the fact that Sarah has an accent and can enunciate words fairly clearly shows she has had some hearing ability.”
(Churman is from Texas, and has a bit of a Texan accent.)
Churman has taken to answering similar questions through YouTube comments on her video.
“My whole life I’ve been complimented on how well I speak. I don’t really have an answer for you other than I have always had a passion for reading, grammar, and English.”
“My hearing loss was/is considered severe to profound. I’ve worked very hard to be able to interact and blend in… only thing I can say is ‘God is good.””
Churman was not available for comment.