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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Women's Lives: Three Self-Portraits

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That consultation led to the beginning of my numerous hearing tests spanning eight months at John Hopkins. The doctors found that, if I was visually engrossed, I didnít react to sound. However, if visual stimuli were removed and my attention was centered on listening, they could observe a variety of reactions to sound. Loud sounds of 70 decibels were enough to break into my visual preoccupation. I also reacted better to low-frequency sounds and required more decibels to hear high-frequency sounds.

Any of those doctors could have immediately suggested the use of amplification once the hearing impairment was diagnosed, but back in the 1960s, technology wasnít well advanced. Today, a deaf baby can even be diagnosed on the day he or she is born, thanks to high technology and a better understanding of deafness. Back then, the doctors didnít know the exact degree of my hearing loss, so they decided to use structured auditory listening games as a way to see whether I could discriminate sounds. They instructed Mom and Dad on how to stimulate my language and speech development at home by using a face-to-face only approach. We were sent home, knowing we would come back in the following weeks for more hearing tests.

Mom and Dad decided to rely on oralism because I had spent a considerable amount of time watching lips. That choice was fairly common for a hearing family who wanted their deaf child to be like them, able to speak. If I had come from a deaf family, it might have been different; sign language would have then been the likely choice.

During our visit at the coffee cafť, Mary Jane went on to tell me that I still forgot to pick up a pen during one session after another. She explained that it was easy for me to forget new words when there was no auditory sense. Hearing babies, even those in wombs, remember the sounds of the words they hear, so they learn spontaneously. Deaf babies? No way. Thatís why a deaf child needs to be taught the same word over and over again, usually thirty-five times. In contrast,, it takes only three repetitions for a hearing child to learn a word because itís much easier to remember the sound of each word. Hearing people learn by hearing; deaf people learn by seeing.

Thatís why I had to watch Mary Janeís and my motherís lips to understand speech. Actually, no one told me to speechread; I just happened to pick up the habit myself. Lips seemed to be the only thing moving on everyoneís face, so why not watch the action? I just thought, and still think, lips are so full of character that they have a mind of their own. If lips are moving in a restricted way with frequent tightening, then whoa, I better step back and not aggravate that person. If lips are chapped, shredding like a river birch bark, then I assume that person must have spent a lifetime worshiping the sun.


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