a panel on technology and disability access/accommodations we, the audience
and the panel members alike, are all arguing --really arguing--about whether
this is a good thing or a bad thing. It is the first-ever global
conference on "disability studies" sponsored by the National Institutes
of Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), a division of the U.S.
Department of Education; it is mid-October, 2000, and we are in the rather
plush, although ironically not very accessible, headquarters of the National
Press Club in the heart of Washington D.C. And we are pissed off
-- yet enraptured too -- with technology.(1)
want to celebrate the inroads to community and educational access they've
had, as disabled people, via such technology. The distance learning
and technology lab gurus from universities X, Y, and Z -- not to mention
some rather uncritically enthusiastic software company giants -- are nodding
their heads in rapturous agreement. But some, and not just a few
either, are raining on this parade. "We don't need more distance
learning," says Adrienne Asch, a powerful scholar and advocate in the field
of disability studies. "As disabled people, we've had enough distance
already. Too much distance. We are tired of distance, angry
own feelings, indeed my own experiences, with technology bear these tensions
out. I have been pissed off -- and enraptured too -- with electronic
and digital possibilities and realities in my own life.
Captioning, Open Lives
me, captioning is anything but "closed." It has changed my life,
opened possibilities, brought me comfortably into the world of my peers,
my colleagues, my relatives, my husband, my children, and my students. For captioning accesses more than just popular TV or films; it accesses
other people.(2) To be able to watch children's TV with my children or to view their videos
with them is, for example, not so much important for the information or
enlightenment I might gain from such viewing (although there has been plenty
gained there too, I'd have to admit), but this kind of shared viewing is
even more important for the social bond, the common space, the involvement
in their interests and ideas that captioning sets up for me. (Try
"lipreading" characters like Sesame Street's Big Bird; trust me--it's not
easy.) Although I still can't really enjoy the bond of a date with
a friend, or spouse, or my children to a movie theater to watch a new film
that everyone is talking about, I can wait a few months and then watch
it at home, rented on video complete with captioning. And then I
feel, once again, that I belong, that I am part of the world, part
of American common culture (like it or not).
can also now show films and documentaries in the classes I teach, and I
can actively participate in the viewing right along with my students. This is especially important as I've been teaching more and more courses
centered around disability studies, disability experiences, and disability
in language, literature, and film.(3) So much about disability and differently-abled bodies in our culture becomes
markedly "obvious" yet also deliciously complex when we start looking at
film, TV, or popular media. And too, some of the most remarkable
"art" going on right now in the disability community is in performance art,
film, and documentary. With captioning, I can be in the scene of
contemporary culture instead of just watching it from the fringes.
captioning does more than just work wonders in my own life. Research
conducted by many of the captioning giants in the industry (VITAC, WGBH,
CaptionMax, and NCI, the National Captioning Institute)--as well as the
U.S. Department of Education, which has underwritten much of the closed
captioning on public television for almost a decade--points to numerous
other significant advantages and arenas of access that captioning has afforded
us. For children who are not native speakers of English (from Spanish-speaking
families most significantly) there is evidence that their own English skills
are aided by watching captioned TV -- in English. The same principle applies
to deaf and hard-of-hearing children, who can get a rich and varied introduction
to language and the world around them via the doors that captioning can
open. Some research in this area indicates that captioning, along
with a wider spread use of TTYs and e-mail and the internet, is making
deaf and hard-of-hearing students more literate, more capable of "conversing" with their peers and better versed in the kind of critical literacy they
will need to do well in English in school. They see, read, and use
English more through these technological interfaces, and as a result, there
is some evidence that their own English literacy improves because of it
(see Parks, Spanos and Smith).(4) For the
growing number of seniors in our country with substantial hearing loss,
closed captioning offers continued access to TV, a medium many of them
come to depend on more as other issues of access and ease limit their lives
in other ways. The major captioning companies are also becoming both
more sensitive and active in other rights and access issues for deaf/hard-of-hearing
people in our country, donating time and money to certain causes, producing
newsletters and Web sites for their consumers' feedback and interaction,
working hard to employ more disabled and deaf/hard-of-hearing people within
their companies, and establishing consumer advisory boards to lead them
toward not only increased efficiency and accuracy with captioning, but
also to advise them about programs and innovations for the future.(5)
as we move toward an era when all public or network television programs
will be captioned, following a mandate that insures access by 2006--although
the U.S. Department of Education will no longer be responsible for insuring
the exponentially growing captioning industry is discovering other benefits
and other "markets" for those fast-moving words across the bottom of the
screen. Most upscale bars and restaurants across the country, for
example, now often turn the sound of their TV's way down but put the captioning
on so their patrons can "view" TV without its noise becoming overwhelming
or interfering with conversation. Likewise, many health clubs couple radio
frequency "tune-in" options with closed-captioning so that partrons can
"hear" muted TV shows playing on as many as a dozen different TV's while
they use the cardio equipment. My own non-rigorous research at my
health club tells me that most patrons don't actually tune into the radio
frequencies but choose instead to watch "quietly" via captions. What's more, captioning is now often lauded as a way for all of us to escape
our too-long days of intense noise saturation. I can come home, plop
down in front of the television, turn the sound way down (or even mute
it out), and take an auditory leave of absence while still being "tuned
in." It makes me feel like I belong!
has also extended itself into another arena of access for deaf people by
offering them an alternative to the sign language interpreter. Even
for deaf people who know sign, sign language interpreters can often be
too evident, too intrusive, and not as fluid or fluent as one might like.
And in fact, although this is not widely known, not all deaf people know
sign language. Not all deaf people are Deaf people -- not everyone
with substantial audiological impairment is also a skilled user of a sign
language and has strong attitudes about and affinities with Deaf communities
and Deaf culture. In fact, it might be safe to say that most deaf
people aren't Deaf people. The rather sizeable generation of mainstreamed
deaf/hard-of-hearing students who come to a place like Gallaudet University
and have to enroll, as Freshmen there, in the "new signers program" (much
like an ESL program on other college campuses) in order to fit in and thrive
in the sign-rich environment is a case in point. Then there are the
increasing numbers of late-deafened people, seniors with decreased (and
decreasing) hearing, those with hearing loss remaining from illnesses otherwise
cured or trauma otherwise recovered, and those who live or work in environments
thick with damaging noise. For these populations, sign language isn't
necessarily a quick and ready option and an "interpreter" is thus only an
irony. The legions and wide variety of people who come to my local
SHHH (Self Help for the Hard of Hearing) chapter meetings fit this profile.
fit this profile. For although I am somewhat proficient in sign language
-- having known and used it some for twelve years now, and having lived
and spent immersed time at Gallaudet, doing some volunteer work in my local
deaf community, using it some with my family -- it is not the language
I use every day, all day. It is not part of the environment I work
in as an academic at a very large Midwestern university -- in an English
department no less. So, much like my dwindled German skills (I once
was certified and taught German I and II to high school students some 15
years ago), my sign language skills suffer from lack of daily and sustained
and rich use: I can "read/receive" it quite a bit better than I can myself
always produce/speak it "on the spot."
Real: Captioning Goes Live
the advent of "real-time captioning" -- a kind of wider access version
of court reporting that has developed partly because of the wide availability
of the technology used to produce the captioning we watch on TV and film
-- I dreaded, and largely avoided, things like department meetings, large
committee meetings, extended involvement in academic conferences and the
like. And needless to say, these things were important to my success
and continuation in an academic career. Beyond thirty minutes of
the kind of careful attention it would take for me to lipread and "hear" the
numerous, often overlapping, participants in these kinds of forums, I would
be simply too exhausted to "carry on." At that point, I would fade
away into what my family has always affectionately called "Brenda's La-La
Land." I was there in body, but no longer in mind, spirit, ears, and attention.
And an interpreter didn't usually help much in these situations.
Since most interpreters often hold only a two-year's associate's degree
from a training institute or a local junior college, their ability to "interpret"
the nuances of academic discourse that they don't understand to begin with,
isn't, well, much of an ability.(7)
my early years at Ohio State, I worked through an ever-changing array of
interpreters who came and tried their best to translate the verbal volley
of my learned colleagues at our three-hour-long department meetings.
These interpreters just wound up very frustrated. And so, still,
I faded away to Brenda's La-La Land as the meeting wore on and my interpreter
began to dive and then crash and then burn. For each department meeting
they sent a different interpreter, usually a new "victim" fresh out of
her interpreting program at the junior college in town. I would watch
her go up in flames too. The scene was often even uglier at academic
conferences, where the flames burned hotter and higher.
real-time captioning cools things a bit, at least for me in these kinds
of situations. With "RTC," as it is sometimes called, the translation
is really only English to English, oral to written, and so the turnover
time is faster--further sped up by well developed software programs, special
keyboards, and a history of rigorous training from the field of court reporting.
Unlike an interpreter, a captioner does not need to understand what my
colleagues are saying before he "translates" it to written text.
(After all, thousands of college students across the land daily take careful
notes of what their professor says without necessarily ever understanding
a word of it.) Captioners can process "overlap" far better than an
interpreter too (although overlapping, a rather normal function of any
good conversation, I've come to believe, is always difficult to handle,
even when your ears work perfectly). They don't seem to tire as quickly
as an interpreter -- most likely because they are only "transliterating"
rather than translating from one language to the next.
get this: when there is a real-time captioner, like it or not, everyone
will have a complete and painstakingly thorough transcript of the discussion
at hand. (If we were to make everyone in our department read through
such a full transcript, we might only wonder at how future discussions
might change!) The advantages to this kind of thorough recording
are several. For one, both the hard-of-hearing/deaf person and the other
hearing participants in the meeting or discussion or lecture can easily
review what was said at any later point, if needed. This has happened
several times when I served on the Modern Language Association's Committee
on Disability Issues and we met only twice a year for rather intense and
animated two-day long meetings. When we all went back home to our
Universities X, Y, and Z, we tended, well, to drop the ball a little, to
forget who was in charge of what task or initiative, what the deadline
was, who volunteered for this, and who didn't for that. Like it or
not, the transcript from my real-time captioner reminded us (sometimes,
yes, all too well). But in the end, you know, our Committee was also
lauded by several executive officers in the MLA as being the most active
and accomplished and efficient. And I have to wonder: what role did
that captioner and her thorough record play in this?
and more personally, the use of real-time captioning actually allows me
far more "normal" participation in these kinds of meetings and forums and
events than I've ever felt before. For example, at the disability
studies conference I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the real-time
captioning, cast up onto a giant screen for the entire room to see, let
me belong, gave me equal "voice" and ease with others in the room.
While the two interpreters on stage next to the panel speakers visibly
struggled (for numerous reasons) to do their work well, and the table of
Gallaudet faculty in attendance that were relying on the interpreters became
also visibly frustrated with, then alienated from, those interpreters,
I went on zipping through the twelve or so lines of text scrolling by,
rapidly, on that giant screen. You see, no matter how much I am told
that it is okay to ignore an interpreter, to break eye contact with her,
to let her go on signing while you aren't watching anymore, I can't get
used to subjecting another "discoursing" human being to that kind of alienation.
I've worked so hard all my life just to catch what people are saying and
meaning. Why would I want to deliberately shut out someone who is
working so hard to communicate with and for me now? Interpreters are people
after all. They are human forms of technology, to be sure, but they
are hard-working intelligent people most of all. And even if
some of them might indeed be guilty of taking from their deaf clients without
necessarily giving back (making profit and careers out of what deaf people
can't do), I can't justify that this then gives me the right to ignore,
abuse, and/or alienate them. As technology or as people, they hold
my attention, command my respect. They might piss me off, but they
enrapture me too.(8)
with twelve lines of text rolling by on a screen in front of me--and the
captioner, hooked up via headphones to the speakers, her fingers a-flurry
on the court reporter's keyboard and her eyes never in contact with me,
her body displaced from mine -- then I, who can read very fast and quite
"holisitically" at this point in my long career with literacy, I can do
just what others in the room are largely doing. I can tune in, tune
out, pay close attention, then wander away for a moment. For it takes
me but a second to skim the current twelve lines on the screen, and then
I can look away, check out the rest of the action in the room, gauge the
audience's expressions and reactions to what the speaker is now saying,
daydream for just a moment, and then hop right back into the text, absorbing
the next twelve lines. For me, at least, this is a whole lot more
relaxing than a day of close proximation and careful eye contact with an
interpreter who becomes, as I am, increasingly droopy and frustrated, struggling
to carefully attend and catch it all, and then to translate it from one
language to the next, from one modality (oral/aural) to the next (visuospatial).
captioning I believe I can also follow the speaker or the conversation
more carefully and closely -- especially since I've always been a good
reader, a fast reader, a comprehending and questioning reader. I
don't have to wait for the near-minute lag time it often takes an interpreter
to hear, process, and then recreate into sign language -- a language, as
I am always explaining to people, that is radically different in modality
and orientation from the print-centered "text" of English (for even when
English is spoken, particularly in academic and formal public places, it
carries the heavy residue of print, of writing). With captioning
I am more likely to be approximating "real-time" conversation. This
means, oh joy, that I can get my two cents in more meaningfully and accurately
as well! This means, oh joy, that I can belong. Time
is of the essence in conveying the passion of one's convictions -- a lesson
I've learned well from my own study of rhetoric, its theory and practice,
through the ages. With captioning I have the essence of quick time
on my side.
with regards to the personal benefits of captioning, I can take notes more
accurately and meaningfully. If an interpreter is already in lag-time
with the speaker(s), then asking her to stop while I might look down and
write a few notes makes the lag-time loom into unmanageable boundaries.
She'll never catch up. And then I'll miss huge chunks. With
captioning, I won't miss these chunks -- unless I want to, unless I choose
to watch the crowd instead of the screen. And sometimes, oh freedom,
that choice is exactly mine with real-time captioning.
third major benefit of captioning, I believe, in situations like those
I encounter often as a tenured academic (in committee meetings, major conferences,
etc.) is largely about interpersonal dynamics and the rhetorical power
invested in "speakers" in our culture, like it or not. You see, for
the most part, people don't stare at the captioner and ignore me.
Even the best meaning and smartest people I know tend to turn toward the
interpreter, speak to her, then glance furtively at the deaf person signing
a reply, noticeably relieved when the interpreter finally begins speaking.
They keep their eyes on that interpreter. Power speaks: This is a
cultural message, a rhetorical imperative we've lived with since the cradle.
And I, for one, hate being ignored.
when I see, as I increasingly do, yet another cell phone held tight to
the ear of the driver at the stoplight next to me or the business executive
or grandmother at the airport standing alone, clinging to his or her phone,
chattering in the little box, I think of screaming. I am upset by
their cruel self-absorption, their negligence of those around them as their
attention focuses inward and they are locked in their own little world,
where suddenly every man (and woman) is an island again. I am annoyed
by how they bump into people who try to flow around them, how they drive
rudely or carelessly, how they stop walking or drive slowly when the conversation
becomes intense and we pile up behind them, how they act as if no one or
nothing else matters except that thin little piece of technology held tight
to their ears.
jealous too. Although I often have my own thin little piece of sophisticated
technology held tight to my ear (my hearing aid), this cell phone thing
is a world I can't (yet) enter. Only very recently have they improved
phones enough (although the technology has been available for some time
now) to change the pitch and frequency of the initial ring to one I can
hear, to do more sophisticated work with the "clarity" of the sound (beyond
just boosting volume), to improve a phone's interface with hearing aids,
to start placing volume control phones all over in public sites.
And then, just as soon as things became more accessible in "phone world,"
cell phones arrived -- and big-time -- on the scene, denying me access
again. I have this picture of A.G. Bell up there (or down there?)
smiling rather wickedly.
Graham Bell, the inventor of the paradoxical telephone--that device that
brings us closer even as it often alienates us--is himself an irony, a
contradiction, a fascinating bundle of often-jarring juxtapositions.
Bell invented the telephone, ironically, while looking for a way to make
"speech visible to the deaf." He and his father, Alexander Melville
Bell, both strong "oralists" in their positions on the best way to educate
the deaf, designed an oral-based method for teaching deaf children to speak,
called "Visible Speech."(9)
His experiments on the way to the phone also led to the creation of the
"audiometer," the first device used to test the hearing of people thought
not to have it in the first place. Bell was also a strong eugenicist,
and his interest in this area was closely related to the (oralist-based)
work he was doing that led to the invention of the telephone; in 1917 he
finished and published his eugenicist tract, Graphical Studies of Marriages
of the Deaf, an index of the 4,471 marriages reported in Dr. Edward
Allen Fay's work, Marriages of the Deaf in America, followed
by a graphic presentation of the marriages that resulted in deaf offspring.
Bell's purpose in all this head- and ear-counting was to prove that deaf
people should not be allowed to marry other deaf people; when deaf married
deaf their chances of producing deaf offspring -- presumably something
not worth producing, an abomination of culture and genetics -- became too
great. The punchline here is this: both A.G. Bell's own wife,
Mabel Hubbard Bell (the original "Ma Bell"), and his mother were deaf.
In response to his oralism, his eugenicist research, and his invention
of the device that troubles me almost daily, and also in response to his
speaking "visibly" for his deaf wife and mother, I've long wanted to call
A.G. Bell myself:
to A.G. Bell
I call you up on the telephone
only your wife and mother are home,
no one answers.
out charting and graphing
only your wife and mother--
home. (ringed in)
I leave a message
before the beep because
can not hear.
you miss half of it.
time, I mouth the message--
you can lipread.
you don't get it,
tell my b's from my p's,
f's from my v's.
I try again
. . down . . .
face contorted, clown-like.
are you, dumb?)
you are horrified
the spectacle of my body
you avert your eyes.
have burned your retina,
oh, the time is up,
taken 120 years to
this call through.)
fax you the facts;
send a video,
of my life,
perhaps TTY or relay service;
that I've gotten my medium,
forgotten my message.
wasn't important after all.)(10)
people with any kind of hearing loss, whether hard-of-hearing, aging, or
profoundly and prelingually deaf, the phone provides an intense love-hate
relationship. At large, the phone is both about the medium and the
message in our culture, and it serves as a source of personal, social,
and commercial community. For deaf people, however, A.G. Bell's little
invention that originally aimed to aid deaf people, to help make speech
"visible" to them, would go for decades upon decades as their arch-enemy.
A little over thirty-five years ago, there were approximately 85 million
telephones in the United States and Canada; less then one percent of these
phones were used by deaf people. Speech, via the phone, was still
anything but audible (or visible, for that matter) to this population.
In a recent book, A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against
Ma Bell, Harry G. Lang outlines the development of the TTY, the deaf
version of Bell's little device -- the version that made speech truly "visible" --
in the last 35 years. In addition to sketching the development of
the phone at the hands of three enterprising deaf men -- Robert H.Weitbrecht,
a physicist with the Stanford Research Institute; James C. Masters, a prominent
deaf orthodontist; and Andrew Saks, a businessman -- Lang also chronicles
the resistance of both AT&T and the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) in making the TTY available, affordable, portable, and fully accessible
even after its successful "invention."
think of this history every time I see a cell phone. I fume over
how naturalized speech is in our culture (another lesson I've learned well
from my study of the history of rhetoric) when I realize that much of the
technology needed to develop a TTY was always there (coded in Bell's original
plan to "make speech visible"), just as much of the technology needed
to make a cell phone version of a TTY is also surely "always already" here
(as Derrida might put it). But the phone has always seemed to turn
a deaf ear.
sometimes we, the deaf and hard-of-hearing, have had to listen
to and through other channels, have had to make speech visible in other
ways. The up-side, the love affair, that deaf and hard-of-hearing
people might have with the phone comes from the way that much about phone
technology, the development of this kind of wired and then wireless
communication, has supplied the very current that brought the Internet
and e-mail to us. On October 25, 1996, The Wall Street Journal featured
a piece on Vinton Cerf, a man who happens to be one of the Internet's
pioneers and who was also born hard-of-hearing.(11)
In an interview for this article, he reflected on how his hearing loss
had affected his interests and then his career: "Consciously or subconsciously,"
he said, "I must have chose to do things that enabled me to help create
Like Vinton Cerf, the "father of the Internet" (and hence, the term " surfing
the net"), my work in and through phone-alternative technologies
like computers, the internet, and e-mail (all piggybacking
on my phone line) has always been, in part, "a way of dealing
with impaired hearing, a problem incurred at his [and my] birth."
While the phone might often piss me off, the further technologies
it has ushered in have often enraptured me.
love-hate relationship with the phone is much like the one I have with
my hearing aids. It's messy but meaningful, enabling even as it is
crippling. I haven't always worn hearing aids. Three times
in my life I've been fitted for them, but then, after a month trial period,
I've returned them. The overwhelming onslaught of noise in my usually
quieter world with the aids cranking everything up fifty decibels -- every
candy bar wrapper rustling, every clink of silverware at the dinner table,
every bit of elevator Muzak, every sound in my department's hallways, every
clackclackclack of my keyboard -- sounds I didn't necessarily hear before
my aids were in -- just drives me nuts.
tune it out," says my audiologist, "learn to tune it out." Why,
I wonder, would I want to hear these sounds in the first place? And
then, too, I think, but don't say to her, "well here,
you wear the damn things for a month and learn to 'just tune out'
sounds increased fifty decibels, sounds that aren't very appealing,
sounds you've been doing fine without."
I do want to hear people -- my kids, my students, and even my husband
from time to time. And technology, as we all know, has been
improving, and hearing aid technology is no exception. So now I sport
a $3,000 pair of behind-the-ear aids, in tandem, that are little
computers, digitally programmed to help enhance the sounds and frequencies
I most want to hear: human voices, maybe a bird or two, the
bit of violin that ends my favorite song, George Strait's "Amarillo
by Morning." My new aids also come with a sporty little high tech
"programmer" that will clip onto my belt ("just beam me up Scotty," I want
to say when I put it on and push its buttons) and that will let me vary
my programs in two ways, with three different volume levels in each program.
Still, even as I madly push all the buttons, some voices just keep
fading away from me -- those belong to my soft-spoken young student
(always a female that I struggle to hear most) sitting at the back of my
class who has finally, in the eighth week, gotten the nerve
to say something in class; one of my best and smartest colleagues in the
department; the shy and nervous ESL student who appears at the front desk
of the Writing Center I currently direct and wants to ask me a question
(the programmer doesn't enhance speech patterns and sounds I'm not well-accustomed
to already); my daughter.
even as the hearing aids can bring some grace into my life, it is a grace
with pressure attached. I don't wear them all the time (and yes,
my audiologist scolds me for that). No matter how hard I try, I just can't engage the idea of "just tune it out" when I've worked so
hard and so long just to tune things in. And I also can't make myself
like most of the sounds I don't hear with my aids out anyway. Thus,
I go on with my "selective hearing" (as my mother has always referred to
my deafness, scared to use the real word), and I make it perhaps
all the more selective by choosing to use the technology when I feel it
suits me best, and then turning it off, taking it out otherwise.
truth, beyond the discomfort for the sounds my aids can bring to me, unwelcome
and even assaulting, I know that I am also acutely aware -- and a bit scared
by -- the kind of "instant identity" they can also bring me. By putting
them in, taking them out, choosing to use the technology as I decide suits
me best, I fancy that I, not technology, am maintaining
some control over my identity.
first day of teaching with these new aids illustrates this fancy rather
is the first day of fall quarter classes and I am worried about the impression
I'll make. Not that this is so unusual: in most quarters, at the
beginning of most classes for the eighteen years I've been teaching now,
I worry some about the impression I'll make. Erving Goffman, an important
sociologist in the 50's and 60's who studied things like the way stigma
works both culturally and individually, the way institutions work
in the world and in forming their own world, and the "presentation of self
in everyday life," would confirm that this desire toward "impression management"
makes me utterly human, nothing more than "normal." And too, as a
scholar and teacher of rhetoric, I'm also convinced that "audience appeal,"
for better or worse, has always governed what speakers, pedagogues, and
professionals of almost any ilk do (or don't) say and how they act in their
daily interactions. Aristotle spent no less than the second book
of his three-part Rhetoric telling (and showing) us so.
still, on this particular first day in this particular quarter and with
this particular class my fear over my impression doesn't feel very "normal"
to me. It feels pretty particular. Everything I know intellectually
doesn't seem to be helping me much emotionally. On the way over to
the class, about a half-block walk in brilliant September mid-afternoon
sunlight, I check my brand new hearing aids twice, flipping the on-and-off
switch on each one to ascertain that they are indeed working properly.
I use the campus bus as a test case, moving my switch quickly to the "O"
as it approaches, relieved to note the quick dampening of the bus's
low-gear roar as it takes off from a stop in front of my building.
Then, just as it passes by me, I flip the tiny toggle on the
back of my aid, behind my ear, to "M" (for manual? Much
better? Magnified? I'm not really sure) and I literally jump
back, bumping a student behind me, as the bus roars like a jet engine
before me. (And the simile here is more than just a simile since with my
aids in my ears and on that bus is indeed coming in at about 120 decibels
-- the same level as a jet engine out on the runway.) "Sorry," I
offer, sheepishly. "Gee, that bus sure is loud." The student
looks at me a little dubiously, and then looks down and quickly hurries
as I was saying, I'm a little worried about the impression I might
is the first day of my life teaching with my hearing aids on. Sporting
a pair of $3,000-plus digitally programmable hearing aids -- the latest
in audiological computer technology -- with two different listening programs
and three volume levels in each program, I'm feeling a little over-enhanced,
a whole lot conspicuous (although with my hair covering my ears, almost
no one will know unless I show or tell them), and, as I was saying, a little
bit worried about my impression. Without my hearing aids on I can
"pass." I should know, I've spent most of the last 35 years of my
life without these aids since computer technologies weren't yet advanced
enough to offer me the kind of "aid" I most needed to match the pattern
of frequency and decibel loss I've had since birth. In "passing"
mode, looking just like any old regular (I won't dare say "normal" here
for all sorts of reasons) hearing person, I don't necessarily have to appear
"deaf and dumb," a phrase I lived in great fear of throughout most of my
school years. I've learned hundreds of ways to "fake it," hundreds
of ways to look and act "hearing," hundreds of ways to manage impressions
of what I can (and mostly can't) hear, and hundreds of ways to appear to
be "listening" when I'm hearing almost nothing. Hundreds of ways
I'm trying on a new hat these days. These hearing aids are,
you see, more than just aids to my hearing. They are alterations
to my identity. Now I'm truly, no doubt about it (just check
out the size of these two behind-the-ear models), deaf at most, hard-of-hearing
at least. Of course, I've really been this way all along. But
suddenly the cost and size and appearance of this technology behind my
ears has re-marked me, even if the technology hasn't quite yet re-made
me. As Erving Goffman would explain it: without my hearing aids in,
I carry the potential of discreditablity, but not yet the actual
discredit, the full mark of stigma.
I'm worried about the new impression I'll potentially make here on the
crucial first day of classes. I'm worried that the girl who grew
up passing, who excelled at passing, who reveled in passing, and who won't
even get a chance to excel at that. Always potentially discreditable,
she'll now be fully discredited. She'll be outed from the outset. She'll fail at passing.
Still, I try to smile -- and big -- and enact my "usual self" as I walk into a
classroom filled with twenty hesitant but eager, bright but scared, freshman
faces in my "Honors Humanities Writing Seminar." It is actually the
fear and expectation mixed in their own eyes, their own hopes of passing
(in numerous ways), their own nervous smiles sprinkled across the
room, that turns me, momentarily, away from my own self. They too, I see, are worried about the impressions they'll make.
then three or four of them are making faces, cringing a little,
looking speculatively toward the ceiling and toward a little smoke detector
in the corner by the door. "I think it might be that," one
student says, pointing toward the detector. "Well, I don't
know; I don't think it's coming from there though," says another,
face all scrunched up with distaste. "It just suddenly started..."
trails another. No one is paying much attention to me.
the dawn unfolds, the connection clicks. "Hey," I say, to get
their attention, "can you hear it now?" And I reach behind my ear
and flip my hearing aids off. They can't see the aids, but
they can see me do something behind my ears -- teacher as magician.
wow," the girl in the front center seat says, "it's all gone now." They look at me a little expectantly, a little spooked.
is it back now?" I query, with another flip of the switch -- this time
to turn it back on -- behind my ear. They don't even have to answer;
the sudden jolt of surprise and slight pain on their faces tells me it
is back again. "Oh gee," I say, "that's my hearing aids. The
seal on the ear mold isn't tight enough." So, I fiddle with my ear,
push and wiggle on my ear molds a bit. Then I turn them back on. "Better now?"
all listen very carefully, like twenty puppies with their heads cocked
to the side. "Yeah, it's gone," they confirm.
now, they all turn to look squarely at me. "Well, um," I falter a
little, somehow relieved that the "thing" -- my hearing loss -- is now
out there and yet also unsettled by the control I lost in exposing the
stigma myself. "Well, gee," I smile shakily, "I guess this helps
me solve the problem of just exactly when and how to tell you that I'm
stigma of deafness speaks volumes in the case of cochlear implants, the ultra-technology in "hearing aids." As someone with substantial
hearing loss, genetically from birth, as one who will someday,
far too soon enough, be entirely "profoundly" deaf, and as
one who has spent a good time in and around Deaf communities and "Deaf
culture" -- at Gallaudet University and elsewhere -- cochlear implants
concern me. I'll be honest: they piss me off.
then, too, they also enrapture me. They pose potential, both
good and bad, and they raise all sorts of possibilities. My interest
in these potentialities and possibilities comes in part, I suppose,
because of the other largely successful technologically-aided areas of
my access into the world of meaningful work and too, because of all
the rich social interactions I've had coming in on the circuits of technology
(via real-time captioning, the Internet, e-mail, and
even my hearing aids). But my interest is also intensely aided here
because my major field of academic inquiry is rhetoric -- the analytical
and critical study of persuasion and argument and the theory and practice
of the training of skillful speakers and writers.
debates over cochlear implants are rhetorically rampant -- complex, controversial,
and captivating. For here is a technology itself heavily invested
in the training and attainment of skillful "speakers" and "writers." Here too is a technology that plays out persuasion, power, argument, and motivation as parents, surgeons, teachers, and deaf
people alike engage in polarized and often polemical positions for and
against the implants.(13) Cochlear implants are a technology that create a cyborg, a true cyborg, with a 22-channel electrode device aimed at simulating the 22,000-plus
nerve fibers of the inner ear surgically implanted into the patient's head. Then, after "recovery" from that invasive surgery, hours, weeks, months, even years of training with the device are still to come. They are a technology overladen, almost
to crushing, with the
ethical implications of "the patient's rights" and "speaking for others"
since they can now be performed on infants as young as one year and parents
are often as not making some incredible and permanent decisions about their
children's lives and possibilities under pretty stressful circumstances
and often in short amounts of time.
the Greek word and concept for the "timeliness" of an argument, runs strong
in deliberating the case(s) of a cochlear implant. Time is of the
essence -- a notion implanted rhetorically into our cultural heads. And time is truly essenced in the case of a cochlear implant. First, once
an implant is in, it is largely permanent, and any remaining hearing in
the patient is totally destroyed in the process. Second, but most
significantly, because of the considerable panic over the necessity of
providing language -- orality -- to children in our culture, the rush to
get one into a child's head, to get that child started with "language"
and its sister-synonym in our culture, "speech," is quite attenuated. Finally, too, as another rhetorical site, cochlear implants
are a technology rife with the issues of "biopower" and the broad and deep
reach of "the medical state" in our culture.
and speaking (and by extension, reading and writing) well in what educational
theorist Henry Giroux calls the "dominant social grammar" of our culture
really matters. Without these skills, one is hardly a citizen. Rhetoric,
in both theory and practice, has made this clear for almost three
millenia. Deafness and the "savior surgery" of cochlear implants
only repeats, and greatly enhances, offering further "clarity" to this
matter. It's a new singer but the same old song.
So, as a rhetorician and as a potential future candidate for cochlear implants, I'm listening hard to the singer, trying to memorize the song for
myself so that I can hum my own tune when and if the time should come. I am studying cochlear implants as a rhetorical case in point, as indeed
the very site of rhetoric, in both theory and practice -- even as they
are studying me.(14)
I know that technology -- much like rhetoric -- matters, has mattered,
will matter in my life. Much of this essay has already worked to
make that evident. And if I can stay attentive and attuned to technology's
discursive regimes in my own life and that of others who are enabled, disabled,
re-abled, and labeled by technology -- if I can stay both pissed off and
enraptured with technology -- then I am hopeful that I can go on "hearing,"
with aids, the things that technology whispers in my ear -- both the sweet
nothings, meaningful as they often are, and the dreadful secrets too.