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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 and Dad ordered the John Tracy correspondence course, which was designed for parents of oral-bound deaf children. This course was developed in the 1940s by the wife of Spencer Tracy, the movie actor who had a deaf son. The course encouraged my parents to teach me to associate things with lip movements. One of the step-by-step activities it recommended taught them to play matching games with me. Mom and Dad would scramble pairs of items on the floor, then pick up, for example, one shoe and mouth this word to me, and ask me to pick up another shoe in the midst of other items. I’d watch the lips carefully and pick up the right item.

However, I didn’t always get things right. I would forget by the next day, and the same teaching would have to be started all over again. I bet my parents and Mary Jane wanted to wring my neck, but they knew that teaching a deaf child required top-level patience. The process was complex because so many words looked the same on the lips. To me, the spoken word “doll” may have looked like “dog” or “all.” In the future, I would have to learn to watch the tongue formation in the mouth, the placement of teeth, and the vibrations of the cheeks.

Even the most skilled speechreaders get only between 30 percent and 40 percent of what is said, especially on fast-talking lips. That’s why deaf people need to be spoken to slowly and clearly. Even though many words look alike on the lips, the speechreaders manage to understand by figuring out the right words to fit in, as I have learned over the years. For instance, you say, “Oh great!” On the lips, it could’ve been “grade” or “grain.” Of course, I cannot hear the difference between those three words, but I can quickly grasp what the right word is given the context.

After taking more hearing tests at John Hopkins, I was given a final diagnosis: bilateral sensorineural hearing impairment. That diagnosis was what the doctors considered a very severe, close to profound, nerve deafness. The doctors suggested that I try mild amplification so I could learn to hear at a comfortable level and then eventually settle with a permanent hearing aid. The final diagnosis, of course, saddened my parents but what hit my mom twofold was the realization that I would never have a normal education and that her pregnancy was the cause of my deafness. She told me the first insight affected her most because she couldn’t bear to send me away to a residential school. She and Dad were informed that I required long-term special education. Norfolk, Virginia, had no oral school that was appropriate. Mom was disheartened to learn that the closest reputable oral school, Clarke School, was 700 miles away in Massachusetts.

Mom was not too concerned about why I was born deaf because she had no plan to have any more children. Four was enough. She was too busy making sure my brothers and I stayed off the railroad tracks or didn’t run through thorny bushes. Our health and safety occupied her mind. Still, the doctors were curious about my birth defect, and they had questions for my parents. Mom and Dad sat down, prepared to answer yes or no.

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