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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Reflections: My Life in the Deaf and Hearing Worlds
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As far as anyone knows, I was not hard of hearing as an infant. In fact, according to family lore, the first time anyone noticed my hearing loss was when I was about five or six years old. This event took place around Christmas when my family, including relatives, was sitting around a table listening to the sounds made by a Christmas angel centerpiece. This gold-colored tin angel chime is still available today, and we have one at home that we occasionally dust off in December. There are four three-inch-long candles on a small circular base. When these candles are lit, an angel, catching the updraft, begins to spin, and small hard wires attached to the angel repeatedly strike the two bells that are part of the centerpiece. The high-frequency sound is quite soft. Everyone around the table that Christmas was saying how beautiful it was, except for me, because I was not able to hear the sounds.

One question people ask frequently when a physical condition not considered “normal” occurs is “why?”: Why is my child deaf or hard of hearing? What could I, as a parent, have done to cause this to happen? What did the doctors do wrong? Explanations include spinal meningitis, another childhood illness accompanied by a high fever, accidents, maternal rubella, and various genetic etiologies.6 Perhaps surprisingly in this day and age, a common answer is still “we don’t know.” So it was for me. I did have the usual litany of mid-twentieth-century childhood diseases, including the mumps and chicken pox. It is possible that my hearing loss is a result of one of these illnesses. I also had my tonsils and adenoids removed as a child, another common medical rite of passage for many people in my generation. Perhaps some undetected complication from that surgery, an infection perhaps, led to the progressive loss that I’ve experienced. Perhaps there is another reason. At this stage of my life, I suspect that I’ll never know. Like many deaf and hard of hearing people, as well as many parents of deaf children, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this since it makes little practical difference in terms of choosing among the variety of educational and communication strategies, as well as among the various technologies, that are available.

I don’t recall much of what happened in the years immediately after the revealing moment with the angel chime, except for the fact that one of my aunts, Grace Christiansen, happened to be a teacher of deaf children in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Like many schools for deaf kids in the mid-twentieth century, this school practiced an oral method of instruction. Aunt Grace did not use any form of sign communication; lipreading and using residual hearing were emphasized. Because I was hard of hearing and could hear most voices reasonably well, I tried some lipreading training and speech practice with her during the summer. No one suggested that I learn how to sign; no one considered it necessary, and in fact, it was not something I even knew about.

For most of the year, my parents and my younger brother David and I lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, but almost every summer we drove fifteen hundred miles on pre-interstate highways to my paternal grandparents’ home about forty miles north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The house, which everyone called the “ramshack,” sat on the shore of Lake Michigan near the small town of Cedar Grove. Cousins came to visit, other friends and relatives were always around, and water sports and swimming took up much of our time. Consequently, my lipreading training with Aunt Grace often was relegated to the proverbial back burner. One positive result of this training involved my own speech. I had a noticeable lisp as a youngster, and because I’ve long since learned how to say my s sounds and other difficult-to-hear consonants correctly, I’m sure my limited work with Aunt Grace was both productive and worthwhile. I’m also a reasonably good lipreader, and I have my aunt to thank for much of this ability as well.

Salt Lake City

My early childhood experiences in Salt Lake City were not exceptional, although some were no doubt unique to a hard of hearing son of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. My parents, Don and Betty Christiansen, had moved to Salt Lake from Milwaukee in 1946, a few months after I was born. My parents had served as missionaries in Ketchikan, Alaska, for five years before World War II . Soon after the war started, my father enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a chaplain, and my parents lived at air force bases near Dayton, Ohio, and Macon, Georgia, before finding their way to the Salt Lake Valley. Protestants were scarce in Utah in the 1940s, even more so than they are today, and my parents were deeply involved in helping the newly formed Wasatch Presbyterian Church develop into one of the largest Protestant congregations in the state.

Neither of my parents had much experience with deaf or hard of hearing people, and I recall only fleeting contact with any deaf people as I was growing up. Two Deaf people I do recall meeting were old acquaintances of my parents from Iowa. I’m not sure how my parents came to know them or how they communicated with them, but they stayed with us for a few days while they were visiting Salt Lake. I must have been about ten years old when this couple visited us, and I had little interaction with them. In fact, I had no clue how to communicate with them.

Some fifty years later, the fact that their names came up in an unrelated situation says a great deal about the remarkable cohesiveness of the Deaf community in America. I was having lunch in the snack bar at Gallaudet University one day when Ron Sutcliffe, a retired faculty member, approached me and said that he had gone to school in Iowa with two friends, had heard from them recently, and said they wanted him to say hello to me. I didn’t remember their names but did remember the couple who had visited with us. How they remembered me from their visit to Salt Lake, or how they even knew I was at Gallaudet, I have no idea. Perhaps my parents had told them I was hard of hearing when they visited us and they remembered this, or perhaps they simply recognized my name in a Gallaudet publication.

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I attended three different elementary schools in Salt Lake, including one that started about seven o’clock in the morning. Such an early start was not something that my friends and I looked forward to, but in the days when baby boom children in a state with a very high birthrate were flooding the school system, at least some of the public schools in Salt Lake had to operate two shifts. I don’t recall being asked which shift I preferred, but it was nice to have my weekday afternoons free, particularly when the weather was warm.


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