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.
NOTES

[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.

Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums

George H. Wilson (1866-1949) of Louisville, Kentucky, received a patent (U.S. #476,853) for his “rimless [and] self-ventilating” artificial eardrum in 1892. Often referred as “wireless phones for the ears,” the device was made of rubber, designed to be simple in construction and “so shaped that it can be quickly and readily removed and replaced without pain, and when in position is invisible, not liable to irritate, and is a good sound conductor.” Wilson_LetterheadEarly advertisements for Wilson’s device, the “Common Sense Ear Drums,” emphasized its invisibility, both in public, and for the wearer themselves—the device was so resilience, soft, and painless, that even a user could forget they had them on. In other words, Wilson’s design ensured the prosthetic nature of the eardrums; they were so integrated with body that it became a part of it, and could be easily forgotten.

Advertisements for the Wilson Ear Drum Company additionally capitalized on the technical and scientific aspects of the device: adverts were accompanied with an anatomical drawing of the ear, demonstrating the eardrum in position. Even the copy addressed the device as a “scientific invention,” rhetorically ensuring its legitimacy over other kinds of artificial eardrums available on the market. By the 1910s, however, the company’s advertisements dramatically shifted focus from the technical and scientific towards the morose suffering of the deaf person—Wilson’s Common Sense Eardrums were not only designs of science, but a cure so that no one could remain deaf.

Ad_WilsonEardrum_1890s

The shift was due to the work of salesman Albert Lasker (1880-1952) who made a name for himself as an advertiser at the agency Lord & Thomas, by ensuring ad copy appealed to the psychological state of customers. Around 1900, Lasker proposed to Wilson a new ad copy, promising new and dramatic results. He replaced the technical drawing with a photo of Wilson cupping his hand to his ear; to Lasker, Wilson not only looked like “the deafest deaf man you ever saw,” but was evidence of a success story—deaf himself, now cured, by his own creation.[1] The new ad copy boldly proclaimed: “You Hear! When you use Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums.”

Ad_WilsonEardrum_1900Lasker

Other ads continued to portray deafness as curable when using Wilson’s Ear Drums, with the copy expanded at times to include testimonials. Customers could also write and request a pamphlet, which provided additional information about the benefits of the patented device in amplifying hearing; testimonials from satisfied customers further added support to the integrity and success of the device.

Ad_WilsonEardrum_1900_GettyImages

The advertisements for Wilson’ Ear Drums indicated that with the device, a d/Deaf person would be happier as they were able to participate in hearing society and include themselves in ways previously denied to them.

NOTES

[1] Jeffrey L. Cruikshank & Arthur W. Schultz, The Man who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Industry (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 52.

A Chamber of the Stillness of Death: Phyllis M.T. Kerridge’s Experiments in the Silence Room

I’m beginning a new project on the historical contributions of women to otology, many of whom have been overlooked in scholarship. My current article investigates the physiological work of Dr. Phyllis Margaret Tookey Kerridge, who died on June 22, 1940, the only daughter of Mr. William Alfred Tookey of Bromley, Kent. She was educated at the City of London School of Girls and at University College London; her graduate studies commenced at the latter institution, first in chemistry and then physiology, where she was also appointed as lecturer. She also held posts in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Marine Biological Association Laboratory at Plymouth, the Carlsberg Laboratories at Copenhagen, and at London Hospital. She received her M.D. from University College Hospital, in 1933 and became member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1937.[1]

During the 1930s, Kerridge conducted experiments to measure the residual hearing capacity of children in London County Council schools, as well as experiments in teaching with electronic hearing aids. Much of her research was on patients at the Royal Ear Hospital, who were tested in the hospital’s “Silence Room:” a 3,500 cubic room in the basement of the hospital’s new building on Huntley Street, with

“walls impenetrable to extraneous noises and which will never reflect, deflect nor refract sounds—a chamber of the stillness of death, where absolute accuracy and complete consistency in results will be obtained.”

The room was built so exact tests to measure degrees of deafness can be made in ideal and constant conditions. Such stillness in this room apparently allowed people to hear heartbeats and the “flick” of their eyelids! A small table and two chairs were placed in the room. There was a bell to call the Porter’s room and an electric fan affixed there as well.

The Committee of the Royal Ear Hospital occasionally granted permission to medical practitioners to use the Silence Room for their own research purposes. For instance, in 1929, they granted the otologist Dr. Charles Skinner Hallpike (1900-1979), a research scholar from Middlesex Hospital, to use the room free of charge. Hallpike is particularly known for his ground-breaking work on the causes of Meniere’s disease (a disorder that causes episodes of vertigo) and for the Dix-Hallpike test for diagnosing benign positional vertigo (sensation when everything is spinning around you).

The Western Electric 1-A Audiometer in clinical use at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, c.1920s. Western Electric produced only about 25 of these audiometers, which retailed at about $1,500 in 1923. (Central Institute for the Deaf Collection)
The Western Electric 1-A Audiometer in clinical use at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, c.1920s. Western Electric produced only about 25 of these audiometers, which retailed at about $1,500 in 1923. (Central Institute for the Deaf Collection)

The hospital’s 1938 Annual Reports reveals that Kerridge was appointed to research at the Silence Room, then renamed as the “Hearing Aid Clinic,” working alongside Mr. Myles Formby to conduct hearing test on the hospital’s patients. Though the Clinic was initially started on a 6-month trial period, Kerriddge’s work was so beneficial that the hospital Committee decided to let her continue her research work and audiometer tests, extending care to private patients as well. They provided her with two more rooms in the basement, one as a waiting room and the other as an office, as well as the services of Miss W.J. Waddge as an assistant. In 1939, Kerridge viewed 170 cases, and according to the reports, her work among deaf patients was successful in helping many of them to be fitted properly for hearing aids.

Wartime of course, changed the course of things. The clinic was abandoned during World War II, but the hospital still provided hearing tests with the audiometer to test the hearing of patients suffering from “bomb blast.”

NOTES

[1] Nature 146 (august 3, 1940).

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?