Dear Readers

If you haven’t heard, From the Hands of Quacks has a new home: . So please update your bookmarks and don’t forget to subscribe to receive notifications of new posts via email. Old posts are still live on the original blog and on the new website. Sorry for the confusion–the blog has grown and having graduated with my PhD, I thought it’d be best to have separate websites for my blog and bio.

I’m always grateful to all of you for following along and keeping me company on this writing journey. So, thank you x


Technology & Deafness

What can the history of technology tell us about the lived experiences and cultural history of the hearing impaired?

From: John Reynders & Co., Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Surgical Instruments (New York).
From: John Reynders & Co., Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Surgical Instruments (New York, 1889).

During the nineteenth century, acoustic aids became ubiquitous objects, varying in design, form, and amplification. The “Deafness in Disguise” exhibit at the Bernard Becker Medical Library brilliantly narrates the multitude of aids that were available for increasing hearing amplification, everything from conversation tubes, ear trumpets, walking sticks, and domestic objects. While these devices were helpful for individuals with residual hearing, evaluating these aids tells us how technological into deafness were imagined as an appropriate solution for integrating the deaf into hearing society. Aids that masked deafness and allowed the deaf to hear and speak were highly marketable items, as were those that incorporated the marvels of science and electricity. Even the exclusion of “non-technologies,” or non-acoustic aids for hearing that were banished due to their quackery imprint warrants a broader analytical framework for understanding the range of medical therapeutics available for historical actors. The history of technologies that were never produces can also tell us something about the intentions an motivations guiding how makers and users engaged in larger systems of medico-technological developments for hearing loss.[1]

Looking at the materiality of acoustic aids can provide us with insight into design, patenting, and manufacture, as well as how these aids inscribed particular cultural ideologies of “normalcy,” or wavered between the binary between orthodox and unorthodox medical practice—i.e. defining how these aids incorporated elements of “quackery” and how these elements can be categorized. Equally revealing is how the material culture of acoustic aids can afford us clues into how users employed these devices to navigate social relations. Instead of funneling these perceptions through a hearing worldview, examining technologies for deafness through user interaction allows us to assess how technologies created autonomy for deaf users, or provided agency over their own bodies. As Stuart Blume points out in The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness (Rutgers University Press, 2009), users/patients often make adjustments to the device(s) worn on their bodies, even if under surveillance by a medical practitioner, to bring the technology “into better alignment with their readings of their own bodies, with how they want to live, or with the image they want to project.”

How did technologies of deafness—acoustic aids, assistive devices, communication technologies—construct the daily lives of deaf persons in history? In Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture (New York University Press, 2012), R.A.R. Edwards outlines an 1869 article published in the periodical Deaf Mutes’ Friend that notified readers of an “alarm continuance:” a cord attached to the alarm wheel of a clock to drop a pillow to the sleeping face of a deaf person. The EveryBody virtual exhibit by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History additionally narrates how technology has played a distinctive role in the lives of people with disabilities, either through exclusion from mainstream society (as with the case of the telephone for deaf users), or through inclusion (new communication technologies). Even “lag time between the introduction of a technology, whether movies, telephones, trains, planes, automobiles, or ATMs, and its accessibility created discrimination, exclusion, and new barriers.”

Moving away from the medicalized framework of deafness can also unravel the threads of deaf experience in history. Last month I delivered a guest lecture for Mary Beth Kitzel’s “Deafness and Technology” course at Rochester Institute of Technology. Through an open and engaging conversation with a wonderful group of students, we focused on two primary topics of evaluating the history of deafness technologies: (1) on what counts as “quackery” and how this construction affects our historical understanding of the medio-technological options for amplifying hearing loss, and (2) on user autonomy and agency, particularly how technology can express the “personhood” of deaf individuals. I gave examples of decoration on hearing aids, including color, art, and engraving that drew attention to the aid rather than concealing it, and other historical cases of user adjustments for proper fit. I even pointed out the way users care for their technologies—whether it’s carrying it in a specially crafted pouch or ensuring there was a safe place to place the device on the nightstand—but one student captured the sentiment quite brilliantly, explaining personhood and modification of technology as exemplified on the iPhone. The apps chosen, their layout, the background wallpaper, the ringtone, the case, and so on, are all examples of how we personalize this technology to fit to our own needs and interactions with it. As the student remarked, and I’m paraphrasing here: “if you gave me your iPhone, I might not want it, because it’s not mine, not the way I set it up to be.”

As Mary Beth explained to me, the students in the course were assigned to research historical and modern technology devices used by deaf people to support their daily living. Moving away from medical technologies, the students focused on domestic devices, education technology, personal devices, social media/apps, and telecommunications. Some technologies include: Baby monitors for the deaf and hearing impaired; the teletype telephone; the teletypewriter (TTY);  and the SMARTBoard Interactive Whiteboard. There’s plenty of room for this compendium to grow, critically assessing technologies for deafness can provide much insight into the cultural history of deafness and the importance of integrating material culture studies with disability history.

You can check out the Deaf People and Technology Compendium by the students here.

On another, closely related pedagogical project on disability history, check out David Turner’s “Researching and Re-Telling the Past,” a research-focused approach for students to learn about nineteenth-century disability history.

[1] For instance, see: Nina E. Lerman, “Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology,” Technology and Culture 51.4 (2010): 893-918.

Deaf Soundscapes


This is the story of how my professor threw chalk at me.

During my second year of undergraduate studies, I took a Philosophy of Mind class that started at 8:30am. I’m far from what you would call a “morning person,” but that was the year I was steadfastly increasing my love affair with cognitive science and philosophical study of consciousness. Indeed, I was planning to pursue my Honors Thesis on that topic, tying together strands of the philosophy of science, technological expertise, and consciousness (I ended up writing my thesis on the consciousness and the Great Apes). I enjoyed this class thoroughly, got wrapped up on the course units, and was challenged by the final essay assignment. Time after class frequently was spent in the student center, drinking coffee and chatting with fellow classmates over the readings and our thoughts. It was not a difficult class for me because of the materials or conversations.

It was difficult, however, because my professor had a thick Australian accent and a drawl that made listening to him without lip-reading incredibly difficult. Even at 8:30 in the morning, I would exert my energy lip-reading his lectures and paying close attention. When I turned away to write my notes or questions, I essentially stopped “listening,” quickly scribbling so I could then look up and pay attention once again.

I sat in the front, as I always do, to hear better, communicate better. In this class, sitting in the front also made me a target. This professor called on me at every class, multiple times during the course of two hours. Usually I had no problem answering his question, but there were several occasions I could barely understand his question quickly, quietly, mumbled, “I don’t know.”  Once, wanting to use my name as an example for a philosophy argument, he asked me, “What is your name?”—repeating this question four times still could not force my brain to comprehend his words. His reply to my sudden realization of his question prompted a chuckle and a snide remark: “Well perhaps, you should come to class more awake and pay attention.” I raised my eyebrows and looked around the classroom, where three other students were dozing away on their desks.

A week after this incident, I was determined to pay attention and avoid another embarrassing situation. Once again, I devoted all my energy to lip-reading the lecture, turning away to write my notes. It was during one of those moments I turned away to write that I felt something hit my leg, hard enough to jolt me out of my desk. I had no idea what happened until I saw this object on the floor, and my professor’s exasperated expression. He had been calling my name several times, with no response—to get my attention, he decided to throw his chalk at me.


Needless to say, I was shocked. I don’t think my classmates knew what happened, as I pretended I only got up to go to the washroom, where tears suddenly flowed. Did that just happen? After class, I told my peers what had happened, and they all advised me to tell the professor about my hearing loss. They insisted I demand an apology. I went to his office hours with the full intention of doing so, but at the end, I couldn’t do it. We ended up chatting about my essay instead.

With hindsight, perhaps I should have. But I didn’t. I was a shy undergraduate student and I didn’t want to make him feel bad. I blamed myself instead, adding this event to a long list of incidents throughout my life in which I failed to listen and was criticized for being a stupid girl.

I’ve been criticized a lot during my scholarly career. There was my high school teachers who judged me on the way I dressed and perceived me as frivolous until they graded my assignments. The French teacher who kicked me out of his classroom because he found my outfit too sexually appealing. The biology teacher who told me my flirting was limiting my potential. The professors who said my writing was worse than an undergraduate, that my speech and writing required ESL assistance, that I was not capable of doing archival research, that I was too ditzy, too stupid, too irrelevant, to amount to a scholar. And the professor who threw chalk at me.

There was good things too. The English teacher who encouraged me to write and submitted my work for Young Writers Competitions. The History teacher who called my mom and demanded her to remove me from this inner city high school and place me into a gifted program. The professors who advised me, chatted with me, answered my questions and encouraged me to pursue graduate studies. The professor who listened to my request for a teaching appointment so I could figure out whether my hearing loss would limit my teaching. The professors I learned under who became friends.

I’m not writing this post to complain about these people. I’ve carried these experiences as lessons to be learnt. Ways to improve myself from the days I spent as a young child blindfolding myself or closing my eyes to exercise my interactions with sounds through my ears rather than through my eyes. With enough of these experience pile up, I become aware of my positions in the soundscape of a cacophonous and overwhelming society. How I interact with these sounds plays out in how I manage my positions. I sat in the front as so sounds behind me would hit the back of my head and keep my focus on the sounds in front of me. In large lecture halls, I approach students asking questions as not to miss out or be confused by their words.

Turning away to write down notes temporarily removes me from the sounds in a classroom. It’s a pause for me, but in an aural society, it’s a form of detachment where I’ve become perceived as refusing to listen.

I’ve found sounds—and by extension, my listening—is closely tied with the space I’m in. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked in a busy mall or street with another person and “readjusted” myself to the left side of the person so I could listen with my right ear (my stronger ear). This semester, I taught a class where I had tremendous difficulty in hearing the students and relied more on lip-reading than hearing. It was not until I visited a classroom at Rochester Institute of Technology where I was giving a guest lecture, when I became aware of how classroom architecture can impact listening, learning, and engagement.

This classroom was brightly lit, nearly soundproof from external noises, and without the incessant buzzing of fluorescent lights, overhead projectors, or outside traffic din. Students desks were neatly aligned so that while standing in front of the room, I could hear and see all of them. The professor who invited me for the guest lecturer told me that students, who were a mix of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing, usually rearrange themselves so that they’re sitting against the walls of the class, facing each other to communicate and engage better. I was marvelled at this. My own classroom was poorly lit, messy, and constantly drowned out by several noises that irritated me and prevented proper engagement with the students. At first I thought my digital hearing aids prevented me from hearing the students well, but when speaking with them in the hallway, I had no problems.

Soundscape and architecture, I find, helps us to understand the interactions of people with hearing loss in an incredibly aural society. Being aware of these spaces, I hope, will allow me to fit more into this aurality…and receive the courage to speak out next time someone dares to throw chalk at me.

BOOK REVIEW: Disability & The Good Human Life (2014)


What constitutes the good human life?
This is one of philosophy’s oldest questions, employed towards dialogues of moral obligation, civic virtue, distribution of happiness, as well as issues of social policy and human rights. Historically, the topic of disability has scarcely been touched by philosophers. Where discussed, having a severe disability was presented as justification for euthanasia and as evidence for applying bioethical grounds for selective abortion or limiting the moral status of disabled persons. Assumptions that all serious or severe impairment harms the good life contradicts with a growing body of evidence that persons with disabilities rate their well-being on positive terms, revealing that disability is a complex and interactive phenomenon that cannot be evaluated on the impairments alone. So how do we evaluate the balance between subjective well-being and objective harm as decrements to the good human life?

Read the rest of my review over on the Centre for Medical Humanities Blog 

Auricular Training & The Little Deaf Child

I came across a copy of The Little Deaf Child: A Book for Parents, a short book published in 1928 reassuring parents of deaf children that with proper training and education, there was hope for their children. The book was written by John Dutton Wright (1866-1952), the founder and director of the Wright Oral School in New York City, which was established in 1902. The school was originally the Wright-Humason School, founded in 1892 jointly by Wright and Thomas A. Humason on 42 West 77th Street, New York City. The school had a limited enrollment of 25-30 pupils; Helen Keller was one of the pupils, trained to read with her fingers and improve her speech.

John Dutton Wright. The autograph reads: "May this little book bring new courage for old despair."
John Dutton Wright. The autograph reads: “May this little book bring new courage for old despair.”

Wright begins The Little Deaf Child with a simple direction: “Please read the book through from beginning to end before trying to put its suggestions into practical operation in teaching a child. You must educate yourself before you can teach another.” The book follows the earlier slim books written by Wright: Handbook of Speech Training to the Deaf and Handbook of Auricular Training, which were directed to physicians in the hopes of counselling them how to advise parents of deaf children in both medical and educational options. In addition, The Little Deaf Child follows up from Wright’s 1915 publication, What the Mother of a Deaf Child Ought to Know (iTunes podcast also available), an original manuscript during the time offering advice to mothers to master their relationships with a deaf child. According to Wright, “It was not much of a book, but it was the only thing of its kind in print, and has been purchased by people all over the world. It has been translated into Japanese and Mahrati.”

The Little Deaf Child offers guidelines to parents in terms of training and education of young deaf children, for “[v]ery much can be done along these lines at home while the child is yet too young for school and this is where I hope this little volume may be of some service to the perplexed mother, wholly inexperienced in the situation which confronts her” (17). Wright divides the training of the young deaf child in to three periods: (1) For the first two years of life; (2) for the third and fourth years of life; (3) for the fifth year of life. By the time the child reaches age six, it is best to enter the child into one of the special schools for the deaf, or, if preferred, for the parent to employ a specially trained and experienced teacher in the home.

Wright advises parents to begin immediately by evaluating the child’s residual training to begin auricular training. Then, the child is taught to assess his or her other senses, and then, when the child proves to have retained some hearing sufficient to be employed, lip-reading training should begin. Gestures should be minimized and the parent should avoid “spoiling” the child. During the second period, the parent should asses the child’s sight, continue sense training by cultivating the child’s muscular sense, sense of sight, and touch; games of imitation (e.g. piling up blocks), could aid in this training process. Further hearing tests and lip-reading training should continue—moreover, the parent should concentrate on teaching the child to “listen to sounds for the purpose of getting ideas and not merely for the purpose of perceiving sound.” By the third period, the child should learn to read and speak through a variety of exercise that Wright provides in the book.

The book additionally provides a list of special schools for deaf children, with an overview of the common methods used in these schools. Although most schools used a form of the “Combined Method” (speech + speech-reading + auricular training), there were some schools that focused strictly on the “Manual Method” (sign-language), the “Oral Method” (speech + speech-reading + writing), or, as with the Wright Oral School, the “Auricular Method” (speech + hearing + writing), which made use of the hearing of semi-deaf pupils with or without the use of acoustic aids. The auicular method, it should be noted, was largely directed to educating pupils as hard-of-hearing speaking persons, rather than members of the Deaf community.

Wright examining a child (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Hard and Hearing Collection; Disability History Museum)
Wright examining a child, 1900 (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Hard and Hearing Collection; Disability History Museum)

Auricular training made use of hearing trumpets, audiphones, conversation tubes, and other types of acoustic aids to increase hearing amplification and make use of hearing as a means of communication. An article in the New York Times from 16 September 1917 explained how Wright brought auricular training to the attention of medical professions. Co-operation with physicians was required in “order that advantage may be taken of unrealized possibilities of educating slight powers of hearing remaining in the cases of many deaf children attending the special schools for the deaf throughout the country.” The “unrealized possibilities” of auricular training could be developed with proper teaching methods. According to Wright, about 35% of pupils at his school had sufficient residual hearing to benefit greatly by the auricular method:

I believe that an adequate examination of all the pupils in our special schools for the deaf would show that fully one-third of them—that is, more than three thousand—are suitable subjects for such training of the brain through the normal channel of approach…It has been my experience that while artificial aids to hearing may sometimes be useful in the earliest stage of awakening attention to sounds, and in the later stage in extending the range of which the hearing can be made of service, throughout the real education process of teaching the brain to associate meaning with sounds and to remember those associations, the use of the unaided voice, applied directly to the ear, produces the best and most rapid results.

Wright’s work at the school secured his reputation as a pioneer in education of the deaf with the use of acoustic aids and auricular training. He was also one of the first directors to include sound amplifiers in schools. He published several journal articles, especially in the Volta Review, the publication of the Volta Bureau (est. 1887, now the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing). The Volta Bureau advised all mothers of deaf children to read The Little Deaf Child.

Active in civic affairs throughout his life, in 1920 Wright traveled the world with his wife and two children, occasionally visiting schools for the deaf. He was particularly influential in the creation of Japan’s first oral school for the deaf. A collection of Wright’s travel photographs can be viewed at the Dutton Wright Photographic Collection at the University of Washington, some of which I’ve included below.

John Dutton Wright, his wife Ysabel Wright, and their children John Jr. and Anna seated on an elephant, with a car in the background, ca. 1921
John Dutton Wright, his wife Ysabel Wright, and their children John Jr. and Anna seated on an elephant, c.1921 (University of Washington Libraries)
One of Wright’s photographs in India, 1921 (University of Washington Libraries)
Wright's photograph: Boy and woman with babies on their backs, Japan, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright’s photograph: Boy and woman with babies on their backs, Japan, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright's Photo: Group of boys with bamboo instruments called angklung, Java, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).
Wright’s Photo: Group of boys with bamboo instruments called angklung, Java, ca. 1921 (University of Washington Libraries).