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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
- 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.)