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.


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 

Switching On Hearing


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?

Monday Series: “In the Guise of a Friend” V

Conclusions: A Debt to Alexander the Aggressor?

The deaf community was never at ease with Bell’s eugenics attempts for normalization. When the ABA’s Committee on Eugenics drafted a bill limiting marriage between “undesirables,” the deaf fought back. At his presidential address to the National Association of the Deaf, George Veditz declared that “[i]t is evident that the one person upon whom we must cast the odium of having hated the deaf into this category is Dr. Bell, whom his wealth has rendered the most powerful, and his hobby-ridding propensity the most subtle, because he comes in the guise of a friend.”[1] Yet as John Tabak points out, it is important to acknowledge that the history of the deaf relationship with eugenics is extremely complicated. While many writers describe the deaf as staunch opponents to the eugenics movement, Tabak argues that deaf organizations, especially the NAD, did not oppose eugenics in principle. The NAD was often supportive of arguments for restricting the reproductive rights of the “degenerates,” but their “objections to eugenics arose when [they] found the Deaf included with those same classes. The Deaf, [they] argued, were different.”[2] What the NAD did object to was the paternalistic inclinations from hearing men in influential positions.

Even Bell recognized the differences. He assumed by educating the deaf of the consequences of deaf intermarriages and promoting scientific validation for oralism, he could aggressively protect the deaf community from the same fate that befell other social groups targeted by eugenicists. Eugenics gave Bell a powerful tool for persuading the deaf towards normalization. The deaf were different because they could normalize, and thus, they should normalize. While Bell underestimated the deaf community’s devotion to their own culture, he also failed to grasp that the deaf would intermarry whether or not they used sign language or spoke English. Additionally, as Harlan Lane points out, eugenics measures such as sterilization, social diffusion, or even legislation on marriages would be ineffective, since due to the unpredictable nature of hereditary deafness, the number of deaf children would not seriously decline.[3]

Bell’s work on eugenics and oralism demonstrates how important it is to understand the complex relationship between scientific research and social policy. The potent forces of an ideologically-driven science are powerful enough to drastically influence social attitudes towards a social group, especially a marginalized one. Whether historians of deaf history or historians of eugenics view Bell’s role in the eugenics movement as an active or passive one, Bell nevertheless played a significant role in shaping both the social perception of deafness and the need for normalization within the deaf community. Yet Bell’s arguments on deaf intermarriage was shaped largely in response to the construction of deaf people, and his views adeptly transformed as from his nineteenth century fears about a “deaf variety,” to his twentieth century scientific inclination for normalizing the deaf through oralism and integration. Bell may have neverthless shielded the deaf from the extreme measures of negative eugenics, but he did so in a way that urged for the dissemination of the deaf community; for this, he was vilified.

[1] Veditz, quoted in Lane, “A Chronology of the Repression of Sign Language,” p.150.

[2] J. Tabak, Significant Gestures: A History of American Sign Language, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), p.84.

[3] Lane, “Do Deaf People have a Disability?” p.287.


The Sorrows of Deafness

If, on being introduced to a new circle, you find yourself addressing a person apparently between the ages of eighteen and thirty, who makes small or no reply even to your most piquant remarks, do not immediately set down him or her as either proud, sulky, or irremediably stupid; but let the thought suggest itself that the non-respondent may be deaf, and be prepared to bestow some compassion where you before felt something allied to contempt.

G.H. Bosanquet wrote a short pamphlet, The Sorrows of Deafness in 1839, in order to provide a mouthpiece for drawing attention to the privations of deafness and the experiences of deaf individuals. Himself having suffered misery from deafness, Bosanquet spends much of the book trying to shift conceptions about the isolated and solitary state of the deaf, and on making it clear that one being deaf does not equal one being stupid.