ELLE Geeks

I’m thrilled to share that I’m interviewed in the August 2014 issue of ELLE India magazine as a feature on “ELLE GEEKS:” talented women who use science and technology to push boundaries of what we know and how we should think about the world. I’m incredibly honored to be featured alongside some amazingly talented women, all of whom are successful in their own respective fields. Special thanks to Sonam Savlani for contacting and patiently conducting the interview via email rather than phone.

Pick up your own copy of ELLE India today and be prepared for some inspiration!cover

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Switching On Hearing

Harold

It’s an iconic and powerful photo.

The face of a young child, born deaf, hearing sounds for the first time. Jack Bradley, photojournalist from the Peoria Journal Star, captured the exact moment a doctor fitted five year old Harold Whittles with an earpiece and turned on the hearing aid. First printed in the February 1974 issue of ReadersDigest, the photo has propped up in numerous “best-of” lists on the Internet. It is “shocking,” “miraculous,” “unbelievable,” “influential,” “heartbreaking,” “heart-warming,” “amazing,” and “evocative.” It has been circulated thousands of times on Facebook, where commentators have expressed their thoughts: the photo brings tears, it serves as a reminder of our humanity, it tells people to “count their blessings,” it resonates to personal experiences with deafness and hearing, and it triggers debates about language, culture, and technological achievements. For many individuals, the photo immortalizes more than Harold’s astonishment. It serves as a testament of the wonders of medicine and science, the abundance of hope, and provides us with a glimpse into the future.

Bradley’s photo is only one in a long list of sensationalized stories on deaf people hearing sounds. A search through YouTube lists about 72,800 results for videos on “hearing sound for the first time.” At least once a month, someone sends me a link to a new video, or to a post discussing the novelty of sharing stories like this.

I may not remember exactly what it was like when I first heard sounds again after losing my hearing, but I have a problem with the way these videos are promoted: they sensationalized the notion that hearing could be “switched on.” This is a misleading claim. Implants, whether they are cochlear, auditory, or the newer brainstem versions do not restore “normal” hearing but makes it easier for deaf individuals to distinguish sounds. It’s not like wearing these technologies miraculously provide the wearer an understanding of all the sounds in the world. I’ve had friends who’ve been fitted with cochlear implants describe how overwhelming the sound were, and how certain everyday noises, like wind hitting the trees or leaky faucets, created so much confusion.* Cochlear implants in particular, create a representation of sounds that serves to assist in understanding speech; because of this, speech can sound robotic, or filtered as if everyone was speaking underwater. I wear digital hearing aids and even I have trouble distinguishing certain noises or even pinpointing the source of sounds.

Once, while out dining with friends, I watched a restaurant worker remove the external part of her cochlear implant nearly every time she went behind the counter. But when she went towards the dining room to seat customers or bus tables, she had the device on. I imagine the cacophonic atmosphere of the dining room might have overwhelmed her–I know for me, it was so loud I ended up leaving the restaurant with a throbbing headache (I’m very sensitive to loud sounds, which often trigger migraines).

But for me, the larger problem with these videos is that they depict deafness as a defect, a problem that must be corrected, medically, surgically, technologically, and even culturally. This is a perspective that has long been criticized  by members of the Deaf community, who argue these devices are another instance of the historical oppression of Deaf culture and a tremendous threat against sign-language. I’m not going to go too much into this. There’s plenty of literature on the subject. I don’t identify myself as a member of the Deaf community and I do write about the medicalization of deafness, but I try to be sensitive to balancing the perspectives of both hearing and Deaf culture–even if at times, it’s so challenging to do so.

*This point reminds me of one of my favourite philosophical thought experiments: If Mary was born and raised in a black-and-white room and never seen color, but one day, is allowed to go outside, does Mary understand, or have any concept of, the color red?

The Pressures of Silence

I’ve been busy this month helping my mom organize the boxes of photographs and old documents at her house. The best part of this project? When I come across documents from my childhood that I’ve long forgotten about, but thanks to my mom, have been carefully preserved.

When I was 12, my English assignment was to write an autobiography of my life (so far) and make a diorama of some of my favourite hobbies. I misunderstood the assignment and ended up writing a biography–and forgot to make the diorama! This is one of the earliest expression of me ever sharing what it was like for me to get sick, to lose my hearing, and learn to navigate in a world while feeling ignored. I suppose this should rightly be part of the “Green Light” series, but oh well. Here are some extracts from the assignment.

Jaipreet lived a healthy life, till at the age of 4 1/2, on November 16, 1986, the day she got sick…

For the most part, Jaipreet was a healthy child, She had her share of colds and flus…But only one time the flu was serious…Of course everyone knows what having the flu’s like; feeling hot, throwing up, having high fevers…Jaipreet’s parents took her to the doctor. He checked her, and then told them to bring her back. They took Jaipreet back, hoping there would be good news. But, the doctor told Jaipreet’s parents that she had bacterial menengitis [sic], which was a disease that had something to do with the brain and spinal cord, and she had to be placed in Murbarank Hospital [in Kuwait] and had to be treated by anti-biotics (medicine) for two weeks. Some people died from menengitis [sic]. But, luckily, Jaipreet survived. But during the treatment, it did something to Jaipreet’s hearing that made her lose it.

Being in the hospital made Jaipreet the center of attention. Gifts and flowers came to her from her mother’s family. Visitors came to visit the child who sat on a hospital bed without hearing. Some nights, Jaipreet’s mother or father would sit in her hospital room to keep her company till she went to sleep.

After she was released from the hospital on the first week of October, Jaipreet’s parents did everything to make her better. They took her to doctors, hoping they would have something to help her hear better. One of these doctor [sic] gave her a [sic] instrument similar to phonic ears. To Jaipreet, they didn’t work very well. She had a hard time hearing with them.

When Jaipreet and her family moved to Canada, in 1988, Jaipreet got new hearing aids. After not being able to hear any sound [sic] for a long time, at last there was something that made her hear all the wonderful sounds around her.

Wearing hearing aids really helped her. Jaipreet could hear better with them than without them.

Following that paragraph, there’s a short section titled “Jaipreet on Sounds:”

Hearing aids are wonderful. They help me hearing better. Those kids, who need them, but don’t want them, don’t know what they’re missing. It’s be able to hear sounds, voices and music, and a lot of other things.

When you’re deaf, you can’t hear. Very loud sounds; you can hear. You can’t just forget silence. It has too much pressure. For example, you see people talking, but you can’t hear them, because you can’t hear. You just feel you want to shout, ‘Would you just speak up?’ You want to hear things, to be able to understand. That’s what hearing aids for the deaf are for. o hear, to not miss out any sound. To be able to understand.

None of the other deaf or hard-of-children I went to school with knew sign language, other than the alphabet, which we used as a secret code to spell out our names or pass notes in class. Our world was a world of sounds. Silence was pressure. All we ever wanted to be was understood.

On Sharing #histmed Images

For those who follow me on Twitter or the FTHOQ Facebook page, you already know I share a lot of images on the history of medicine. I’ve come across many of these images while browsing through online archives collection data for my research on experiences of hearing and hearing loss in twentieth-century America. I’m particularly interested in the cultural history of deafness from a medical standpoint and frequently find myself drawn to all sorts of representations of hearing, sound, and artefacts. Sometimes I come across a new digital archive by clicking on a link on the one I’m already looking through, and off I go, spending hours carefully scrolling through images and records.

I initially started sharing images on the history of medicine (#histmed on Twitter) as I conducted research in London on materials related to my dissertation. I expanded my postings when I started collecting materials for my course on the History of Medicine. I kept a file on my desktop of remarkable sources of images and objects I hoped one day to share with my students. There were many that never made the cut for lectures and I wanted a platform to share them—hence, I started posting on my Twitter account and later created the FTHOQ Facebook page to post additional details that went beyond the 140-character limit. I aim to post as much details on sources and archive repositories as I can, but sometimes I find great things on Google Images that have no additional data and I post the image in the hopes someone else can fill in the blanks.

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Sharing images has been a great way for me to participate in fruitful conversations about cultural frameworks of health and healing. At the back of my mind, I’m overly aware of the risks of decontextualizing these images and using them for “entertainment.” Daniel Goldberg drew my attention to a great post written by Richard Barnett for the WellcomeLibrary blog. Barnett discusses some of the ethical concerns he encountered while writing his book, The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration (2014), particularly on the implications of looking at pictures of people’s suffering and diseased bodies. Is it appropriate? Another form of entertainment? Barnett raises crucial issues that I think all historians should think about when we share images of bodies with an audience. I might say that I share these images—and some that even I find gruesome enough to warrant a “WARNING” or “SENSITIVE” prelude on my tweet—as a way to educate my audience on the horrors of medical practice, but even I cannot ignore the shock element that is clearly embedded in that tweet. Especially when it comes with a warning note.

Barnett expresses: “I might comfort myself with the thought that I am deepening my readers’ understanding of these images by setting them in context.” Too often, I’ve come across images that have been grossly misinterpreted or miscategorised. Many more do not identify the source or provide any context. Setting them in context almost provides merit for sharing them: I’m not just passing them around, but trying to address their historical place and value. The most interesting discussions and that arise from sharing these images come from my audience, whose inquisitive questions inspires me to ignore my to-do list for the day and dig up as much information I can about a particular image. But what happens when we don’t provide the context of a particular image? Have we stripped away its meaning? The popularity of twitter handles like The Retronaut or HistoryPics indicates that people love looking at the past; but too often errors are pointed out.

I haven’t kept a precise analysis of the images I’ve posted and how they were shared as an indicator of how people are “reading” the images and learning from them. My audience is not wide enough for that. But I have been aware of the thoughts that go behind my postings and how I’ve been aware not to offend, decontextualize, or even muddle the historical merit of these images. Last summer I kept a schedule based on particular themes I would post in relation to the research I intended to do. For instance, I would post images on epidemic diseases in India one week, prosthetic artifacts the next, and so forth. I had scheduled surgical amputations the same week the Boston Marathon bombings occurred. Of course none of these images were shared at that time; it seemed cruel, insensitive, and above all, opportunistic.

My favourite images to share are the ones that make us think twice about the authority of medicine. Products developed by “quack” doctors, illogical remedies, strange and outrageous technologies, and the theatre of surgery. These images reminds me how much medicine has changed, how the rules of practice has transformed, and how people in the past thought about their bodies, their health, and sought out explanations. These historical experiences with health and illness are captured in images, These images, as Barnett writes,

are, to borrow a phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss, good to think with…They should shock us, move us, jolt us out of any sense of complacency over our individual or collective well-being; something would be wrong if they did not. They are a magnificent historical and aesthetic resource, and a record of human suffering and of attempts to understand and to relieve it. We would be all the poorer if they were concealed; equally, they should not become mere visual shorthand for a kitsch, knowing and emptily ironised attitude to sickness, suffering and death.

 I’m glad people like how I share images. The repositories I come across are wonderful and as a scholar, I’m thankful to all the individuals who have digitized these images, allowing me to get a better glimpse into the past.

 

 

Crunch Time

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Well, five years and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears later, my dissertation is ready to be defended. I sent it out to the committee, we booked the room, scheduled the transcription service (aka real-time closed captioning), I checked out a pile of books from the library…and now, time to write my presentation.

Which means, dear Readers, I’m taking a 3-week hiatus from blogging. I’ll likely still be active on Twitter and on the FTHOQ facebook page.

Wish me luck–and I’ll meet you on the other side!