Eyes that Hear

I want to take you on a journey . . .

Imagine you move to another planet.  On this planet, there are other human beings almost exactly like you.  They look like you, and they hear, see, smell, taste, and touch as you do.  There is only one difference.  These other human beings have a sixth sense that you don’t have.  This sense gives them the ability to read each other’s minds through a telepathy of sorts.

Being around these telepathic humans is a bit unnerving because they could be holding a conversation with each other and you wouldn’t even know it, until everyone in the room starts laughing and you wonder what you missed.  When you try to speak to one of these telepathic humans, they look at you like you’re crazy.  Since they’ve grown up communicating by transmitting thoughts, they never really learned to speak.  It’s not that they’re incapable of speech; they have normal vocal chords as you do—they just don’t use them.

There are a small handful of these telepathic beings who have learned speech specifically so that they can translate on your behalf.  But these translators are often more frustrating than helpful.  When you ask one of them what everyone is laughing about, they might say, “Oh, someone made a joke.”  Impatiently, you respond, “Yeah, I already knew that!  But what was the joke?”  Your translator-friend might reply, “I’ll tell you later,” or “Oh, it wasn’t important,” or “Oh, you wouldn’t understand it anyway because thoughts are more complex than speech.”

When they discover that you can’t read their minds, most telepathic people freeze in fear because they can’t think of how to communicate with you.  When the shock wears off, they look at you with eyes of pity.  They behave towards you in a way that implies that you’re less intelligent or less capable.  Through a translator, they may ask you silly questions like, “How do you get up in the morning if you can’t receive telepathic commands to wake up?  And how do you drive?”  You want to roll your eyes and say, “I can use an alarm clock.  And I don’t have to read minds in order to drive, I’m not blind!”

You’re not the only non-telepathic person in this world, thank goodness.  People like you are few and far between, but there’s enough of you that you’re able to organize a club and hold regular meetings and social events where you get to speak to each other using your actual voices.  When you meet and interact with other non-telepaths, it’s a relief to be yourself and have normal conversations and be with people who understand you.  You consider conversations between telepathic people to be dull and devoid of true interaction because they often talk to each other when they’re in completely different rooms and can’t even see who they’re talking to.  You find speech to be a much superior form of communication because you actually have to be in close proximity to the person you’re talking to, and thereby you can feel more energy and intimacy with that person.  So ironically, while telepathic people pity you because you don’t know what you’re missing out on, you in turn pity them because they’re the ones who don’t know what they’re missing out on.

One day some telepathic doctors approach you and inform you of a surgery they can do to implant an extra lobe into your brain that will enable you to read minds.  However, it will be an artificial lobe, not a natural one like the ones everyone else was born with, so you won’t be able to read minds in exactly the same way, but with some therapy you can learn to compensate and interpret the thoughts that come to you, and then you can finally live like other “normal” telepathic humans and you won’t have to speak anymore.  Inside, you want to scream, “I am normal!  Who needs telepathy when you can speak?  This is who I am, and I like who I am.  I like the sound of my voice and I like having a reason to use my voice.  My condition isn’t a disease, it’s a culture.”

The thought of surgery scares you because it would be very invasive.  Nevertheless, out of both curiosity and peer pressure, you eventually agree to have the surgery.  But after the surgery, your head is suddenly bombarded by other people’s thoughts flying at you from all directions.  All these new signals are scary, distracting, disorienting, and give you a headache.  And they seem like gibberish.  Upon learning of your surgery, your telepathic acquaintances rejoice that you’re now “one of them” and that you’re “cured.”  But you know in your heart that you’re not one of them and you never will be, and you don’t consider yourself cured because there was nothing wrong with you to begin with.  You’re proud of being non-telepathic and of being able to use your voice to communicate.  You’re proud that you can function just fine without being dependent on mind reading.  Fortunately, your artificial lobe comes with a remote that you can use to turn it on and off.  So you turn it off to preserve both your sanity and, more importantly, your identity.

That is the analogy I came up with one day to help me understand what it feels like to be a deaf person in a hearing world.

As you may have guessed, the “sixth sense” of telepathy represents the sense of hearing that a deaf person lacks, and the love of speech represents a deaf person’s love of sign language.

Last week I went to an ASL event where a panel of five deaf individuals answered some common questions.  In response to the question, “What is the hardest things about being deaf?” one of the panelists signed, “Hard?  It’s not hard.  After all, you can sleep soundly!  You don’t have to deal with noise everywhere.  It’s the hearing people who have it hard.”  He was being funny, but he was also being serious.  I saw another panelist sign, “When you’re deaf, life is less complicated and more peaceful.  Hearing people are really busy because they have more things to distract them.  But without hearing, it’s easier to focus on what matters most.”

Another question was, “What do you love about being deaf?”  A female panelist responded that she loved being able to sign and sign on and on with other deaf people.  It bugs her how hearing people don’t always look at each other when they talk to each other.  But to be face to face with your conversational partner and constantly looking them in the eye is so much more exhilarating.  You feel a closer connection and can tap into their energy.  She said she knows how to speak as well, but she doesn’t feel like the same person when she’s speaking instead of signing.

As I’ve studied ASL and deaf culture over the last year, I’ve been surprised to discover that for the most part . . . deaf people actually love being deaf!  Who would have thought?

I must confess that ASL is the last language I thought I would ever learn.  (It would take too long for me to explain the circumstances that led me to change my mind.)  Prior to learning ASL, I remember once walking into a certain classroom, thinking that it was an exam review session for my anatomy class.  After sitting down, I looked around and suddenly realized I had walked into an ASL class by mistake.  Sheer terror gripped me, and I got out of there as fast as I could.  For some reason, ASL tends to be the most intimidating language to those who don’t know it yet.  However, once you start learning it, you realize it’s the easiest and most fun language there is.  But the real challenge for me was understanding the culture behind the language.

When I began attending my first ASL class a year ago, I remember being shocked when I realized that my teacher herself was deaf.  I had never really met a deaf person before, and subconsciously I guess I’d always assumed deaf people were . . . “less intelligent,” to put it bluntly.  Perhaps I assumed the brain needed sounds in order to develop normally.  At the very least, I’d expected that deaf people wouldn’t have the same opportunities and status as a hearing person.  How could a deaf person teach hearing students?  How could she relate to me?  How could I ask a question if I didn’t know the sign for it?

Then, when I was assigned to read a book about the history of deaf culture in America, I learned that there is a famous university for the deaf in Washington D.C. called Gallaudet University.  In 1988 there was a student protest called the “Deaf President Now” movement to protest the fact that the school had never been led by a deaf president and that a very qualified deaf individual had recently been passed over in favor of a hearing president.  The deaf community considered these facts an outrageous discrimination.  When I first learned about it, I remember thinking, “Well . . . wouldn’t it make sense to have a hearing president so that he can be a better mediator between the deaf and hearing worlds?”

I was also surprised the first time I learned that many deaf people are against the idea of cochlear implants.  One of the girls in my ASL class was deaf, but she had a cochlear implant, so she could talk with me and respond to me just fine.  It was weeks before I even realized she was deaf.  She told me how deaf friends had tried to convince her parents not to have her get a cochlear implant, but they decided to do it anyway.  I was puzzled.  Why would anyone try to convince parents not to restore one of their child’s basic human senses?

In all three of these incidents, my surprise was simply a matter of ignorance.  It took a while for me to really put myself in a deaf person’s shoes. In my analogy above, I tried to make everything as parallel as possible to the deaf experience. The deaf are normal people who are no less intelligent or capable as those with five senses.  They consider deafness a culture, not a disability.  They don’t need to be pitied, and they can do everything that a hearing person can do, except hear.

In my hearing science class this semester, I’ve been learning about the ear in great depth.  There are three main sections of the ear: the outer, middle, and inner ear.  The outer ear funnels the sound waves to vibrate the ear drum.  The ear drum vibrates three tiny bones of the middle ear to convert the sound to mechanical energy.  The bones vibrate against the cochlea, which is full of fluid.  The movement of fluid stimulates hair cells within the cochlea, which stimulate the auditory nerve and sends electrical signals for the brain to decode.

For certain types of deafness, a very invasive surgery can be done to insert something called a cochlear implant.  What a cochlear implant does is it bypasses the outer and middle ear and stimulates the auditory nerve directly.  This allows the brain to receive signals from sounds, but it’s not the same kind of hearing that a regular hearing person has.  That’s why in my analogy above I compared it to getting a brain implant so you can mindread . . . but it’s not the same type of mindreading as those who are born with it.  And just like the non-telepathic people in my analogy, many deaf people don’t like the implants once they have them.  Even if the cochlear implant works, there are still subtle nuances that are missed and that change the way these people experience life. Plus, putting cochlear implants in children encourages an identity that they will never fully understand or connect with.  Cochlear implants makes them feel like they’re expected to act like a hearing person (even though they’re not), makes them think that there is something “wrong” with them that needs fixed, and prevents them from learning and preserving deaf culture.

When asked about his personal opinion about cochlear implants, one deaf panelist said that if he has any deaf children he would probably have them get cochlear implants, but he would have his kids turn off the implants every other day so that they also get to sign and embrace the deaf world as well.

As I’ve learned ASL, it’s been interesting to discover that ASL is not just a code for English.  Rather, ASL really is its own language with its own grammar and culture.  This semester, one of my mentors has really stressed to me the importance of looking at people’s eyes when they’re signing to me.  At first, this seemed counter intuitive.  If I was looking at their eyes, how was I supposed to read their hands?  Nevertheless, when I finally took my mentor’s advice, I was astonished at how much better I could comprehend ASL—including fingerspelling.  It’s as if I’m reading the meaning in their eyes just as much if not more than I’m reading it in their hands.  When looking in the eyes, I don’t just see the meaning, I feel the meaning.  Communication has never felt more alive.  There’s an energy and understanding in deaf culture that I never knew existed.  A deaf friend told me the other day, “They have actually done studies that show that having eye contact increases your connective relation and decreases arguments and contention. I feel like the deaf are more apt to discuss disagreements without arguing.”  Truly, the majority of the hearing world is really missing out.

In my childhood, I remember being asked the question, “Would you rather be blind or deaf?”  I don’t remember what my answer used to be (probably blind), but I know what it is now.  You probably think I’m going to say deaf.  Actually, my conclusion is that it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m blind or deaf as long as I’ve learned to truly hear and truly see, and that is what deaf culture has taught me to do.

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