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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Women's Lives: Three Self-Portraits

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Mom fearfully suspected mental retardation, but Dad didn’t think so because he had seen me put toys together, most of the time, flawlessly. In fact, I was more coordinated with toys than my brothers. Donnie assumed that I was deaf because I had never turned in reaction to the door slamming. So she and Mom once again took me to the pediatrician and asked for hearing tests. Without hesitation he brought out a bell and rang it behind my back. Ding, ding, ding. Nothing. I hardly moved a muscle as I sat there and stared at my mother. Frowning, the pediatrician realized for the first time that there was definitely a problem. He decided to try making a louder sound. Standing behind me, he held an inflated balloon and burst it with a needle. POP! Still no response. My face remained blank, staring straight ahead. The pediatrician stepped back in concern. This time he knew better than to tell my mom to wait for my first word.

Finally, the pediatrician placed a tape recorder behind me and turned it on. It emitted the deep, rounded tones of a male voice. He increased its volume and inched it closer to me. I did look up with a puzzled frown, my eyes still transfixed on the wall ahead of me. After staring at me, the pediatrician hesitantly asked my mother, “Does she hug you?” Mom and Donnie were taken back by his question and wondered what a hug had to do with these hearing tests. Mom replied, “Of course, she hugs me. Just like any other child. Why did you ask?”

“She seemed to hear the tape recorder but didn’t know where the sound came from. She could’ve turned her head to the recorder,” the pediatrician said, obviously reluctant to add more details. What he had in mind was autism and he didn’t want to upset Mom with his assumption. So he suggested that she take me to an otologist for more accurate hearing tests.

My parents saved copies of medical reports written by the pediatrician and other doctors about my diagnosis. In those flimsy yellowed letters, the pediatrician described my actions to doctors at John Hopkins University Hospital. His typewritten words, fading over thirty-five years, show that he really did care. Mom told me that this pediatrician expressed remorse for not noticing my abnormality sooner. I understand that back then in the early 1960s, pediatricians knew little about the symptoms of any disability.

More hearing tests were performed, eliciting very little response from me. The otologist believed I had a very definite loss, but he was uncertain about deafness because other conditions such as autism or aphasia could be possible. He explained that, like deafness, these other disabilities could show symptoms in toddlers such as not recognizing sounds and not developing speech. And it was too early to find out exactly what the problem was, he told my parents.

The otologist immediately referred me to the Speech and Hearing Center at Old Dominion University. There, an audiologist placed me in a small alcove, putting a headphone on my head, and began performing tests with an audiometer. He found that I responded to bell and flute sounds over 70 decibels between 500 and 2000 cycles per second. My response indicated that, at a high volume, I could hear low-frequency sounds better than high-frequency ones. That technical language may sound confusing to you, so I’ll explain a little of it to you now and more later when I explain the oral education method. What is important to understand here is that a decibel is a measurement of loudness. The range runs from 0 decibels to 140 decibels. The level of 0 decibels represents the softest sound a typical ear can hear, like the sound of a pin dropping. And that is a normally hearing person’s threshold. At the level of 55 decibels is loud conversational speech. The level of 75 decibels includes the sound of city traffic. The level of 140 decibels includes the sound of a jet engine at take-off. Well, the audiologist found that I could start hearing at 70 decibels in the low-frequency range.

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