Deaf Soundscapes

chalk

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.

Chalk.

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.

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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)
Wright_IndiaElephan1921
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).

 

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 Time-Travelling, Vote-Gathering, Miraculous Acousticon

An 1922 advertisement in The Illustrated London News caught my eye:

deaf

Look at the flapper! Is she being coy? Ignoring the gentleman who’s obviously flirting with her? Or is she deaf to his fancy words?

This was the first half of an advert for the “Acoustion,” which claimed it could restore hearing in deaf individuals and improve their lot in hearing culture:

Why…should you be debarred from the pleasures of attending church, theatre, concert or conference? Why, when there is an instrument that will neutralise your deafness, should you be prevented from entering into conversation without difficulty, and listening to music without effort?

The Acousticon was one of the first portable electric hearing aids, the invention of American engineer Miller Reese Hutchison (1876-1944).

Acous_Hutchinson

He invented the first electrical hearing aid around 1895, called the “Akoulallion” (Greek for “to hear” and “to speak”), a table instrument that was connected to a carbon microphone and earphones—essentially, a “microtelephone.” The device was sold in limited quantities for $400 out of The Akouphone Company, which was established by Hutchinson and James H. Wilson in Mobile, Alabama in 1898/9. In 1901, the Akoulallion is redesigned and sold as the “Akouphone,” at a retail price of $60. The bulky nature of these devices made them unpopular and thus did not sell well. For instance, in the 1902 The Silent Worker, the popular newsletter for deaf individuals, Alexander L. Pach wrote:

Some question has been raised as to Mr. Hutchinson’s sincerity and belief in the efficacy of his machine [the Akoulallion]. There should not be any. Mr. Hutchinson was sincerity itself. He believed what many deaf people told him, and it’s a surprising fact that many of us who are deaf were fooled by that they experienced. I had intelligent deaf people tell me that they heard, where they only felt the vibrations, and these vibrations needed no machine to bring them out. Such a great number of the deaf are unable to distinguish between hearing and feeling that they were the means of deceiving the inventor, and some of our expert teachers, hearing ones, who stood by were fooled, too.

In 1901, Hutchison moved to New York and continued inventing new devices through his new company, the Hutchison Acoustic Co., operated along with Willard S. Mears. The “Acousticon” was shortly introduced, a more portable version of the Akouphone and powered by batteries; it had three components, cost 10 guineas, and the batteries lasted from a few hours up to a week. It was deemed a miraculous invention and adverts asserted the deaf that it was recommended, if not favoured, by many aural specialists.

Surdus in search of his hearing
The Acousticon. From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)

A patent was granted on August 25 1903 (U.S. Patent 737,242). The specifications outline that:

This invention is a portable telephonic apparatus intended to be used by persons with impaired hearing…[It can be] adapted to be used in a room or hall to enable partially-deaf persons to hear speech, music, or other sounds which are ordinarily heard by persons with normal hearing powers.

HutchinsonPatent1

Hutchison was prominent in publicizing his invention, even exhibiting it at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Queen Alexandra of Denmark counted herself as a grateful customer.

The virtues of the Acousitcon were tested by selected deaf and partially-deaf individuals in New York, who offered their professional opinions of the instrument. R.E. Maynard tested the device and notified readers of The Silent Worker that

the result was exactly the same—something that approximated sound was sent through the ear, which was rather more a sense of feeling, than of real hearing. It was so faint that no distinction could be made without the inventor first teaching the difference of sounds in the words “papa,” mamma,” “hello.” The notes from the piano and banjo could be differentiated, while the finer and shriller notes of the guitar and cornet could not, although the sound was thrown into the ear by some powerful current. It is probable the same difference in sounds could be distinguished by a deaf person holding in his hands an empty cigar box. While it was shown that bona fide deaf-mutes have little hope of making practical use of the Acousticon, it was clearly demonstrated that the device will prove highly helpful to the hard of hearing, and for that purpose is probably a great success (1903).

Hard-of-hearing Lucy Taylor was delighted at the benefits of the instrument. In 1913, she wrote to the Silent Worker:

It gave me the first ray of hope I have had in many years, for surely Mr. Hutchison knows what he is talking about. I have long felt, that if someone who understood, cared enough to really try, something might be invented, that would do for the partially deaf what glasses do for the partially blind.

The Acousiton’s advertisements were spectacular, quite eye-catching, even used during elections and maybe the device was even used by time-travellers!* Adverts highlighted the numerous satisfied customers across North America and Europe–this ad in particular indicates that there was a Toronto office branch.

acousticon1916

He also invented another variation of the Acousticon, the “Massacon,” which converted audio into vibrations.

photo 1
From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)

This variation was for those with more profound hearing loss, but the price was high: 12 guineas up to 23 pounds when sold in England through the company Acoustic Patents, Limited. A table version was also adopted in schools for the deaf, particularly in Chicago and San Francisco as a teaching tool to teach deaf pupils speech.

From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)
From: Evan Yellon, Surdus in search of his hearing (1906)

By 1905, Hutchison sold his company and the rights to Kelley Monroe Turner (1859-1927) who would introduce various types of the Acousticon, some with volume control.

*The idea of a time traveller with a bulky hearing aid (or cellphone) struck me as really funny–imagine all the hijinks! No? Okay…
 

 

Dancing

A while back me and some of my girlfriends went dancing. At the club, we encountered a group of some of my deaf friends, some who were profoundly deaf and could not hear or speak–but communicated via sign language. All of us went off to the dance floor.

The music was, indeed, VERY loud. I’m always amazed and intrigued about how people process sound (or noise); I couldn’t actually hear the music, but rather, my experience of music was just blurred words and sounds all jumbled together into some weird notion of “beats.” Strangely enough, when I’m hearing a song on my iPod, I can hear the words and recognize the singer. I can’t do that over speakers or over a radio–unless someone actually tells me what the song/singer/band is.

Anyways, one of my friends was watching my deaf friends dance. Curiously, she asked me how could they “hear” the music, let alone seem to dance perfectly in tune with the beats. Were they imitating other partygoers around them, or were they actually hearing the music–and if so, how? I asked her if she’s ever leaned against the wall or placed her own hand on her chest when loud music is playing–and we all placed our hands to our chest–and if she could “hear” the oscillations waving through her bones. My goodness–the looks on my girlfriends’ faces! Priceless!

I do hear loud music that way sometimes. I place my hand to my chest to make out what I cannot “hear” through my hearing aids. It was always an intuitive thing and I never thought about the science behind the acoustics or of oscillation…but I was amazed when I saw this piece, over from Modern Mechanix, which is possibly one of my new favorite blogs:

Modern Mechanix, July 1935
Modern Mechanix, July 1935

 

What do you think? Have you ever experienced such a sensation?