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American Annals of the Deaf

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Reflections: My Life in the Deaf and Hearing Worlds
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While this is getting a bit ahead of the story, my baseball career did end on a happy note, but not until my junior year of college, when I took advantage of a junior year abroad program and attended Silliman University in the Philippines. I played on the varsity baseball team and, with all due modesty, helped lead our team to a very successful season. It was also a wonderful opportunity to travel to different cities in the Philippines. Was communication a problem there? No doubt, but communication was a bit of a problem for all of us from outside the Philippines, and people didn’t take trouble-free interaction and communication for granted.* By then I was wearing a hearing aid, and most of my friends and acquaintances knew I was hard of hearing.

Perhaps one thing I might have done differently to satisfy my high school athletic aspirations would have been to focus on individual rather than team sports. Certainly, sports such as golf, tennis, and track didn’t have the status that team sports such as football and basketball had, but communication difficulties might not have been such an issue in these sports. In addition, there is less subjectivity involved in deciding who makes the team: the lowest scores in golf, the best times or the longest distances in track and field, and the most victories in tennis. Given my quarter-century obsession with cycling, maybe that would have been a good choice, except for the unfortunate fact that we didn’t live in France (where the Tour de France takes place) and few people in America knew much about bicycle racing before Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond won the Tour. Another drawback for many individual sports, especially golf and tennis, is that they require a lot of practice and instruction. When I was in high school, this was typically available at country clubs, which we were in no position to afford.

An “Awful Incertitude”

If my adolescent, post–little league athletic career was largely characterized by unfulfilled ambition, what about the rest of my life during these formative years? At the very least, my status as a hard of hearing kid made life more difficult than if I had been either deaf or hearing. Moreover, the phrase hard of hearing itself is very ambiguous. One can have a mild or moderate hearing loss or a hearing loss that is quite pronounced. In both cases, the label hard of hearing is generally used to describe the conditions. In actuality, life for someone who can readily communicate on the phone, for example, which someone who is mildly hard of hearing can do, is quite different from life for one who can’t.

When I was a teenager, I had enough residual hearing to hear well enough on the phone to call friends, including girlfriends (potential or actual), to talk or ask them out on a date. For me, it was much easier to hear on the phone, where only two people were trying to understand each other, than at a noisy party. My experience in this regard is quite different from that of Henry Kisor, who recounts in his book What’s That Pig Outdoors? that because he couldn’t hear on the phone he had to ask his mother or father, and later his sister, to call and try to arrange dates for him. Needless to say, he wasn’t too thrilled with this arrangement. I didn’t have a sister, so I couldn’t have used his approach in any case (my brother, who is three years younger than I am, would not have been a good option), and I can’t imagine having to ask one of my parents to do the job for me. As a hard of hearing kid, at least I had more flexibility and freedom in this regard than Kisor, a nonsigning deaf person, did.

If I had been either deaf or hearing, my status would not have been in doubt. Of course, if I had been severely hard of hearing or profoundly deaf as a youngster, there still would have been the question of what type of educational and communication strategies to use, where to attend school, and so on. But at least it would have been clear that I was not “hearing only what I wanted to hear,” as some people accused me of doing. As David Wright writes in his memoir, Deafness, in some ways, “the partially deaf . . . have the worst of both worlds.”

I think, too, that embarrassing social situations, missed conversations, awkward silences at parties and other occasions inevitably had a dampening effect on my self-confidence. I still recall a time in junior high school when I was walking in the hall and one of the prettiest girls in the school said, “Hi, John,” to me. Not quite sure I really heard what I thought I heard, I momentarily didn’t say anything in return. Alas, by the time I figured out what I thought she had said, it was too late for me to say anything. The next thing I thought I heard was “stuck up,” presumably what she said after getting no response from me. And then there were the parties and dances in high school, which usually took place under less than ideal lighting and acoustical conditions. For example, once I was with a small group of friends at a dance and I managed to figure out that they were talking about the “Y.” I innocently asked which YMCA they were talking about. This happened to be the wrong Y, an error that should have been obvious to me even before I got the usual assortment of puzzled looks from my friends. This being Utah, they were talking about BYU (Brigham Young University).

Issues and situations like these are recurrent themes in many of the memoirs written by deaf and hard of hearing people. Making inappropriate comments as a consequence of not being able to clearly follow the conversation, social isolation, and the “awful incertitude” (to use David Wright’s poignant phrase) of not knowing what is going on are problems that many deaf or hard of hearing people have to deal with on a regular basis. Many of those who have written about these matters tend to put the blame for instances of failed communication squarely on their own shoulders. Although I agree that much of the responsibility does, in fact, lie with the deaf or hard of hearing person in this regard, it is equally important to focus on social and cultural factors in an attempt to explain why problems such as these continue to occur.

In any case, split-second conversational decisions that people are faced with on a daily basis are frequently difficult for deaf and hard of hearing people to make. This is because we may not be sure what we thought we heard is what the speaker actually said, and we have to momentarily weigh a number of alternative scenarios before deciding how to respond. This takes a little time, and, by the time we have sorted through the various alternatives, the conversation has often moved on to another topic.

* In this sense, my experiences in the Philippines were similar to Josh Swiller’s experiences in Zambia, which he recounts in The Unheard. Although Swiller was in the Peace Corps and I was a college student, we both discovered that being deaf or hard of hearing was not a big deal when everyone was by necessity more conscious of communication issues and when people were obliged to take more time to make sure they understood each other.
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