Currents: An E-Journal Hearing, with Aids

by Brenda Jo Brueggemann
Ohio State University

Currents in Electronic Literacy Spring 2001 (4), <>

  1. At 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)
  2. Some 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 about distance."
  3. My 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.
  4. Closed Captioning, Open Lives

  5. For 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).
  6. I 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.
  7. But 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)
  8. Finally, 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 federal funding--(5) 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!
  9. Captioning 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. 
  10. I 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." 
  11. Getting Real: Captioning Goes Live

  12. Until 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)  
  13. In 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.
  14. But 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. 
  15. And 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?
  16.  Second, 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)
  17. But 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).
  18. With 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.
  19. Finally, 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. 
  20. The 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. 
  21. Phone Home

  22. Sometimes 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. 
  23. I'm 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.
  24. Alexander 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: 
  25. Call to A.G. Bell

    Got a quarter 
    so I call you up on the telephone 
    but only your wife and mother are home, 
    so no one answers. 
    You out charting and graphing 
    marriages and progeny 
    of the deaf,  
    while only your wife and mother-- 
    are home.  (ringed in) 
    So I leave a message 
    after the beep-- 
    but actually, 
    it's before the beep because 
    the beep 
    I can not hear. 
    So, you miss half of it. 
    I start again. 
    This time, I mouth the message-- 
    so you can lipread. 
    But you don't get it, 
    can't tell my b's from my p's,  
    my f's from my v's. 
    So I try again 
    slowing. . . down . . . 
    my face contorted, clown-like. 
    that won't do. 
    (What are you, dumb?) 
    I try signing, 
    hands across space 
    in your face, 
    but you are horrified 
    by the spectacle of my body 
    beyond speech, 
    and you avert your eyes. 
    Too late. 
    I have burned your retina, 
    salt-pillared you, 
    left you speechless. 
    And oh, the time is up, 
    message too long. 
    (It's taken 120 years to 
    get this call through.) 

    No wait-- 
    I'll fax you the facts;  
    I'll send a video, 
    documentary of my life, 
    caption and all, 
    interpreter on standby; 
    or perhaps TTY or relay service; 
    an e-mail even, 
    coming through. 

    Let's "talk." 

    But oh--
    now that I've gotten my medium, 
    I've forgotten my message. 
    (It wasn't important after all.)(10) 

  26. For 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." 
  27.  I 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.
  28. So 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 e-mail."(12)  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.
  29. Sound Sense

  30. This 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.
  31. "Just 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."
  32. But 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.
  33. So 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.
  34. In 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.
  35. My first day of teaching with these new aids illustrates this fancy rather well:
  36. It 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.
  37. But 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 on.
  38. So, as I was saying, I'm a little worried about the impression I might make.
  39. Today 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 to pass.
  40. But 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.
  41. So 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.
  42. 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.
  43. And 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.
  44. Then 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.
  45. "No, wow," the girl in the front center seat says, "it's all gone now." They look at me a little expectantly, a little spooked.
  46. "And 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?"
  47. They all listen very carefully, like twenty puppies with their heads cocked to the side. "Yeah, it's gone," they confirm.
  48. And 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 deaf."
  49. Cochlear Cyborgs

  50. The 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.
  51. But 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.
  52. The 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.
  53. Kairos, 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.
  54. Hearing 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.
  55. 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.

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