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.

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).

 

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.

Green Light: Mr D.

This is the fifth installment of my autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. You can view earlier posts: PrologueChapter 1: Seeing SoundsChapter 2: Fearless LeaderChapter 3: The Black Box. Posts appear every other Friday. 

Sometime when I was six or seven, I was sent to a new school. It was far from our residence, which meant waking up at 7am to frantically get dressed, eat, and take the elevator down to the lobby of our apartment building. There was a fireplace in the lobby, where I would sit awkwardly and keep watch for the bus through sleepy eyes. Every school morning was the same. The bus would pick me up, then Z, and two other kids who went to different schools. Z and I were in the same class and remained friends for the longest time. S would join us on the bus a year or two later. These were the happiest bus trips for us, as we would gossip, share homework, play kids games, or just talk. There were days we didn’t need to talk, as silent understanding gave way to gazing out of the window and daydreaming. It was this way for seven years.

My new classroom was small. Only five students at the start, I believe, though the number never went higher than eight. I don’t recall the first days, or how different it was from my previous school. I remember the sadness—everyone else in the class knew each other, could talk to each other, and I was the outsider. They were friends and I was the intruder. Miss K. was a kind, gentle soul with an incredible sense of humor. She had long dirty blond hair and a twinkle in her eye that never went away—I saw her years later with her newborn daughter, and the twinkle was still there, even as she was exhausted from motherhood.

The first year was a blur but some things stay with you. I recall laughing hysterically when Miss K. banged her knee at a table; I didn’t think it was funny, but I thought it was a time to laugh. I missed so many other jokes and took my cues from others who were laughing, wanting to fit in, wanting to understand what was so funny, wanting to bond with Miss K. like the others could. Everyone looked at me like I was a mean soul, for daring to laugh when I shouldn’t, and Miss K. scolded me. I didn’t understand why I was in trouble or what I did wrong, or why everyone else wasn’t laughing when they did at other times. My face turned red and the tears flowed. They would flow so many times.

Then there was another time we had watched A Little Mermaid and were told to draw our own stories. I had an imagination, but no stories to tell. So I recreated in drawing, the story we had watched, from memory. There was never a purer sense of joy as realizing how amazed Miss K was with my drawing skills. My Sebastian was the same one as we saw on the television. Eager classmates asked how I did that; with an immense sense of pride, I showed them how to recreate their own Sebastian. Pretty soon, that’s all what we did that afternoon.

There are stories of friendships, of fights, of first loves, of mean rumours, and of disobedience that I’ll share later. This was the school where my life began, where I learned lessons that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

But, despite how much I’ve tried to forget, and how much has faded away through the years, nothing sticks to my memory from this time more than Mr. D, my speech teacher. He came maybe daily, maybe three times a week, and I dreaded my sessions with him. When I first met him, I used to think he was so cruel. So mean in the way he spoke so sternly, the way he grasped my cheeks to force me to utter sounds I’ve barely heard, to trace his fingers on my throat so I know how to recognize vocal movements. These were terrible sessions for me, and for others—nothing made us so uncomfortable, so sure of our own stupidity, so wanting of escape. Some of us finished sessions crying, me included.

It’s a very difficult thing to learn how to pronounce words that you’ve never heard before. None of us in that classroom were born deaf, we all lost our hearing sometime or another after acquiring language. Thus, according to the rule book, it was supposed to be easy to teach us how to restore our speaking ability, to teach us how to hear and speak like we were supposed to. It wasn’t easy. Not for us, those who had to meet with Mr D. The constant forcing of our tongue, of our lips, our throats, our jaws, being told to move it this way or that way, and certainly not in that way, was a daily reminder of our limitations. Buh-buh-buh. Say “B.” “sssszzzz” Say “S.” Say “Th.” Have your tongue bounce your teeth. “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until you get “Sh” correct. Repeat until this becomes your mantra. Repeat until you learn. Repeat until you understand. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I saw Mr D. for years as “Sh” and “Th” sounds were difficult for me and I had a terrible stutter, especially when I got nervous. One of my teachers thought the best way for me to get over my stutter was for me to enter the debate team. Public speaking, she believed, would force me to get over my insecurity and just say the words. I used to beg Mr D. for clues to pronounce words I knew only on paper. I used to ask my mom or sisters how to say words, then memorize them as not to make a fool of myself on stage. “Sh” and “Th” sounds could destroy confidence that I spent years building. How do you say words you know only on paper, how do you know the silent “a” or “n” or “s”? Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Mr D. was good at his job, kind and compassionate. We hated him because we hated what he had to make us do. But he had to teach us to speak, to learn, to understand. I thought of him often after I left that school, wondered what happened to him. One day I ran into him at my new high school, and an immense sense of dread washed over me. Was he there for me, I wondered? I was long past the years I required speech therapy, and didn’t want to do it again. I didn’t need him, I was just fine on my own, I didn’t need a hand to guide me through high school. He wasn’t there for me. He was attending another student at my school, who only then, I realized was also hard-of-hearing. Mr D. asked me if I wanted him to visit me too, to help make sure I was on the right track. “No speech therapy,” he said. “I’ll be a friend, a guidance counsellor so if you need assistance, I can help.” Standing outside the office window, we negotiated terms. I would see him once a week for 30 minutes after his meeting with the other student. If I didn’t want to come, he couldn’t get upset. He agreed as did I.

For the first year of high school, I saw Mr D. We talked, I shared some of the struggles I was having as a student, how much I missed my friends from my other school. He provided advice for increasing my grades, for thinking about what universities I wanted to apply, what career I wanted to make for myself. A few months down the line, he asked me if I wanted speech therapy again. I said no. I couldn’t put myself through that again. He nodded and told me he understood. He told me I didn’t really need it, but if I wanted to drop my Kuwait/deaf accent, I would have to devote to speech therapy for the rest of my life. “When you stop,” he told me, “you’ll have the accent again. So unless you care about that, it doesn’t seem like you need therapy anymore. It’s up to you. I’m here if you want me to come.” I repeated, no.

The last time I saw Mr D, I was 17. I ran into him at a mall and we sat on the bench, chatting like old friends. He scolded me for skipping school. I laughed and told him about my plans for becoming a writer and what universities I was applying for. He told me about his children and shopping for birthday presents. He wore the same black leather jacket I’ve always seen him wear. We hugged goodbye.

The Deaf & Dumb in Manchester

Back in May, I stopped by Manchester, UK, for two days, to see some friends before heading to Cambridge and London. Many scholars of history of science were in the city for the 24th International Congress of History, Science, Technology, and Medicine, including some of my friends, who were presenting papers at the Congress. After dinner, we decided to head to The Deaf Institute for some drinks. Blame it on jetlag, but it didn’t occur to me until we were actually standing in front of the bar, the historical significance of the building. It was formerly the Manchester Adult Deaf and Dumb Institute, founded in 1877. Located on Grosvenor Street, and designed by John Lowe, the elegant gothic building was built at a cost of about £6000, opening its doors on June 8th, 1878.

The Deaf Institute, Manchester, with 19th century signage still visible. Photo by Jai Virdi
The Deaf Institute, Manchester, with 19th century signage still visible. Photo by Jai Virdi

Just the previous month, I was doing some research at the Wellcome Library and came across a diary of James Patterson (b.1832), who was a teacher at the Manchester Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (est. 1824). James was the nephew of Andrew Patterson, who spent nearly 50 years teaching deaf students. Beginning his career as a schoolmaster in Devonshire, Andrew Patterson later worked as assistant master at the Manchester Institute, at the urging of his friend, H.B. Bingham, then the headmaster. Patterson left after five years of service to establish the Newcastle Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Schools. In 1832, Patterson returned to Manchester to take up the headmaster position upon Bingham’s retirement; he held the post until 1883.

James’ diary is particularly revealing in regards to the day-to-day life of teachers. He writes of his daily excursions, his interests in painting, his experiences in London over Christmas break—and, most notably, how important it was for the children to learn the “School of Art.” Some days, James encouraged the children to draw for 2 hours daily in conjunction to their lessons in arithmetic and letters. He also made note of his own talents (and struggles) in drawing.

Page from James Patterson's diary, Christmas 1858 detailing his travels in London.
Page from James Patterson’s diary, Christmas 1858 detailing his travels in London.

Some of the passages also tell us about how hearing teachers and perceived sign language as a method of instruction. In extraordinary passage, dated November 8, 1858, James writes:

I have been very much annoyed with Cordingley this morning, he was signing to the girls & I told him not to do so & he had the impudence to tell me that I did the same.

In another, dated May 14, 1858, James outlines a conversation he had with Mr. Goodwin, another teacher employed at the Institute:

After supper Mr Goodwin  and I had a long chat about different subjects. He gave me an Account of how he became deaf and dumb it was brought on by fever one evening he thought his ears were burning and he begun to scream and all of a sudden his earring (sic) and speech were gone; he was only 4 years old then he said that before he came here to School he thought the Moon was God & he used to kneel down & worship it & when his parents saw him they were angry with him & would make him get up. when he saw the moon he always behaved himself well, but when he could not see it he used to make all sort of fun & make people laugh who saw him that was one of our chief things what we talked about.