Cochlear Implant Users Face Grim Future Without Repair or Upgrades

The price of abandoning medical devices is profound

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 in India. Those who qualify for the program include migrants and daily wage earners with limited financial resources. Without access to this program, the prospects of participants gaining access to the medical procedure and device to develop their hearing would be highly unlikely.

Yet, while the program initially was praised for its success for creating more access to hearing-related devices, it is now reaching a new phase as the devices age. After four years of using the implant, Vikas’ parents received letters and phone calls from the implant’s manufacturer informing them that the “basic” model they had been using was becoming obsolete and would no longer be serviced by the company.

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The family would have to purchase a new device, described as a “compulsory upgrade.” Without the means to upgrade their models, or the ability to extend the lives of their existing implants because of restrictions on repair, families are being 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.

Those without the money to purchase this upgrade (presumably the majority of those who participate in this program for low-income earners) are left with two options: maintain their current devices 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.

With medical implants on the rise, there are growing tensions between societies’ collective wellbeing 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.

As those examples show, without support from manufacturers and divestment by governments, informal networks and online communities that share information and even parts can enable people to support themselves. This silver lining is mutual aid, a telling story of what could be possible if we prioritize care over consumption.

Data suggests families could save more than $300 a year if devices were easier to repair.

Report: Repair could save Americans $50 billion annually

What’s the cost of doing nothing about restrictions on repairing our personal electronics, appliances and other goods? About $50 billion a year, according to a new report out from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

The report by U.S. PIRG Education Fund entitled “Repair Saves Families Big II” estimates that the average U.S. household could save approximately $382 per year by repairing its electronics as opposed to replacing them. That adds up to a total annual savings of about $49.6 billion across the country.

The report is an update to research released two years ago that found that American households spend approximately $1,480 annually purchasing new electronic products like appliances, phones, and computers. The latest data, compiled in 2021, shows that spending rose 19% in those two years, and that the average household spent $1,767 purchasing new electronic products per year.

The report estimates that repair services that repair could reduce household spending on electronics and appliances by 21.6 percent, which would save an average family approximately $382 per year. Multipled across 129 million U.S. households, that adds up to savings across the economy of $49.6 billion annually, while making communities more resilient.

Read the full report here.

Other News

Taxing corporations to subsidize repairs is a new policy coming from France. Laetitia Vasseur, founder of Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP), the French organization that developed the French Repairability Index, is on a mission 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 a mini-tax on corporations 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.

Inside Samsung’s massive phone repair facility a giant warehouse in Texas could be key in Samsung’s efforts to change that. At its repair facility in Irving, where about 14,500 gadgets arrive for repair per month, Samsung does more than disassemble dysfunctional devices. It dissects the repair process, too, taking in learnings that can be applied to future product designs and procedures. 

In an increasingly corporate industry, Ohio farmers seek the ‘right to repair’ more than a dozen states are discussing legislation about the ‘right to repair.’

Colorado and New York have already passed laws guaranteeing that right, but advocates for Ohio farmers say agricultural corporations hold so much power that a similar law is unlikely to come to fruition here. They say that’s not only frustrating for Ohio’s farmers, but costly.

Nintendo will repair all defective Joy-Cons after the warranty period -few issues have reached a greater scope in Nintendo Switch’s six-plus-year existence as drift defects in Joy-Cons, which involves the joysticks moving independently of each other. 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 $125m in avoided disposal costs, avoided purchases and reduced transportation costs. The IWE aims to reduce waste going to landfill.

A professor went an entire year without buying anything new. Western University professor Alissa Centivany completed her own planned obsolescence challenge for a whole year—and why isn’t that the norm?

Fast fashion greenwashing might be working. Retailers such as Shein, H&M and Zara are being criticized for their impact on the environment and on workers, but it is not clear that people are actually changing their shopping habits. Reports suggest shoppers may be concerned about the environment, but there is little quantitative evidence that markets are shifting to more sustainable products. Meanwhile, Shein is proving hugely popular with Gen Z consumers, many of whom are concerned about climate change, but who may also believe these companies are acting sustainably.

We consume more electronics than we can reuse and recycle. Specifically, 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 are also key for taking into account the ease of disassembly, modularity, and material choices to keep minerals in a circular loop.

High-end jewelry using upcycled e-waste with gold and precious gems is the newest line of luxury accessories by brand Oushaba.


New cybersecurity guidelines for medical devices have been implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which requires that manufacturers of cyber devices submit information to the FDA to ensure that they meet cybersecurity requirements. This is good news since manufacturers often use cybersecurity as a pretense for restricting repair. Under the FDA’s new guidance, manufacturers must now:

Submit a plan to monitor, identify, and address post-market cybersecurity vulnerabilities and exploits, including coordinated vulnerability disclosure and related procedures.

Design, develop, and maintain processes and procedures to provide reasonable assurance that the device and related systems are secure.

Provide a software bill of materials, including commercial, open-source, and off-the-shelf software components.

Comply with any other requirements that the FDA may require through regulation to demonstrate reasonable assurance that the device related to device security.

Video: It’s “Almost Impossible” to Fix iPhone 14

Fight to Repair is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.