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Keynote Address: The Rest of the Artinian Story

By Cheryl Heppner, 6/18/11  

The hot topic at this convention on Thursday evening and Friday morning was Christopher Artinian’s powerful keynote address at the Opening Session. It was l and intensely moving and it resonated with so many of us. I’d always wanted to know “the rest of the story” after seeing a film about this family a decade ago, and I got my wish with cherries on top.

Barbara Kelley, HLAA Deputy Executive Director, introduced Chris Artinian. He is the head of the largest group of upscale restaurants as President and CEO of Morton’s Restaurant Group, Inc. In the audience with him were a large contingent of Morton employees.

The saga of how Chris came to be the keynote speaker started with a baseball game. Barbara’s son was on a team and she got to chatting with a Morton employee named Mike whose son also was playing. He saw brochures of the Walk4Hearing that she’d placed on a table and got to talking of his family experiences with hearing loss. Later he sent her contact information for Chris.

Chris, whose son and others in his family accompanied him for the evening, began his address by saying he’s not in his element with public speaking and doesn’t do it often. He told us the thing that has resonated with him throughout his career is that the restaurant business is all about people, and he said he got seven of them to add to the Chicago Walk4Hearing with his family. This, of course, drew a very hearty round of applause.

As a hearing child who grew up around deafness, Chris and said talking about his journey is an emotional thing at times. His son, Peter, received a cochlear implant at 11 months of age, back at a time when cochlear implants were hotly debated by the Deaf community. There are generations of deaf people in the Artinian family, and they felt betrayed or not respected when he told them he and his wife wanted to have Peter implanted. His story was made famous when it was captured on film, with scenes of the visits to check out option and the heated and painful discussions with his family, for whom communication through American Sign Language was a long and cherished tradition.

“Even though I’m hearing, I feel I am a product of Deaf culture,” Chris said. He has classic values about deafness and said he does not believe deafness is a condition that needs to be fixed. Chris said his son loves his deaf roots as much as Chris cherishes them.

Deaf culture, Chris explained, puts more value on the group than the individual, and it was a group long before Facebook and Twitter which valued its sense of community. Everyone stayed connected and supported each other.

He believes Deaf culture has evolved since Peter was implanted 11 years ago. He used to have strangers stop him or his wife and make angry remarks, treating him as a traitor who had betrayed them. They felt he did not accept his son’s deafness and that meant he also did not accept deaf people. Yet he was and still is proud of his history. His first language was sign language, his friends were deaf, and when he visited his brothers in college their friends didn’t know he was hearing. He believes the values he learned from them helped him become successful.

The film about his saga was, he thinks, a microscope of the Deaf community at the time, when cochlear implants were considered to be the death of Deaf culture. They were new technology that came along, made a dramatic difference, and reshaped education for deaf children.

“It was the right choice for us,” Chris said, “But this doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.” In making the decision about whether to do the implant, he tried to keep his focus on his right to choose and asked deaf people to keep an open mind. The cochlear implant, he told them, was just a tool. It required a lot of work and rehabilitation, and Peter was still deaf.

This approach worked for Chris and his family. He urged us to do what helped them -- educate ourselves, keep an open mind, and stay objective. He believes that things have changed during the past 11 years, and that in this environment Deaf culture will continue to evolve and stay strong.

Peter joined Chris onstage to a great round of applause and remained while Chris completed his address.

Peter’s choices continue to inspire Chris, who recalled how, after receiving his cochlear implant, Peter listened so intently. Peter was such a workaholic with his strong desire to constantly take in sound that he asked for a second cochlear implant. On Peter’s first day of school, Chris was apprehensive about how he would fare in a class with hearing children. That concern was shared with the teacher. Later she told him that she didn’t know why he was so worried, because Peter was the first child to put a hand up when she asked the children who would like to talk about summer experiences. And, she said, Peter told wonderful stories.

“I can’t tell you how many birthdays Peter asked for a cake in the shape of a cochlear implant,” Chris said with a laugh. However, he noted that Peter’s cochlear implant journey hasn’t always been smooth; he had two failures of the implant in the original ear and was reimplanted.

Now Peter’s goal is to attend college. He wants to be an airline pilot and has pushed Chris to let him have flying lessons. His other career choice is to become a cochlear implant surgeon.

Chris loves to be able to live in both worlds seamlessly. When he’s tired of something he just shuts down his cochlear implants and chills in full deafness. Grandma and Grandpa Artinian have come around. Initially afraid that he wouldn’t accept his deafness, they now say the implant was the right decision and are very proud of him and proud to be with him. Several other grandchildren now have cochlear implants.

“Peter knows he’s deaf, but doesn’t let it define him,” Chris said.


Chris Artinian
CEO Morton's Restaurant

For more information about Chris Artinian's "Sound and Fury" click here.