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Reflections: My Life in the Deaf and Hearing Worlds

John B. Christiansen

from Part One
Baseball, Toothbrush, Hot Dog, Airplane: Life as a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Person

The Angel Chime

many readers will recognize the words baseball, toothbrush, hot dog, and airplane. Audiologists, listening therapists, and others typically use these and other two-syllable words to determine speech reception threshold, which is the softest or faintest level of speech that someone can hear and consistently understand. Because I have undergone countless hearing tests and have heard these words repeated dozens of times in a variety of settings, they have become my metaphor for the challenges, as well as the opportunities, of having a hearing loss.

Many people with some degree of hearing loss in their life have written books about their experiences. These include David Wright, whose book Deafness is widely seen as a classic in the field, and Henry Kisor, the author of Whatís That Pig Outdoors?1 Wright and Kisor are both part of the ďoral traditionĒ among deaf people; neither learned to sign and both lived in the hearing world. Neither would be considered part of the Deaf community, either in England, where Wright, a South African poet, spent most of his life, or in Illinois and Michigan, where Kisor, the retired book editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, resides. Another account, written as diary entries that span the 1990s, is A Quiet World. In this book, hard of hearing psychologist David Myers describes how he adjusted to using a hearing aid and to his progressive hearing loss.2

Other autobiographical accounts reflect the tradition of culturally deaf (Deaf ) people who use sign communication, usually American Sign Language (ASL).* Among the noteworthy contributions here are Gina Olivaís story, Alone in the Mainstream, and some of the other books in Gallaudet University Pressís Deaf Lives series. Also included in this tradition are books written by children of Deaf adults (Codas), who, although hearing, grew up with parents in the Deaf community. Important contributions are Lou Ann Walkerís A Loss for Words, R. H. Millerís Deaf Hearing Boy, and Paul Prestonís Mother Father Deaf.3

In addition to these accounts, several people who have received a cochlear implant have discussed how they have adjusted to life as a user and the difference this has made in their everyday activities. One interesting and informative book is Rebuilt by Michael Chorost. Others include Arlene Romoffís Hear Again, which is also in the form of a diary, and Beverly Bidermanís Wired for Sound.4

Josh Swillerís The Unheard is a fascinating account of his life as a deaf person, especially his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia. Although Swiller received a cochlear implant, he does not discuss that experience in his memoir.5

Which of these traditions do I identify with? Am I part of the oral tradition, where lipreading and listening skills are emphasized? Or do I identify more closely with those who are part of the Deaf community and use ASL? What about the loosely defined but growing cochlear implant community? The best answer is ďall of the above.Ē I grew up as a hard of hearing person who had almost no contact with deaf or Deaf people until I was thirty. In fact, I had not even heard of Gallaudet College (now University) until I was looking for a job during my last year of graduate school, and I had never seen a sign language interpreter. Now, more than thirty years later, I am reasonably fluent in ASL . Whatever else Iíve done in my life, I certainly have experienced many different ways of being deaf and hard of hearing.

* Following convention, uppercase Deaf refers to people who identify with the Deaf community, frequently associate with other Deaf people, and are reasonably fluent in ASL. Lowercase deaf refers to people with an audiological condition usually characterized by a severe to profound hearing loss.
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