This article includes spoilers for Sound of Metal.
Sound of Metal has been widely recognized as one of the best movies of 2020 and has received praise both for its portrayal of deafness and Deaf culture, and for Riz Ahmed’s performance as Ruben Stone (he was just awarded Best Actor by the National Board of Review), a drummer and recovering addict who suddenly loses his hearing.
But pediatric audiologist Michelle Hu had mixed feelings about the film’s message. “It was a good production but they [dropped] the ball on a lot of things, hearing and audiology-wise,” she tells Yahoo Life. (Note: Hu is cousin to the author of this article).
Hu was diagnosed with hearing loss at the age of 3, and by the time she was 10 had “profound hearing loss in both ears.” She wore hearing aids for most of her life and in 2007, while she was in graduate school for audiology, received her first cochlear implant for her left ear. Three years later, she had a cochlear implant for her right ear as well.
“How was I going to function in a hearing world?” she said of her decision to get implants. “I felt like I needed sound.”
In Sound of Metal, that sentiment is shared by Ruben, who seeks to receive cochlear implants in an attempt to revive his hearing. But his hopes for total restoration are shattered during his activation, the process during which cochlear implants are turned on. While sound does miraculously puncture his silence, it’s harshly metallic and painfully warped. When the audiologist speaks to him, it’s unintelligible. Ruben’s face says it all: This is not what he expected.
“The sound effects and the way they portrayed a cochlear activation was amazing,” Hu said, adding, “that was very similar to my own experience.”
She recalls of her own activation, “With a hearing aid, you can almost feel the sound on the skin in your ear because it's amplified so loudly, but with a cochlear implant, the sound is electrical impulses on your nerves.”
A cochlear implant essentially recreates hearing by bypassing the normal process — vibrations in the eardrum transfer to the cochlea, which stimulates nerves that communicate to the brain — and instead directly stimulating the cochlear nerves.
But Hu cautions that getting an implant is “not a cure.” She explains, “It’s not a quick fix. It’s an invasive surgery that needs to have a lot of different variables considered,” adding, “I wouldn't have recommended a cochlear implant for [Ruben] in the state that he was.”
The film comes to a head when Ruben, after his implant surgery, returns to the Deaf community where he’s been living with other Deaf recovering addicts. The leader of the community, Joe (Paul Raci), turns Ruben away, explaining through tears that his procedure was a kind of betrayal. “Being deaf is not a handicap, not something to fix,” Joe says, and signs, to him.
“They really implied that just because [Ruben] got a cochlear implant, he's not welcome in the community anymore,” Hu said. “And that kind of made me feel uncomfortable.”
This feeling of exclusion is something Hu, who grew up among a hearing family, is familiar with. “Clinically I'm deaf,” she says. “I always chose ‘hard of hearing’ because the Deaf community rejected me. They saw me wearing hearing aids and I never felt like I could be a part of their culture.”
Hearing devices, specifically cochlear implants, are controversial among some in the Deaf community as they, like Raci’s character, see it as an unnecessary correction. When Ahmed recently spoke to Yahoo Entertainment, he had a similar perspective, saying, “the big takeaway for me was that deafness isn’t for many people a disability, it's a world.”
But the harsh rejection shown by Raci’s character isn’t a widely held opinion. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has a section on its website devoted to its position on cochlear implants. They write, “NAD welcomes all individuals regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, cultural orientation, mode of communication, preferred language use, hearing status, educational background, and use of technologies.” However, they also note that “Cochlear implants are not appropriate for all deaf and hard of hearing children and adults.”
In the final act of Sound of Metal, Ruben travels to Belgium in an attempt to rekindle things with his estranged girlfriend. At a party, we hear how Ruben experiences a musical performance: Each note rings out jaggedly, distorted through walls of horrifying static. When applause comes, Ruben appears in pain.
Hu agrees that being in a noisy situation so soon after an activation would cause significant discomfort. That’s because getting used to a cochlear implant takes “time, patience, and practice,” she says. “You want to start soft.”
She compares Ruben’s hearing at the party to “when you step back into a car and you were playing the stereo full blast — you don't want to do that.” The movie, she points out, doesn’t show a significant passage of time after the activation where his hearing might improve.
Hu has an Instagram account through which she shares her journey as an audiologist and hard of hearing mother. After Sound of Metal was released, the movie and its portrayal of cochlear implants was a buzzy subject among her followers. “It made me sad because a few of my followers reached out to me and they actually told me, ‘I’m scared to get my [cochlear implant] now,’” she says. “Not because they were unsure that it would work, but they were sad and nervous that they would be as upset as Ruben was… or that they would be ashamed.”
While the film ends on an uncertain note regarding Ruben’s future, it seems more certain in its perception of hearing devices. After suffering through the chaos of noise from his implants, Ruben walks through a busy park, sits on a bench, and takes them off. Based on his expression, it seems like he’s finally found peace in the silence.
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