Cochlear Implant Users Face Grim Future Without Repair or Upgrades

Cochlear Implant Users Face Grim Future Without Repair or Upgrades

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Vikas is a child living in India who was born deaf. At age four, he received both surgery and a cochlear implant as part of a government program. Those who qualify for the program include migrants and daily wage earners with limited financial resources. Without access to this program, the participants would be unlikely to gain access to the medical procedure or the device to develop their hearing.

The program has been praised for enabling more access to hearing-related devices, but unfortunately for its beneficiaries, it is now reaching a new phase as the devices age. After four years with the implant, the manufacturer informed Vikas’ parents that the “basic” model they had been using was becoming obsolete and would no longer be serviced by the company.

Device Page

Cochlear Implant

Cochlear implants are small devices that enable hearing for audibly-impaired individuals and are different from hearing aids.

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The family would have to purchase a new device, described as a “compulsory upgrade.” Without the means for such an upgrade, and thanks to repair restrictions on existing implants, families are left to face the reality of their children losing their hearing. Dr. Michele Friedner, a scholar studying the intersection of anthropology, technology, and disability says:

Cochlear implants cannot be tinkered with or repaired outside of the official cochlear implant corporation facilities, making people completely dependent on the device makers.

Dr. Michele Friedner

Those without the money to purchase this upgrade (those who participate in this program are low-income earners, after all) are left with two options: maintain their current devices without any help from the manufacturer or expect to lose their hearing.

Planned Abandonment, Not Obsolescence

Put simply—not all obsolescence is the same. The ability to repair your cell phone and your cochlear implant have drastically different effects on your life. Friedner uses the term planned abandonment in place of planned obsolescence to better capture the stakes at hand for the deep spiritual and physical loss that comes with losing one of your senses—particularly when a government or company that is fully capable of allowing that support to continue deems it unworthy of the costs associated. Friedner continues:

[Coclear implant users] had become dependent on a single medical device—and by extension, on an entire multinational corporate system whose financial goals seem to contradict companies’ aims to support clients’ hearing over their lifetimes.

Dr. Michele Friedner

With medical implants on the rise, there are growing tensions between societies’ collective well-being and the priorities (and profits) of medical device makers. This same tension was visible during the pandemic, when manufacturer restrictions on servicing and repairing respirators led to a movement to crowdsource service and repair information for the devices. And hackers have helped defeat manufacturer-imposed restrictions on CPAP machines to give patients more access to sleep data and more control over their condition.

Device Page


Repair information for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, (CPAP) machines; used for the treatment of breathing problems like sleep apnea.

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When manufacturers and governments remove support, informal networks and online communities can enable people to support themselves, with shared information and even parts. This silver lining is mutual aid, a telling story of what could be possible if we prioritize care over consumption. But should we leave the support of society to the few intrepid hackers willing to risk legal action? The universal right to repair is more necessary than ever.

Other News

  • Inside Samsung’s massive phone repair facility: About 14,500 gadgets per month arrive for repair at Samsung’s repair facility in Irving, Texas. Samsung does more than disassemble dysfunctional devices; it also dissects the repair process, too, taking in learnings that can be applied to future product designs and procedures. 
  • Taxing corporations to subsidize repairs: A new policy coming from France, highlighted by Laetitia Vasseur, founder of Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP), the French organization that developed the French Repairability Index, is using “mini-taxes” on corporations to end planned obsolescence. Vasseur says planned obsolescence comes in many forms including technical, software, and cultural or psychological—and her organization is also working to use these taxes to finance France’s Repair Fund (which was launched in December 2022) to subsidize the cost of repairing out-of-warranty goods.
  • ‘Right to repair’ bill advances in Oregon Legislature: In an op-ed in The Portland Tribune, Oregon Sen. Janeen Sollman made the case for Senate Bill 542, known as the “right to repair” bill. Now the right to repair bill has been voted out of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, which Sollman chairs.
  • Ohio farmers struggle under increasingly monolithic industry: Colorado and New York have already passed right to repair laws, and 27 states are considering some legislation right now—but advocates for Ohio farmers say agricultural corporations hold so much power that a similar law is unlikely to come to fruition for the state. They say that’s not only frustrating for Ohio’s farmers, but costly as well.
  • Nintendo will repair all defective Joy-Cons in EU: Few issues have reached a greater scope in Nintendo Switch’s six-year existence as drift defects in Joy-Cons, which involves the joysticks moving without input, caused by plastic deformation, sensor wear, and spring fatigue. Now Nintendo has agreed to provide free repair for all Joy-Con affected by drift problems in all EU countries.
  • 4.3 million tons of waste have been diverted by the The Iowa Waste Exchange (IWE) since it was established in 1990. The IWE works with businesses and institutions to reduce, reuse, recycle, and renew materials, saving over $125 million in reduced transportation costs, and avoided disposal and purchasing costs. All while reducing landfill waste.
  • Fast fashion greenwashing might be working: Retailers such as Shein, H&M, and Zara are being criticized for their impact on workers and the environment, but it is not clear if people are actually changing their shopping habits. Meanwhile, Shein is proving hugely popular with Gen Z consumers, a demographic typically concerned about climate change, they may also believe these companies are acting sustainably. Score one more for greenwashing.
  • More electronics are consumed than we can reuse and recycle: The UK’s recycling and collection system for e-waste, established in 2007, has failed to keep pace with the fast-evolving technology sector. While the producers pay for e-waste collection and recycling, the amount of e-waste collected has remained relatively stable, and the system doesn’t account for informal reuse of electronics. Design for reuse is also key for taking into account the ease of disassembly, modularity, and material choices to keep minerals in a circular loop.
  • Luxury jewelry uses upcycled e-waste: Gold, precious gems, and e-waste are being incorporated into the newest line of luxury accessories by brand Oushaba.
  • New cybersecurity guidelines for medical devices: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now requiring that manufacturers of cyber devices submit information to the FDA to ensure that they meet cybersecurity requirements. Good news, as cybersecurity is often a pretense for restricting repair. Under the FDA’s new guidance, manufacturers must now:
    1. Submit a plan to monitor, identify, and address post-market cybersecurity vulnerabilities and exploits
    2. Maintain processes to provide reasonable assurance that the device and related systems are secure.
    3. Provide a software bill of materials for devices.
    4. Comply with any other requirements that the FDA may require through regulation.