If you had to choose…

First come the easy questions that lull you into a false sense of security. Skippy or Jif? Crest or Colgate? PC or Mac? Coffee or tea?

The answers come quickly and easily: Skippy, Colgate, PC, and Both.

But then come the big guns. Lose an arm or a leg? Drown or burn? Deaf or blind?

These are much more difficult. You’re not as confident about your answers as you were about your brand loyalty. You tend to suggest a third option: Really, I’d rather just slip quietly away in my sleep with all my limbs intact, thank you.

For the last question, however, I have no hesitation. It has always been as easy as knowing that I prefer Nestlé Quik to Ovaltine. As a child, I used to walk around the house with my eyes closed to experience what it would be like to be blind. I usually didn’t last very long, which helped me understand that I would choose deafness over blindness any day of the week. This feeling was confirmed the minute I started learning about American Sign Language.

If I were blind, how would I know what I looked like reflected in sunglasses?

Not only would I rather be deaf than blind, but there have been times when I’ve almost wished I were deaf. In graduate school, my classmates and I would say to each other that we needed “a deaf moment” whenever we were faced with too much noise, a shrill voice, or the ring of an unwelcome telephone call. I probably wouldn’t want to lose my hearing permanently, but I sure do wish someone would invent a hearing ‘aid’ that would eliminate all noise when I choose and return my hearing when I’m ready to face the sounds of the world again.

On the rare occasions that I’ve expressed this out loud to those who weren’t in my graduate program, I’ve been met with different reactions. Some think I’m mad as a hatter. One person actually asked, “What’s wrong with you?” Others react in horror: “Oh, I’m sure you don’t mean that!” Perhaps they just have a generally sunny attitude that I don’t necessarily share, but this last reaction still annoys me. Not only did I mean it, but I don’t take kindly to people telling me what I do or do not mean.

I also don’t believe that it’s a bad thing to recognize that there are certain stresses of today’s increasingly noisy world that could be solved if we could selectively turn our hearing completely off.

And how could I give up the view of the places I love so much?

What does make me feel slightly abashed at my almost-wish is the thought of those who have their hearing off but don’t have the option of turning it back on. After all, I can block out unwanted noises by at least popping on the headphones and turning on my iPod. But this also assumes two things: first, that deaf people can’t hear anything at all; second, that all deaf people want to hear more than they already can.

These assumptions were clear in the discussion over Sloan Churman, whose story I wrote about in my last post. She’s the deaf woman who can now hear thanks to a new type of implant that helps sound waves reach her brain. The question about her that seemed to be on most people’s minds was, “How can she speak so well when she could never hear?”

The first part of the answer to this question is to dispel the myth that ‘deaf’ means ‘completely unable to hear.” There are varying degrees of deafness that are defined by the decibel levels that a person can still hear. Depending on the level and type of loss, it’s absolutely possible that Churman was able to hear enough speech to enable her to both produce clear speech sounds herself, as well as understand it when she was able to hear it more clearly for the first time.

To understand this better, it helps to first look at how loud normal sounds are. A person breathing measures 10 decibels while a rock concert comes in at 120 decibels. Conversational speech is measured at about 60-70 decibels, and this is the sound that we are most concerned with when it comes to language acquisition.

And those little faces...oh it would break my heart not to see them.

A person with even a mild but measurable hearing loss of 25-40 decibels can still hear conversation, even if participants sometimes have to speak a little louder or enunciate a bit more clearly. It might also be difficult to pick out individual words when there is a lot of background noise. A moderate loss means that the lowest level a person can easily or reliably hear is 40 to 70 decibels. This person may not hear clear speech that is not shouted and would need to rely on hearing aids to be able to follow the conversation.

If caught early enough, a child could still acquire a spoken language mostly organically, though would certainly need the educational support of speech and language therapists to an extent. These children may need extra practice learning how to recognize and produce sounds that are out of their frequency range, which again is something that varies from person to person.

The Speech Banana

A good visual for the interaction of the level of loss combined with the frequency of loss is known as the ‘speech banana’ and is explained more fully here. Someone with a moderate loss in the lower frequencies would still be able to hear sounds like /f/, /s/, and /th/, but not /j/, /m/, or /z/. The word ‘fish’ would be a lot easier to learn than ‘jam’.

More problems with language arise when a person has a loss that goes beyond 70 decibels. After this point, significant amplification is necessary in order to perceive any conversation, and even then it is likely that much of it is being missed. They can supplement with lip-reading to a point (remember that lip-reading alone only conveys about 30% of the message clearly, but it can be extremely useful if it is used in conjunction with residual and amplified hearing.) Someone whose minimum level of hearing is in the 70-90 decibel range is considered to have a severe hearing loss. Beyond a loss of 90 decibels, a person is considered profoundly deaf and can’t hear much at all except for gunshots, rock concerts, or a jet engine, even with hearing aids.

In all cases, a conductive hearing loss is a better case scenario for language acquisition. Conductive losses are defined essentially by mechanical issues in the outer or middle ear. It’s when there’s too much ear wax, or a tear in the eardrum, or a problem with the movement of the tiny bones in the middle ear. Sounds are quieter, but there is less distortion and more options for correction. Sensorineural loss is more of an electrical short, meaning the problem is with the neural system of transferring sound waves into electrical pulses so that our brains can interpret them. Sounds will be quieter, but also will suffer from more distortion, which makes even a moderate loss slightly more significant in terms of language learning.

Sounds I would miss: the ocean, the rain, the hush after a snowfall, the sublime beauty of Pavarotti's voice, the popping of a wine cork, the crinkle of a newspaper, birds.

What all of this means is that the ability for a deaf child to acquire a spoken language, or at least have enough input to help learn how to reproduce linguistic sounds, is highly variable. The ‘best way’ to learn spoken language is going to be different for each child.

Complicating the issue even further is the question of whether or not such trouble is even worth it. Does the child need or want to work so hard for a spoken language? What is the role of sign language? What is the role of the idea that deafness is not a ‘handicap’ but part of a person’s identity? This is the can of worms that has to be opened next.

What would you miss the most if you were deaf or blind?

Sources used:

  • Bess, Fred H. and Larry E. Humes. Audiology: The Fundamentals. 2nd ed. Williams and Wilkins, Pubs. Philadelphia. 1995.
  • Federation of Deaf People (This is the previous website for an organization in the UK that was apparently dormant for several years and then reemerged as the World Federation of the Deaf. Both websites are very informative.)

26 thoughts on “If you had to choose…

  1. I don’t take kindly to people telling me what I do or do not mean.

    Ba.D. and I taught Li’l D some ASL signs early on. Some folks thought the idea was fabulous; others thought it was “cute.” Through signing, I was able to learn what Li’l D wanted/needed for months before he was able to actually vocalize the words. That was a gift.

    He still occasionally walks around the apartment waving his index finger and asking, “Where fiya truck?”

    And yet . . . I would give up sight before hearing in a heartbeat. Much as I love my stick figure drawings and the contrast of colors, it’s sounds that order the world for me.

    I’d most miss seeing my son’s face. If I lost my hearing, I’d most miss hearing his voices. And yet I’d relish the feeling of running my fingers over his face. There are blessedly many ways to experience him, and all the things that fill this world with wonder.

    • There are a few things that babies are able to express slightly earlier through sign than through speech, mostly because the brain is ready to grasp single words, but the fine motor control of the tongue and lips isn’t quite there yet. While I know it’s possible, I also know that a lot of parents will overstate what their kids can do. Waving his finger when looking for something certainly does sound like your son actually learned the sign, and there has to be advantages to giving kids the tool to communicate earlier. But whenever I hear someone say that a child’s first ‘word’ was the sign for ‘milk’, my eyes instinctively get a little squinty :) The sign for ‘milk’ is a grasping gesture, which is often confused with a baby’s instinctive grasping motion. The other thing that sort of makes me a bit wary is that around where I live, ‘baby ASL’ has become one of those things that rich parents do make their kids’ ‘resumes’ look better when they’re trying to get them into pre-schools.

      • I’ve heard of application processes for preschools and similar. The thought boggles my mind. *shudder*

        In our case, Ba.D. actually knew a significant amount of sign language after working for several years with a Deaf man. This is what made the idea appealing to Ba.D., and I was grateful for the exposure.

        While Li’l D did do ambiguous signs like “more” and “milk,” usually with very clear intent, he also signed things like “horse,” “food,” “juice,” and “water.” (And, as you’ve seen, “where.”) It wasn’t like we were having entire conversations, and he certainly didn’t sign the 300 signs parents around me claimed, but he was able to communicate very clear, very basic desires to me, which I favored greatly over totally incomprehensible screaming.

        I guess I’d say that it wasn’t a miracle, but it was a blessing. :)

      • Oh, it definitely sounds like your boy learned some real language, and I can’t imagine a person alive who would prefer the screaming over real communication :) You’ve given him a real advantage by developing his linguistic ability.

      • I just thought of something. The signs “stop” and “go” are both on one of Li’l D’s Baby Signing Time discs, but “stop” is still proving difficult for him. Since he’s been able to clap, he’s just signed it as an emphatic clap. At least “go” is easy!

        I wonder how close he is to figuring out “stop.” He’s just started trying to draw specific patterns (instead of just scribbling circles), so I wonder if he’s developing new spatial capacities. Hrm.

      • It is possible that it’s a spatial issue that he’s still working out. Signs are directional and hand position can be thought of as roughly equivalent to sound distinctions in spoken language. For example, just as ‘cat’ and ‘mat’ differ only by one sound (therefore making that sound difference linguistically meaningful), a sign made with a palm facing down versus the same sign with the palm facing to the side could be two different words. For now, your son has the motion and location correct, but is still working on orientation. Maybe he’s not sure that there’s a difference (in general, not just linguistically) between ‘palm down’ and ‘palm sideways’.

        He could also be experimenting with rules but getting some wrong, just like kids will get some irregular past tense verbs wrong while they’re still working out a pattern.

        So interesting! :) Thanks for musing with me about it :)

  2. Like you, I wish there was a non-hearing aid. A way to discretely drown out the sounds around me. My husband has gargantuan head phone things for his blower and other outdoor noise makers, but I don’t want to wear those monstrosities all day long..

    Hearing. I’d prefer to lose my hearing if I was forced to give up one. I am a visual person. Yes, I like to talk, but I don’t need to hear to write. I suppose one not necessarily need to see to write, either. Still, sunsets, sunrises, rain, trees blowing – I’d prefer not to lose that.

    This was an excellent post, Leonore. I look forward to this dialogue continuing. And the picture of you through the reflection of the glasses is great!

    • Exactly – I don’t want to have to listen to music or wear ginormous headphones. I just want a little earpiece that will dampen the noise much more effectively that earplugs. When the noise just gets to be too much, I can just pop it on and get blessed silence.

      I’m quite visual as well. I’ve always been the type of person who could remember where on the board an answer had been written, but I couldn’t remember nearly as well if I just heard the answer. I love music and my favorite sounds, but if I had to choose, I’d have an easier time giving those up rather than the sights.

  3. Talk about a dilemma! The day before I came back to Paris, I took my traditional farewell tour of the garden at home, and as usual, lingered in particular over the rose beds. And I suddenly found myself wondering: “Imagine if I could no longer see the exquisite beauty of a rose?” I nearly cried, right then and there.
    What I would miss most if I were blind: roses, my sister’s eyes, ballet, the Christmas tree in my parents’ drawing-room, my best friend’s hand-writing, the Ligurian coast…
    What I would miss most if I were deaf: the voices of those dearest to me, the sound of the waves, Chopin, and Victoria de los Angeles singing “La Traviata”. A life without music?! Unthinkable!

    • It’s really hard to imagine having to lose any of it, really. And I do so dearly love a Verdi opera as much as I love Puccini :) I think what it comes down to for me is that the loss of sight seems so much more disorienting to me. When I used to play that game as a kid, trying to keep my eyes closed as I moved around the house, I found myself becoming almost paranoid. Maybe my imagination was too vivid and I kept picturing what might be around me but I would never know it. I trust my eyes more than my ears, so it would be a bigger blow to lose them.

  4. So hard to imagine which to choose. This online class for a Spanish class has shown me just how much I can communicate via the computer. Although, I would miss oral speech in a foreign language interaction, I can still conduct business and a lot of communication via the computer. Audio activities would still be required…but they can still be monitored through the computer. However, I would definitely miss my web meetings…what I consider necessary communication w/ students. I would need my sight and hearing for both, the computer and the audio web mtg.
    And I would miss my evening conversations with my grandson who I speak with Sunday through Thursdays. I read to him and he reads to me. We have these conversations because he lives on the west coast and it helps my daughter with some time to herself in the evening, not to mention I love visiting with him, chatting and staying connected.
    Interesting post! I have no definitive answers for one or the other…but it makes me pause.

    • It would definitely require a change of career if I were to lose either sense. Teaching online just wouldn’t be the same, like you said. Maybe I would refresh my ASL skills and teach in a deaf school or something, but I would miss the daily interaction with students (even if they do drive me crazy sometimes! ;)

    • That’s sweet :) Laughter (most people’s anyway – I know some people with really annoying laughs!) is one of the sounds I would miss, too. But seeing people laugh would probably be just as infectious :)

  5. I’m not sure I could choose. I couldn’t bear to miss seeing my daughter’s smile or my son’s dimples. But I couldn’t enjoy life without hearing them giggle, or hearing music. I think I would probably lean more toward losing my hearing. Losing my sight would be such an enormous adjustment and honestly, scares me more. I have a close friend and mentor who lost her sight in her 50s and while she was obviously forced to adjust (she has a seeing-eye dog) she lives alone now and is very dependent on others for so many things.

    • I despise the idea of being so dependent on others, and that’s why losing my sight would scare me more. At least I could be more independent as a deaf person. And I could still drive. I can’t stand the idea of not driving!

  6. Great post, and not only because of your cute cats. ;)
    I found the linguistic/scientific information very interestion (“speech banana” – wonderful!).
    As for the questions raised … I sometimes use headphones to block out unwanted sounds, but I also, once in a while, enjoy sitting in the dark to avoid visual intrusion of my thoughts or write with just a small lamp on my table and the computer screen for light sources for the same reason. But both senses are important to me. My main job is very audio-visual, so I would lose it regardless of whether I lost my hearing or my eyesight. And as a writer, both senses are important too. However, I think I would rather be without hearing than eyesight. I am more visually inclined than audially. I would miss the sight of my cat sleeping on the windowsill right now, I would miss taking pictures, I would miss painting, I would miss the look of the printed word, and so on. If I lost my hearing, I would miss listening to music and a lot of ambient sounds (cat, speech …). But sight would be harder for me, I’m almost certain of that.

    • (But the cats help, right? :)

      Light can often trigger a migraine and I generally like a low level of light. I despise harsh overhead lights and always use lamps and low-wattage bulbs whenever possible. I totally understand the need to reduce visual noise. But I still need visual stimulation more than aural stimulation. I don’t like totally dark rooms when I go to bed. On nights when the moon is shining directly on my bed, I’ll often wear a sleep mask, but I like the option of seeing shadows.

      I would so miss seeing my girls and their little faces! There’s just nothing like the sight of Mrs.Parker when she gets the crazy voices in her head, or Zelda’s sleepy face when she wakes up :)

  7. So interesting. I would definitely choose being deaf over blind, too. The sounds I would miss most (aside from music) are laughter and the sound of a can of soda being opened (I absolutely love that sound).

  8. This is a very interesting post! I would also choose deafness over blindness. I would certainly miss hearing the sounds of my family members’ voices and the silly sounds that my cats make, but I feel like it would be much easier to navigate the world without hearing than it would without sight.

    • I agree about navigating. Even I used to ‘play blind’ as a kid, walking around a house I knew like the back of my hand, I needed to peek regularly. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it would be to have to actually leave my house if I were blind!

  9. An interesting question – and my answer, like yours, draws heavily on my own experience. My adopted sister is completely blind and has been since birth. While she definitely has a difficult road through life, she can easily communicate with almost anyone she meets without a natural language barrier. Her non-visual senses are highly acute, giving her powers that would seem nearly supernatural if I hadn’t watched her acquire them over the course of a lifetime. Based on my familiarity with how she has been able to deal with her disability, I would choose lack of sight over profound deafness.

    If I were to lose my hearing, the thing I would miss most is sublime and powerfully moving music – something like Mozart’s Requiem or Barber’s Adagio for Strings. If I were to lose my sight, I would miss sweeping landscape views with gorgeous skies that remind me how small I am against nature’s majesty.

    • Being either blind or deaf is certainly a different bag if someone was born without that sense. I’m sure there are blind people who’ve never seen who would love to, and others who feel just fine the way they are and don’t need to be ‘fixed’, just as the same range exists in the deaf community.

      You’ve got such interesting perspectives from your family experiences! I love when you share and give me stuff to think about :)

      Music is definitely the thing that most people would miss, it seems.

  10. I would choose deafness over blindness. I enjoy music, but I don’t listen to it very frequently. And I do very often wish I didn’t have to deal with endless noise.
    What makes me happiest has always been highly visual. I love reading, writing, and art. Additionally, and I haven’t noticed anyone else here mention this, I would be sad to have to slow down my learning. Reading speed is far higher than the speed of natural language. Having to listen to audiobooks rather than reading would slow me down immensly. I also wouldn’t be able to see various diagrams that offer highly compressed information, I’d have to hear the full chemical names read out intsead of seeing them, and be highly limited in algebraic manipulations that offer me such delightful entertainment in my free time.
    In short, I would lose far more if I were to lose my sight than my hearing. I hope that my somewhat different angle on this topic may be interesting to someone.

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