The end of silence

One of the latest sensations to be headed around Cyberland is a video of 29-year-old Sloan Churman, a woman who had been born deaf and lived with severe-to-profound hearing loss her whole life. Last week, the You Tube video of her hearing her voice for the first time went viral. She had undergone surgery to receive Envoy Medical’s Esteem Implant, which is similar to but not the same thing as a cochlear implant.

To be perfectly honest, I am torn about the popularity of this video. Of course, it’s lovely to see another human being experience the joy that Churman was clearly caught up in. It’s impossible not to feel happy for her.

The issues surrounding language and the deaf, however, are hugely complicated and I couldn’t help but be reminded of them as I watched Churman’s tears of joy. I wondered how many would be saddened or angered by this video for various reasons, and how many more would consider themselves to be actually informed after simply watching this briefest of views into one experience of one deaf woman.

Reading through the comments on YouTube confirmed my suspicions. Comments were dominated by well-wishers, though there were certainly a number of people who were curious about her achievement. They wondered how someone who was born deaf could speak so perfectly, with no trace of a ‘deaf accent.’  Others claimed it was a fake precisely because of her lack of accent. (For the record, her accent is very slight, but you can hear a hint of it when she says “I don’t want to hear myself cry.” at 0:47. Listen for the /s/ in ‘myself’ and a slight nasal quality in the vowel in ‘cry’).

Both groups got flamed, regardless of how their inquiries were worded. To wit:

Comment“I don’t believe this is a fake, but it is misleading as are many articles and stories about cochlear implants. Chochlear implants are wonderful and amazing. But they do not automatically give you hearing. It takes months of listening through them to understand sound if you were born without it. CI’s work differently for different people. There are many different levels of hearing loss. It’s frustrating when something like this shows up and doesn’t show all the hard work that goes into it.”

Follow-up“My point is that this video makes it seem to the uneducated (about deafness) viewer that a deaf person can get implanted and suddenly hear and speak like a normal hearing person. And I know from experience that that is not the case. There is a LOT of work involved with using a CI or hearing aids successfully. I think when you show a video like this it gives a wrong impression And I believe this is a video of her first hook-up, Not of her using it after two months.”

Reactions: (imagine a [sic] after every error, please)

  • “way to bring the room down. She can hear more than she ever has in her life, stop being so cynical.”
  • “wow dick. get a life be happy for this woman!”
  • “You are a DOUCHBAG…”
  • “Oh Yea, Douchbag. Your the only one who finds a negative thing in a woman hearing for the first time. Another Douchbag TROLL.”
  • “dude, just be happy for the chick, whatever she hears has moved her. Wow would you be negative and say such irrelevant things? No one cares about the process, its about being human and watching a sense that this person never had before, come to life. I hope you have a wonderful day and rethink how you go about your life.”

The most depressing thing – aside from the fact that people can’t even spell douche bag anymore – was in the last comment: “no one cares about the process.” I suppose this would be more understandable if the original comment had been mean-spirited. It was not, however. It was merely analytical and a little pessimistic about how this events of the video might be misconstrued by many people.

Perhaps I just share those concerns and so I am biased, but it’s still disconcerting to know that people honestly don’t care to think beyond the visible result of a long, arduous process. They want to see a happy outcome and never care to assess the work that was put into that outcome, nor do they want to admit that they may be witnessing an anomaly. This feels like the original commenter was actually being admonished for trying to be more analytical about what was seen in the video and its implications for others in similar situations. Such a display of the complete and willful disdain for critical thinking makes me throw up in my mouth just a little bit.

More misconceptions littered the comments. Some expressed confusion over how a deaf person could ever learn how to speak. They were quite convinced it would be impossible for Churman to have learned to speak so clearly. It seems they believe that a person who is ‘deaf’ can’t hear a single noise, which isn’t actually the case. Some speech is still discernible in varying degrees depending on both the level of loss and which frequency ranges are audible. Even profoundly deaf people retain the ability to hear some very loud sounds, and of course the vibrations made by even quieter sounds. (You can read a description of the levels of loss here.)

There were other comments that made the claim – quite emphatically – that she obviously knew English because she could lip-read. This is also miles away from the truth. Most of the literature agrees that in the best circumstances, about 30% of language is clearly and distinctly visible on our lips, but because so many sounds can be made using the same facial arrangement, much of the message is actually inferred, not ‘read’.

Even the well-wishers could be inadvertently offensive to some. Generally, the assumption among those of us who hear normally is that all deaf people wish they could hear, or at least should wish for this. Many of the comments reflected this attitude:

“…I started tearing up when I realized how lucky she is to finally hear. We take hearing for granted everyday and she is finally getting a chance…”

Again, let me be careful to say that I feel this woman was lucky because she wanted the chance to hear and she actually got it. But I also know that this feeling of wanting to be ‘fixed’ is not something that is shared by all deaf people. In fact, there are many who consider themselves to be not handicapped (deaf) but simply a person with four rather than five senses who belongs to a cultural and linguistic minority (Deaf), and who might feel the same way a gay person does at the notion that they can be ‘cured’ of their disorder and be ‘lucky’ enough to be ‘normal’ for the first time in their lives.

But the situation is so thoroughly complicated that it can’t be boiled down to a simple “Hearing is good, deaf is bad” (or vice versa) dichotomy. It also can’t be boiled down to one already-too-long blog post – without any pictures, even! – which is possibly why I haven’t even attempted writing about it until this video prompted me to finally do so. I simply didn’t know where to start.

I’ve been writing As a Linguist since June of 2009, though it’s only been since February of this year that I’ve been posting regularly. In this whole time, I haven’t even begun to touch on issues surrounding deaf language acquisition, despite the fact that it was the focus of my graduate work in Linguistics and, after I switched departments, for my M.Ed. in Deaf Education. As I started to work on this post, I found myself getting deeper and deeper into research that has been done since I finished my degree so I could learn about what developments I’ve missed by having changed direction into ESL, teaching, and writing.

I remembered why I devoted long years of my education to this subject. And it makes me want to finally break my silence.

19 thoughts on “The end of silence

    • From what I’ve read, she used hearing aids with some success, so clearly she had enough residual hearing that she could at least hear basic speech sounds. Of course she missed a lot of it, which she seemed to supplement with lip reading and sign. Actually, I take that back because I don’t know if she signed or not. The speech would have have been very clear or distinct, and depending on what frequencies she could still hear, she might miss sounds like /s/ or /f/, or those would be fine and she’d instead miss /m/ or /l/. Every person’s loss is different, so it’s hard to say what she got from the hearing that she did have, and what she got from other means.

  1. Leonore, I think you’re absolutely right to give voice to this concern. Aside from the very human capacity to be swept up in the emotion of a particular story (hooray pathos), emotion cannot sustain the story itself. (In composition, I always warn my students that they should have a blend of ethos, pathos, and logos–you can’t offer a credible argument without all three present.) In fact, I think it’s even more amazing to consider the process itself. I wonder how long she’d worked with her implants before this miraculous moment was videoed. I wonder what disappointments she went through (because, as you point out, she did want to restore her hearing). I wonder to what extent she struggled to believe that this would ever be her reality. I wonder what her medical team went through to bring her to this point. I wonder how hard they had to work with her, what failures and disappointments gave rise to innovation and success.

    And you’re right again to point out the different degrees to which we can lose our hearing. Surely there are those who are born into a silent world because their ears are physically different from those of the hearing population. But that is not the only way to be deaf. (Are we shocked when our elderly, for instance, are capable of normal speech patterns after many years of hearing loss?) We don’t know what speech therapies this woman has endured. Perhaps it’s possible that she used speech as well as signs (something I’ve witnessed as fairly common among the deaf who employ ASL), so it seems plausible to me that her facial muscles could be fairly well-trained to “know how” to form words. As for how she is able to make out spoken words…well, again, I think it depends upon the level of hearing loss she experienced. And I think we don’t give enough credit to the phenomenon of vibrations and touch. A deaf child “listening” to a parent speak by placing a hand on his or her throat and face (as well as on his or her own when responding) seems like a plausible therapeutic practice. (Just as a caveat, I’m couching my language purposefully in “seems like” and “plausible” because I, unlike you, have not studied the phenomenon of deafness. My experience with it is limited to some exposure to deaf classmates in various levels of grade school.) I think expressing shock and awe at the ability for a deaf person to “pass” as at least “hard-of-hearing” ignores the years and years of practice and therapies that went to achieve that passibility.

    And on a final note (because, really, this comment is getting unwieldy), from one academic to another: you are so right to bring attention to the fact that not everyone wants to be “fixed.” Not everyone agrees that the hegemonic description of what is “normal” is true for every single individual. To assume that everyone wants to be able to see, hear, speak, etc. is short-sighted and presumptive. Not everyone is raised to believe that deafness, blindness, muteness, whatever, is a deformity or a “problem” or “something wrong.” Are there deaf people who want to hear? Yes. And they keep CI manufacturers and therapists in business. Are there deaf people who are perfectly satisfied in their lives? Yes. And they help the hegemony (we hope) shift the overall perception of “deformity” and “handicap.”

    Thanks for a great post! Sorry for the novel-length comment.

    (On a side note, I’m writing my dissertation on the differences between gender and sex and sexuality, and I find myself grinding my teeth whenever I read a scholarly article that uses the word “deviance” to refer to nonheteronormative, nonhegemonic sexual behavior. When you stated that “this feeling of wanting to be ‘fixed’ is not something that is shared by all deaf people,” it really resonated with me because it’s exactly the same for nonheteronormative sexualities and genders. Hopefully, hopefully, the more we make these statements, the more we point out that not everyone wants to be “fixed,” the closer we could get to a more accepting world. I’m pessimistic enough not to hold my breath to see that world in my lifetime, though. ;))

    • I loved the long comment! It was so full of interesting stuff and I don’t even know where to start. I suppose the first thing I should say is how right on you are about a lot of this. First, I spent the first two or three weeks of my Comp and Lit class introducing students to the idea that they can’t make emotional arguments only. We start with moral dilemmas, move onto logical fallacies, and then start working on what kinds of authority we can use to support our arguments. This coming week, we are going to start with a very informal debate. I know that a lot of the class will not really internalize these ideas, but some of them will, and if I can get at least a handful of students to go out into the world having a better grip on critical thinking skills, then I sleep better at night and the tools that comment on YouTube videos don’t bother me so much :)

      I also love that you understand the negative reaction to the idea of being ‘fixed’ and I found the connection to your thesis really interesting. There’s a great Betty Friedan quote: “When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity she finally began to enjoy being a woman.” I came across that quote when I was in college and it made such an impression that I framed it and I still have it on my desk where I look at it every day. I can’t help but think of how desperately boring the world would be if we were all ‘normal’ :)

  2. Leonore, social media bothers me for several reasons, one of which is the fact that it opens everything up for comment. (Like this comment I am leaving with you.) And, though many people use this outlet to express their personal view, many tend to lack a filter or simple tact.

    I agree with you regarding the most depressing thing about the comments is the comment ‘no one cares about the process’. Sadly, that is what is happening. Instant is everything. Who cares how we get there – just get us there – faster!

    And while this may sound trite and possibly disrespectful (though that is not my intent), ignorance is bliss on many levels and for many different things. I would not be surprised in the slightest to meet someone who was happy being deaf and had no desire to ‘hear’. I’m willing to bet they ‘see’ more in the world than I can imagine. Just as a blind person ‘sees’ more to the world than I could ever dream.

    Respect is a wonderful thing – I wish this world had more of it. Oh, I look forward to more posts about deafness. Sincerely. I am fascinated.

    • I echo Lenore’s wonderful comment! I have such mixed feelings about the internet/social media, for the very reason that it glosses over the ‘process’ and allows people to be anonymously cruel. It’s so easy for people to turn off the filter between thought and ‘send.’

      Again, in line with Lenore, I look forward to more posts on the topic!

      • Seconded! A friend was complaining recently about Google+’s requirement that people use their real names. I said that I found this to be an extremely positive thing, given so many examples of people behaving poorly under the veil of anonymity.

        I disable comments on my YouTube videos because I’m not interested in the feedback there. I love the comments on WordPress sites because there are filters–both technical and social–that tend to encourage a slight more favorable balance between crap comments and considered ones.

        The idea of “fixing” deafness is interesting to me. “Stu” from my most recent post actually wrote a blog entry semi-recently about disabilities in kidlit. One of the pet peeves she listed was books where the ending involves the protagonist suddenly being “cured.” From her perspective (echoed in my own), the kid protagonists were never broken to begin with.

        And yet, in this woman’s case, I can absolutely revel in her joy at getting to experience a new part of the world. In that perspective, it’s not a case about being fixed. It’s about something new and joyous being experienced by one who’s sought out that experience, and that was a joy for me to witness even as my not linguistically trained brain wondered how she so readily understood sounds she hadn’t yet heard.

      • I’d probably disable comments on any videos I have on YouTube, but as of now, it’s only my accent video, the silly pleasures one, and a handful of videos of my cats! :) But you’re right – I have no interest in hearing random comments from the YouTube crowd, and I’m sure my eye would be twitching any time someone wrote something like, “ur cats r cute”. I’d be obnoxious and correct the comment, and I’m sure that would be so appreciated ;)

        I feel the same way about this woman. Like I said, it’s just impossible not to feel happy for her when she’s clearly so overjoyed. She wanted this, and it was important enough for her to work really hard to save up the money. For people like her, this device is great: it both works and it gives her something she wants. It’s just frustrating to think of the sheer numbers of people who then think that every deaf person wants the same thing – just wants to be ‘cured’. It’s insulting to those who don’t feel broken to begin with, as your commenter feels about the protags in the kids’ books. I do find that a little obnoxious too (the idea that the happy ending is always being ‘normal’ or ‘perfect’. Blech.)

      • I remember talking about the effect of email on relationships back in the 90s, and now social media is making the conversation even more important to have. If two people were arguing over the phone, it might not have escalated too far because there are things we’re just not willing to say. We could, however, write an angry letter. But even if we put it in the mailbox immediately, we still had a chance to cool down and go snatch it our of the mailbox. With email, however, we could write all the angry things we don’t feel comfortable saying in person or on the phone, and once you hit the Send button, there’s no taking it back. No cool down period. How many things have gone wrong because of a miscommunication via email?

        Now with even more instant social media and texting, we may be even more affected by dashing off an impulsive comment or text or status comment. And lord knows, impulse control doesn’t seem to be a strong point of the American character at the moment ;)

    • I, too, am absolutely amazed at what people are willing to write in comments. I usually don’t pay attention to comments too much on sites like YouTube or msn, but I was reading something about the arguments that were going on in the comments of this video. I was hoping to find some idea of what some deaf people might have thought of this video, but for the most part, it was just a bunch of jerks flapping their lips about stuff they know nothing about. And as I said, it just confirmed my fears about how people – or at least the more vocal ones – would make snap judgments and never even think about what they were seeing or opining on.

      The ‘ignorance is bliss’ comment comes close to the way I’ve heard it described by some deaf people. They think that they’re not ‘missing’ anything. They were born unable to hear, just like some people were born unable to curl their tongue or whistle or run really fast. It’s just they way they are, they are getting along fine, and why can’t people just accept them the way they are?

      There will definitely be more posts on deafness! I’ve broken the seal, so I’ll definitely be spilling more! :)

  3. Very interesting post, Leo, and not too long at all. I really appreciated reading your insightful comments. I hadn’t heard of that video, but I’m sure that I could easily have gotten caught up in the emotion of what was being shown without stopping to think about the underlying issues.

    It is interesting, in this anonymous social media world, what people are willing to post – especially in response to a thoughtful and analytical comment. It’s kind of like the anonymity afforded to us in our cars – you see people behave in traffic in a way they would never behave, say, in line at a supermarket. Except on the net, anonymity feels even more like a cloak of power which somehow bestows the freedom to behave like a real douchebag with impunity.

    Thanks for opening my eyes.

    • It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of that video because she is so clearly happy. Of course it piqued my interest because of the subject matter, and I naturally had questions about what I was seeing. I just wish more people wouldn’t be so aggressive towards those who don’t stop at simply feeling the emotion and who want to delve further into understanding and not just feeling.

      You’re right about the anonymity. It can be a positive thing if a boosts our confidence to let our voices be heard, but it also clearly gives others carte blanche to be, as you so beautifully put it, “a real douchebag with impunity.”

  4. Thank you for your comments on this subject. It was interesting and educational to read. I believe it is a case of “walk a mile in my shoes” discussing such personal choices. Other opinions are of course always welcome, but they certainly should not be prosecutorial. Learning about others lives should (must?) be considered an education opportunity.

    • I agree – it should be enlightening to learn about others’ personal choices, but some seem to be…threatened? scared?… that not everyone feels the same way or makes the same choices. I work on this with my students in regards to supporting their opinions. I try to get them to move beyond the idea that their own choices are not sufficient support for the generalizations they try to make. “Well, if I would do that, then clearly everyone else would, so that means that my theory is correct.” They have a hard time accepting that other viewpoints exist. I can forgive this to a point in younger people who are still learning how to look beyond themselves to find their place in the world. I suppose I’m less tolerant of the same kind of short-sightedness in people old enough to have learned this!

  5. Pingback: If you had to choose… | As a Linguist…
  6. It is misleading to infer that she is hearing for the first time in her life. Anyone who has lived with hearing aids all their life only knows sounds that are produced through the hearing aid device. She is now hearing a more natural and more clear sound. That in itself is enough to have that kind of reaction.

    • Of course it would be misleading to imply that she is hearing for the first time. That’s why I didn’t do it ;) In fact, I explained how incorrect it is to assume that ‘deaf’ automatically means ‘can’t hear anything at all’:

      “More misconceptions littered the comments. Some expressed confusion over how a deaf person could ever learn how to speak. They were quite convinced it would be impossible for Churman to have learned to speak so clearly. It seems they believe that a person who is ‘deaf’ can’t hear a single noise, which isn’t actually the case. Some speech is still discernible in varying degrees depending on both the level of loss and which frequency ranges are audible. Even profoundly deaf people retain the ability to hear some very loud sounds, and of course the vibrations made by even quieter sounds. (You can read a description of the levels of loss here.)”

      As I said, I think it’s remarkable that technology has been able to do this for a person who so clearly desired this result. You can’t help but feel happy for her when you see such a strong, joyful reaction. I simply think it would be a mistake to assume that every deaf person would want the same thing, just as it would be wrong to assume that every hearing person has the same desires and wishes.

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