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What It Means to Be Deaf

In response to:

The 'Happy' and the 'Hopeless' from the February 7, 2013 issue

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

To the Editors:

Thank you for publishing Jerome Groopman’s review of Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree [NYR, February 7]. I have four additional comments based on half a century of experience with a deaf daughter, her friends, and the schools she attended.

The first is that there seems to be a major difference between those born profoundly deaf, as was my daughter, and those who had even minimal hearing for a short time after birth. My experience suggests that this is, at least in part, because the child born deaf takes a considerable time to understand what sound is. In my daughter’s experience, this meant that she missed what appears to be the crucial year or two during which hearing children begin to learn spoken language. While I am no expert, I have observed that after that period, we do not seem to be physiologically programmed to absorb a language so easily.

The second point is that much of what we learn early in life is “casual.” That is to say, children absorb what happens around them at a rate that appears to be far greater than (and different from) that resulting from education per se. The deaf child is thus cut off from knowledge that the rest of us get just by being there. In my observation of my daughter, I found that we both had to make a major effort to overcome this problem. My answer was to write her letters, illustrated with drawings, so that she could learn the things that other children learned casually such as what writing is, how airplanes fly, what earthquakes are, etc. As she got older, the range expanded so, for example, I retold in suitable language the Odyssey. Disturbingly, there is very little literature aimed at the deaf community.

The third issue is what to do about deafness. Like many concerned parents, I arranged for my daughter to have a cochlear implant. While it was of some value—at least as a safety device so that she could hear a warning noise—it did not give her “hearing.” It took me a long time to figure out what that meant and I find that today even many practitioners do not focus on it. To put it simply, “noise” is what happens, for example, when a computer is turned on; hearing is what happens when a program analyzes the noise. My daughter did not have the program whereas, if I today became deaf, I would carry into deafness the program I began to get at age one and have improved over the years. For me a cochlear implant would be a godsend; for her it was of little value.

Fourth, although deaf people (and their families) are often embarrassed by public use of sign language, it can be both beautiful and remarkably evocative. I witnessed a stunning example of this when my then organization, the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs, sponsored the twentieth Pugwash Conference on nuclear arms. We assembled 109 representatives of most of the Academies of Science from around the world, including a number of Nobel laureates. The exchanges were predictably difficult—the cold war was then in full blast—so in an attempt to relieve the tensions and to urge understanding, I arranged for the National Theater of the Deaf to put on two short skits: Anton Chekhov’s spoof “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” in Russian and sign language and Dylan Thomas’s “Songs from Milkwood” in English and sign language.

I introduced the evening by saying that I hoped “that in our troubled times the direct visual language of the deaf can perhaps communicate more effectively across the world boundaries….” What I really meant, of course, is that if the deaf can manage to “hear” one another across the barrier of enforced silence, there is no excuse for the rest of us not to communicate. The plays changed the mood of the gathering and, many participants subsequently told me, their own approach to international understanding.

William R. Polk
Former President
The Adlai Stevenson Institute
Former Professor of History
University of Chicago Vence, France

Jerome Groopman replies:

Professor Polk may not see himself as an “expert,” but his observations as a parent of a child born profoundly deaf are both biologically and sociologically acute. Indeed, considerable neural patterning occurs during early development, and while the brain maintains a level of plasticity that allows for later adaptation, the earlier that sensory input is provided, the easier it becomes to interpret. This is, in part, why advocates of cochlear implants recommend intervention at the youngest age feasible. There has been considerable refinement of these implants over the past decade, and there is likely to be even more, lending hope to those who might benefit beyond the implants’ role as a “safety device.”

The determined commitment of a parent like Professor Polk to provide knowledge that “the rest of us get just by being there” is certainly crucial in facilitating learning and preparing a child for an independent and productive future. But this effort should not depend primarily on a family with the resources to undertake it; as Professor Polk indicates, customized literature and other sources of knowledge should be readily provided to all.

The integration of sign language into public discourse may lessen the unfortunate embarrassment that some deaf people experience. I noted that before the recent blizzard, the governor and other officials in Massachusetts spoke about measures that citizens should follow for their own safety and to facilitate the efforts of public workers plowing the streets and repairing the power lines. As the officials spoke, a person stood next to them and signed. By making such use of sign language routine, the stigma often accompanying it may wane and those with hearing may grow to appreciate how it is, in Professor Polk’s words, “beautiful and remarkably evocative.”

We can all draw inspiration from those who find ways to surmount their inborn barriers, as happened at the Pugwash Conference on nuclear arms. Andrew Solomon proposed in Far from the Tree that our differences paradoxically unite us, but after reading the book, I wondered whether he might be looking through the other end of the telescope: it is recognizing our similarities that forms connections—in the case of deafness, the shared human desire for expression and understanding.

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