Friday, December 21, 2012
I mentioned in my Communicating Sans Steno post that my dad has had significant hearing loss for as long as I can remember, but since he was largely in denial about it for most of that time, I didn't learn much about how hearing loss worked or what it was like to deal with in daily life, so I'm ashamed to admit that I've been staggeringly insensitive to at least two hard of hearing people I've known over the years.
The first was when I was a teenager. Her parents were friends with my parents, so she and her brother used to come over to my house when we had parties, and sometimes I'd go to theirs. We went to different schools, so we only saw each other a few times a year, but we always had a good time when we got together. I didn't notice that she wore hearing aids until several years after we first met, when she mentioned that she'd won an essay scholarship for teenagers with hearing loss. Like the ignorant blunderer I was, I said, "Wait, you have hearing loss?" For the first time I noticed the aids. "But you wear hearing aids." "Yes," she replied patiently. "So... Why do you qualify for a scholarship if your hearing aids have already fixed the problem?" Like so many people, I'd assumed that if my eyeglasses were able to correct my severe myopia to normal vision, then hearing aids would be able to do the same thing for anything short of total deafness. I had no idea until almost 20 years later that amplification often doesn't improve clarity, that some frequencies can be incapable of amplification due to permanent loss of specific cochlear hair cells, that hearing is an extremely complex mechanism that doesn't have an easy or complete fix when any of its components malfunction. My misrefracting cornea could be completely compensated for by a piece of light-bending plastic. Even with hearing aids, my friend's hearing loss remained something she needed to reckon with.
I'd never noticed her misunderstanding me or asking me to repeat myself when we talked (the way my dad often did), and I didn't realize that the casual one-on-one conversations we had at parties were totally unlike her situation in the classroom, where she was learning new material, sat several feet away from the teacher (losing any ability to lipread, especially since the teacher faced the board most of the time), and was forced to work twice as hard as her classmates to get the same amount of information through her ears and into her brain. The fact that my friend had managed to do this all her life, getting excellent grades and becoming an extremely literate and eloquent writer, totally blew past me. I took it for granted; instead of congratulating my friend on her essay, I was rude and dismissive. I haven't seen my old friend since high school, but if I ever run into her again, I'll apologize and explain that I know a lot more now than I did then -- not that that's any excuse. If I had actually asked her to tell me more about the scholarship instead of assuming that it made no sense, I would have learned something that day, instead of having to wait 20 years to realize how much of a jerk I'd been.
The second incident is even more problematic, because I was in a position of authority. At my college, all sophomores are required to take a year of music theory, even though their degree (there's only one on offer) is in Liberal Arts. Music classes are led by professional instructors, but there are also weekly practicum classes, where students are supposed to try out what they've learned in small 4-to-5-person groups. Students with musical experience are chosen to lead those groups as work-study assignments, and because I'd played in the pit orchestra of a summer repertory theater, I got to be one of them. My job involved drilling the students in singing simple multipart songs and rounds, helping them to analyze counterpoint examples discussed in class, and answering any questions they had about the stuff they were studying. The emphasis was on getting an intellectual understanding of the music rather than in becoming accomplished performers, so it wasn't a problem that a few students in each practicum were tone deaf. Most of them just hadn't been exposed to much formal music training, and once I gave them a few exercises, their pitch discrimination and singing tended to improve quite a bit.
There was one student, though, who found both the music class and the practicum intensely frustrating. I noticed his hearing aids right away, because he'd decorated the earmolds in bright colors. He was forthcoming about his hearing loss, and explained that he got very little out of all the singing, analysis, and call-and-response pitch practice, because he couldn't hear any of it accurately enough to duplicate. Again, I assumed that the hearing aids should have solved the problem, and didn't understand what his issue was. He wasn't being graded on his accuracy in singing, and he wouldn't be penalized if he wasn't able to appreciate the aesthetic nuances of the songs. All he had to do was understand the mathematics of the music on the page, so that he could speak about it in class. The singing exercises were just intended to help build first-hand experience with hearing and repeating music in realtime. I figured that his hearing loss put him in the category of the "tone deaf" students, and treated him accordingly. I didn't realize that, unlike them, the problem wasn't his ability to distinguish the notes on an intellectual level. Unlike them, he wasn't going to improve with practice. He couldn't hear the difference between pitches no matter how many times they were repeated, so he felt like he was being forced to bang his head against a wall every week in practicum. When he expressed his frustration to me, I thought he was being oversensitive, and just reassured him that it wouldn't affect his grade even if he didn't improve by the end of the semester. I didn't realize the emotional consequences of being asked to do something you weren't physically able to do every week in front of your peers, over and over, and failing every time. He eventually wound up transferring to another college, and I'm afraid that my inability to understand what he was telling me played into that decision.
Like any good essay writer, I've Googlestalked both of these people as research for this post, and today they're both extremely successful and well-respected in their fields. Obviously my ignorance didn't stop them from doing what they wanted to do. But when you add my ignorance to the ignorance of everyone else they had to deal with, how much more exhausting, frustrating, annoying, infuriating did it make their educational experiences, not to mention other parts of their lives? If I hadn't gone into CART, I never would have realized the mistakes I'd made in trusting my own assumptions instead of listening to their experiences. Now I do, and I'm mortified when I think of the way I behaved. There's no easy solution to this problem. One out of every seven people in this country have some degree of hearing loss, and yet so few people actually understand how it works. It'll take a lot to educate all 312 million people about the 45 million who are Deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing, but it badly needs to be done.