Random Thoughts and Musings by moi

Musings by a feisty, opinionated Deaf gal who wants nothing but the best for her community and her people

dimanche 6 juin 2010

Yes, Deaf People Understand Sound!

This is something I've been thinking about for a long time. I had the good fortune to see Ben Bahan speak on the topic before Open Your Eyes came out. This is at the crux of why we Deaf people are fine and why so many hearing people seem terrified at the prospect of not hearing. Western civilization, ever since Aristotle proclaimed that speech equals language (and probably before that!), has had this irrational fear of not hearing. Even Helen Keller declared that she'd rather be blind than deaf. This is what we've had to fight against for thousands of years. I wish with all my heart that hearing people would understand that being Deaf is not a death sentence.

The main thrust of Dr. Bahan's article in Open Your Eyes is that Deaf people indeed experience sound. It's just not in the way that we've been trained to believe is de rigueur. When I watched him expound upon this, I was transfixed, fighting my jaw's attempts to drop. I thought back to so many things that are so part of everyday life for me - how I love feeling cats purring, how I'm very aware of what's going on because hearing people's heads turn toward a sound, how I experience music, and much more. His thesis is that we experience sound by sight and feel - and we share that information with others. Have you ever wondered how two Deaf people chatting while walking manage not to walk into poles and other hazards 99.5% of the time? It's because of our highly-developed peripheral vision *and* we warn each other - thus giving us a field of vision of 360° during the time we are walking and chatting. The dude is RIGHT.

One of my favorite stories that illustrates this is how I learned to drive a manual transmission. I learned from a Deaf person, and her emphasis was on feel. She encouraged me to drive with my feet off so I could feel the car better. I remember slowly releasing the clutch and feeling the engine spring to life. She stopped me and said, "That is the instant when you need to start depressing the gas pedal. Release the clutch while pressing down on the gas until you feel that the engine is fully alive then go." It took me a fair bit of practice, just like it takes any other person, but I now own a classic car and I love driving a stick. When I bought my classic car, I had two people sit with me while I drove it for a bit to make sure I wasn't going to damage it by driving badly. One was Deaf and before we got in the car, he suggested a tachometer to help me ensure that I was keeping the car in the right gear - which I've seen can be helpful in newer cars. But after we got back, he said he didn't see a problem with my knowing when to shift. The other person was hearing and she said my driving seemed perfect to her... then she asked me how I do it since I'm not hearing the clicks. I explained that I feel the car and it tells me when to shift (and demonstrated). I've had hearing people ask me how I drive a stick, so the idea that you have to hear to drive a stick is really pervasive. They cannot conceive of any other way, which fascinates, yet saddens me because of how limited their worldview is.

I do have another car story - when I was in high school or college, my mom was driving and I suddenly felt this awful SQUEEEEE. I told her to drive the car right in to the shop. She asked why and I told her I'm feeling something awful. Something isn't right. She shook her head and said, "But I don't hear anything wrong. Everything sounds fine." I insisted, and with much reluctance, she shrugged and we took the car in. The guy had to ask me all kinds of questions to identify what it was. Not being a car person, I struggled to explain it (and it didn't help that he kept asking me questions emphasizing sound), but between the two of us, he managed to suggest that maybe it was the brakes. Well, later that day, Mom got a phone call saying the right front brake pad was just about shot and could've caused real problems if the car hadn't gone in when it did. Oh, I was smug for a bit, crowing, "And you kept saying you didn't hear anything wrong!" Since then I've caught car problems by feel. I've never had a car problem escalate just because I don't hear that something is amiss.

I know one teacher whose students are convinced she's hearing or has a lot of hearing because she's able to crack down on yelling without hearing it. She does it by noticing facial expressions, open mouths, and annoyed looks on other students' faces. I also know a friend who gauges whether or not to dash to catch a train based on whether other people are running or not. Many of us know when someone is using their voice and signing without hearing their voices because their faces and signs look different when they use their voice. It's a lot more obvious than many hearing people would like to believe, I think. There are so many examples of how we are aware of sound, both by sight and feel, it would require a book to list them all.

I remember when I discussed the first century of formal Deaf education here in America with my students. They were absolutely flabbergasted to learn that the New York School for the Deaf (Fanwood) had a marching drill band, competed with hearing school bands, and won several trophies, placing first. I asked them why they were surprised. I got the expected responses of, "They're Deaf!" "Music?? How??" and so on in that vein. I paused, then asked them, "Who here has NO idea of what a cat's meow is?" A few astute students either got what I was driving at or knew I was going to make a point, smiled, and didn't raise their hands, while everyone else did. I then said, "So you've never seen a cat meow?" They, exasperated, were quick to assure me they had. "Oh, so you DO know what a cat's meow is like? You can identify it when you see it?" That led to an amazing discussion of how you can identify different meows just by looking at the cat's body language, facial expression, and how big the meow is - coming from the students! I then asked them how they could select a good watermelon. One student gave a very detailed description of how to hold a watermelon, thump it, and how underripe melons feel, how overripe melons feel, and how just-right melons feel. I couldn't resist asking them what type of teacher tends to catch them chewing gum in violation of school rules, and the unanimous answer was, "Deaf teachers!" Of course I asked them why they thought that was and they hypothesized that Deaf teachers have more visual acuity. In between each situation, I emphasized the idea that they do understand sound, it's just that their experience with sound is different from most people's. I then asked them to raise their hands if they like music. Everyone did. I looked puzzled, and said, "But you're DEAF! HOW???" They rushed to explain that they feel the music, either in their bodies or by feeling the vibrations in the floor go up their legs and through their bodies or by feeling something vibrating from the music with their hands. "Oh? Then how do you think they won those trophies?" They brainstormed ideas such as memorizing the number of beats, by feeling, by sight/visual cues, and so forth. I think they're right. That's exactly how the Fanwood students earned those trophies. They, contrary to popular assumption, didn't need to hear the music.

I now submit this to you, the Teeming Millions: Hearing is completely overrated.

I know some of you are going to nod your heads with complete understanding and agreement, while others of you are dumbfounded, turning this concept over in your heads. Take your time. I know this is a major paradigm shift for some of you and I thank you for being open to this. *smile* Still others of you are going to be quick to jump down my throat, saying I don't understand or I'm a handicapped person that has found coping mechanisms to deal with my disability. I beg to differ. I have enough hearing to benefit from it - unaided. I have known I didn't need to rush to catch the subway train because if it were arriving, I would've heard it. I've trained my students not to yell for my attention because I will not look at them, but I will sign, "If you want my attention, you are to raise your hand. I ignore yelling." I've jumped because of a loud noise in another room. Sound is part of my life because I don't have a choice. It comes in through my ears without any encouragement on my part. I mention this only to illustrate that I have experience with hearing and I recognize that it is a different sense that offers advantages - and disavantages! - not found with seeing and feeling. It's just not the sense that I get the vast majority of my information from, nor is it my preferred sense. Therefore my premise is not based on a series of coping mechanisms, nor a way to assert pride in a disability/deficiency. Rather, my assertion is based on the paradigm that sound is not the be-all and end-all of human experience. Take that in your pipe and smoke it, Auditory-Industrial Complex Behemoth!


  • At 07:45, Anonymous Don G. said…

    We're aware of sound? NOOOOOOO! How can that be? With 12+ years of speech/auditory training under our belts, hearing aids, etc., how can we NOT be aware of sound?

    But I LOVE your description of how we interpret sound through visual means. THAT!

  • At 08:09, Blogger moi said…

    Don G., *laugh* oh, yeah, how could we *not* be aware of sound after all of our training??? *grin* But the difference is that that awareness is based on what THEY want us to know, while our using the senses of sight and feel is OURS. In other words, this is truly experiencing sound the Deaf way.

    Thanks for the compliment! I think this is something that is not talked about nearly enough and I believe it's necessary to make a dent in the dominant paradigm.


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