While browsing Hulu.com the other day, I caught a glimpse (on the site’s scrolling image bar) of what looked like a cochlear implant attached to the head of a contestant on American Gladiators. Because I have an ongoing interest in how deafness and cochlear implants are visually and discursively constructed in the media, I located the full episode (dated May 26, 2008) and went in for a closer look. (Update 6/16/08: This episode has been removed from Hulu.com.)

During the show’s introduction (specifically 00:01:37-00:01:55), the contestant’s deafness is framed as a liability:

[Announcer] Tonight, four more contenders take their first steps towards that goal.
But for one of them, the challenge is even bigger.
[Contestant] “Well, I was born deaf. Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do something.” [Contestant screams.]
[Announcer] He’ll be in a fierce battle with a fired up grocery store owner.
[Grocery store owner] ”Let’s go!”

What’s going on here? Why does being deaf on this game show present a “bigger challenge” than being able to hear? From what I’ve seen of the show (I haven’t seen much, but I’ve seen enough), I can’t recall or imagine an example in which a contestant’s ability to hear or speak played a significant role in the game’s outcome. Contestants simply don’t need to hear in order to do well, and in fact not being able to hear may actually be an advantage in this context because deaf contestants may be less distracted by trash-talking gladiators or boisterous audiences.

Does competence in a series of purely physical, individual challenges really depend on being able to hear? I doubt it. Does the grocery store owner really have a smaller challenge because he can hear? Again, I doubt it. Does one need to be able to hear in order to train for an athletic competition? What an absurd question. Why is the grocery store owner identified by his (mundane) profession and the other contestant by his deafness?

I hesitate to draw hasty conclusions from eighteen seconds of video. So I’ll settle for being troubled by the way in which deafness seems to be caught up once again in a narrative of “overcoming” the perpetual “burden” of disability. As TV viewers, we are being asked to reaffirm a cluster of beliefs about deafness — and to do so automatically. At the center of this ideological cluster is the implied notion that, even when being able to hear offers no clear advantage to participants, deafness is still a disadvantage. Even when deafness may potentially offer a small advantage (or at least level the playing field), deafness is still a disadvantage.

I still need to watch the rest of the episode — I’d like to see whether the cochlear implant receives comment — but that’s my initial reaction to the contestant’s initial introduction.