Thursday, October 26, 2006


For some inexplicable reason, people who would not think of ridiculing a crippled person, and who would rush to help a blind person, find the Hearing Impaired very amusing. They are not intentionally cruel, but it seems excruciatingly funny to them that a sentence is misinterpreted or a conversation consists of "What? Say that again," or the inevitable, traditional "Eh?"

My parents were uneducated, good, simple farm folks who unknowingly called all deaf people "Deef and Dumb." So, when I emerged from that County Hospital at the age of ten with a serious hearing problem, they never realized it or understood it. They only knew I was a brat with an attitude problem, as compared to my sweet sister, Helma, who was perfect.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children often react to their confusion by misbehavior. As a child, I was labeled the most rebellious of the entire lot, troublesome, stubborn, mouthy, and impossible to control. In reality, away from the eyes of the world, I was introverted, studious, frightened and confused by the way people treated me. Even I did not know I couldn't hear.

Teachers back then were not the most discerning sort, either. One male teacher grabbed me angrily, shook me until my teeth rattled, and threatened me with a "I'll teach you to ignore me!"

I did not hear him. And treatment like this drove me into the world of books, of immersing myself in the only place besides the Jack Paar famous " safe between the sheets", the pages of a book. I read and read, going through the entire supply of books in that school...which consisted of one bookshelf filled with volumes.

Children are adaptable, and they are survivors. In order to make it through a tumultous world, I adjusted to the hearing loss and learned to lipread. I became such an expert at reading lips, using also the small amount of hearing left to me, that I worked for many years with no person knowing I was afflicted with a loss of hearing.

There is one thing about lipreading. It takes the attention away from the deaf person and ladles it onto the person speaking. I have had people hide their lips with their hands as I stared at them, interpreting their speech. I have had people fumble, mutter and stutter as they realized what I was doing. It is amazing how sensitive people are when having their lips and teeth subjected to a steady stare, and it is much worse for people whose teeth are not perfect.

When I went to high school, a hearing test was given to all students and I was called in to the superintendant's office, where I was told I my hearing was badly impaired. By that time, I knew it anyway. A note was sent home to my parents, but there was no money for hearing aids.

Years later, I did purchase a hearing aid. I still use it in movies. It has an aggravating habit of dropping off my ear in the most embarrassing circumstances. One time, when I did volunteer work for the public television station in Pontiac, my hearing aid dropped off on camera. I kept right on talking, hoping that the audience would believe I had lost some complicated microphone used by the station. By the way, I won Best On Air Personality for that station two years in a row. I am proud of that.

Hearing Aids are smaller now and no longer pick up the sound of someone chomping potato chips in the next room. All manner of devices and improvements have been made in the world of hearing problems. Most movie theaters and even churches have Hearing Devices one can use to enable the Hearing Impaired to understand a movie or a sermon. I used one of those devices to watch the Phantom of the Opera and, for some strange reason, everyone else's voice came through just fine, but the Phantom, the star of the show, sounded like a cow lowing in the pasture at milking time.

I have a telephone whose ring and audio will blast a person with normal hearing into the next room. I have Closed Captioning on my television. Sometimes the spelling on Closed Captioning is far more entertaining than the programs I am watching.

When I went to Florida last year, I met a man who had gotten in on the ground floor of Closed Captioning with a little company providing this service for local stations. When Federal law made it mandatory for all televisions to be equipped with Closed Captioning, his business expanded and he retired a wealthy man.

My dog is a help to me. Jedi will wake me up when that alarm goes off, and since I am a very sound sleeper, this saves me from a great deal of frustration. Her favorite sound is the smoke alarm. She goes into a frenzy and saves my life, even though it is usually buzzing because I burnt something on the stove.

Most places of business welcome Jedi. But, once in a while, I am accosted as I enter the door by an angry owner who demands that I "get that dog out of his establishment." I carry all sorts of documentation, but many people believe that only the Blind can bring a dog inside a business.

This makes travel difficult, but I have learned one thing. Even at my age, I am nimble and blessedly healthy. Yet, if I use a cane to enter a business establishment, few people accost me about the dog. So I always have a cane on hand to use in these circumstances.

This happens because Hearing Loss is a hidden handicap. You can't see a completely useless set of ears, but eyes, legs and arms are visible. You can see that person hobbling or that Blind person tapping with his cane. You can't see that Silence. Silence is silent. It is invisible. It is hidden away, out of view, but it IS a handicap as inhibiting and limiting as the loss of an eye or a leg.

And it is not funny, so please don't subject that poor struggling person trying to make out what you just said with a smirking snigger and a remark , "You can't hear right." At one time, I had a friend who said to me in irritation, "Herma, since you can't hear, why don't you listen?"

I'm still trying to figure that one out.

My advice to parents and teachers is to be vigilant. If a child turns suddenly obdurate and recalcitrant, prone to anger, check on their Hearing. There are many Helen Kellers out there, just waiting to break through the silence into the outer world. Help them do it!

I never learned Sign Language, simply because I would have had to talk to myself, as no one else knew how to use it. In my case, the lipreading works as well. But Signing is a great way for Deaf and Hearing Impaired children to communicate with others. However, others have to know how to use it, too. So, perhaps it is time to add Sign Language to the mandatory curriculum of all American schools.

It beats a lifetime of "Eh? What was that? Say that again!" It beats a lifetime of Silence.