Why ‘Sound of Metal’ makes this hard-of-hearing audiologist ‘uncomfortable’

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, 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.

Watch the above video for more information on how cochlear implants, and their controversy, play a role in the film.

Video Transcript

- Well, there are implants that bypass the cochlear.

- You said implants?

- Yes.

- Those work?

- People with severe hearing loss or complete deafness, yes, they help.

- My name is Dr. Michelle Hu. I'm a pediatric audiologist in San Diego, California, and I also grew up with hearing loss myself. I have bilateral cochlear implants. I wasn't diagnosed with my hearing loss until I was about three years old. I woke up one morning, and I told my mom I couldn't hear. By the time I was 10 years old, I had a profound hearing loss in both ears. I miss a lot of information, even with the most powerful of hearing aids. A cochlear implant is just another option for that type of hearing loss.


DR. MICHELLE HU: There are movies-- there are shows out there, but they portray hearing loss as a disability. I appreciate this movie "Sound of Metal." It portrays hearing loss as a culture. When you look at the difficulty that Ruben's character has with adjusting to that and what the deaf community wants of him is to embrace the culture. Health care professionals with cochlear implants just want him to know that it's an option for him to have should he want to choose that.

For me, I was like, I need a cochlear implant. I know that it's going to give me access to sound and speech because I didn't know sign language. I wasn't able to see the possibility of being a speaking and hearing part of the world. At my cochlear implant activation, the sound was very different. With a hearing aid, you can almost feel the sound on the skin in your ear because amplified so loudly, but with a cochlear implant, the sound is electrical impulses on your nerve. I didn't hear it, or I didn't feel it, and that was my perception of sound before cochlear implants. It's a very metallic and robotic sounding at first. The movie got it spot on. The sound effects and the way they portrayed a cochlear implant activation sound was amazing. It was great.

- How about now? How's the sound?

- It's bad. It's um, bad.

DR.MICHELLE HU: The thing about cochlear implants is you want to start soft. It's kind of like turning the lights on in the bathroom in the middle of the night or when you step back into a car and you were playing with stereo full blast, you don't want to do that. You want to ease them into the sound so that your brain and the patient can get used to that new stimulus. The movie didn't portray Ruben, giving Ruben time to get used to things. Sure, he could understand speech, but you're going to have difficulty in noisy situations like he did at the party.


A cochlear implant is not a cure. It's not a quick fix. It's an invasive surgery that needs to have a lot of different variables considered. I wouldn't have recommended a cochlear implant for him in the state that he was.

- So, in your current state, at this time, I'm going to have to ask you to pack up your bags today, and find another place to be open.

DR. MICHELLE HU: That last scene really implied that you can't be here because you've got a cochlear implant. Clinically, I'm deaf. I always chose hard of hearing because the deaf community rejected me. They saw me wearing hearing AIDS and using spoken language. I can't speak for the deaf community because I didn't really grow up in one, but I can see why they see cochlear implants as a threat to their community or their culture. I felt uncomfortable with how they were portraying audiology, hearing technology and devices.

It made me sad because a few of my followers actually reached out to me. They have their cochlear implant surgery scheduled, and they actually told me, I'm scared to get my device now. Not because they were unsure that it would work, but they were sad and nervous that they would be as upset as Ruben was getting his cochlear implant or that they would be ashamed. They made audiology and hearing health care seem very outdated. They missed the ball on a lot of things hearing and audiology-wise. But I respect and appreciate the commitment that Riz Ahmed gave to really learning the depth of his role. I didn't grow up around deaf community or deaf culture, so I don't know. I kind of feel like he dove into it more than I have ever been.