Deaf not Deaf

by Josh Swiller

On finding a place past deafness

I'd come to the village to find a place past deafness. I know that seems strange to say, I mean, do you eat burritos to find out what chocolate tastes like? Maybe you do if you've reached the end of your options, and I'd already looked everywhere else.

That first day in Mununga, in Zambia, Jere was the only person to ask me about my hearing aids and when I told him what they were he responded with total disbelief. No one else in the village had noticed them or, if they had, they hadn't said anything. Maybe they thought the aids were large earrings all white guys wore.

"Are those radios?" Here had asked, pointing.

"Not radios. I'm deaf," I answered.

He laughed. "You're deaf? Come on, you're not deaf."

I could see how he might think that. We'd talked for hours, in quiet surroundings with little background noise and I'd been able to catch almost all of what he said and guess the rest. Jere spoke in a loud and clear voice and that was the key. In the States, I had pursued relationships with women for their speaking voices alone. Clear speech beat a pretty face any day in my book. In quiet places, with a loud speaker, I could actually hear close to 80 percent — well enough that people didn't believe I was deaf.

"Check this out," I said to Jere and took off an aid, wiped it with a shirttail, and put it in his ear. When I turned it on, his eyes shot open and he jerked his head away. The aid fell on his desk and bounced. They were pretty hardy. Jere looked at me, rubbed the side of his face, looked at the hearing aid now beeping like mad. Smiling back at his stunned expression, I waited for his questions, mentally preparing the speech I had written for just such an occasion:  These are hearing aids. They take all the sounds of the world and turn them up louder. I can't hear without them, not a thing. I can talk pretty well because of years of training and lipreading. You will need to talk loudly and face me when you talk, and I'll still miss some things, but I'll make up for it.

Instead Jere said, "You ever read The Odessa File?"

"What?" I replied, startled.

"I have it at home. It's a great book. About the CIA. I will get it for you."

He left the room. I put the aid back on and considered that this might be the place I'd been looking for.

I got my first hearing aids when I was four years old. To that point, I was slow to pick up language, slow to show an interest in the world at large. I wasn't very social or curious. I mostly sat under a table in the front room of my family's big apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side and stared at the corner.

"That boy is slow," my grandfather decided.

Underneath the table were shadows and dead spiders, the ridges where baseboards fit together, the pattern of the wood floor, cities of floating dust. It had not yet occurred to me that the silence of things was an absence. Then my mother figured out I couldn't hear. The exact moment of this recognition escapes her; it was more of a slow dawning. She took me to pediatrician after pediatrician, all of whom told her she was being neurotic and that I was just a delayed learner. Finally, one tested my hearing, and said, "Well, what do you know." We went downtown to the League of Hard of Hearing and I got fitted with hearing aids and was born for a second time, into a noisy new world that expected things from me.

"I knew it the whole time," my grandfather said when we got home.


What the world now expected of me was no small thing. With hearing aids, I was supposed to hear. Briefly, my parents considered forgoing aids and sending me to a school for the deaf, but back in the mid-70s, schools for the deaf were notoriously poor at teaching their students the English they needed to live independently in the hearing world. Rejecting that route, my parents instead found an audiologist on the Upper East Side, Adele Markwitz, who immediately set out an intense regimen to maximize my hearing. Adele had developed an intense and unconventional program for training hearing-impaired children. She did not believe in limits, excuses, or self-pity. I would wear hearing aids every waking moment, she decreed, attend regular schools, and three or four afternoons a week I would come to office to learn how to lipread and to speak.

At home, my mother supplemented Adele's lessons with constant practice while my dad, a psychiatrist, was away at the hospital. Ma was a gifted painter who had dreams of pursuing her art, but with the birth of four sons in six years, two of them deaf, she gave up those dreams so we could pursue ours. Later, my youngest brother, Sam, who was born with less hearing than I (but I lost the rest of mine by the time I was four or five so we were pretty much even), would work Adele as well. Sign language wasn't part of educational program, nor was learning about the deaf community. Sam, born four years after me, and my cousin Ben, born four years after him, were the only deaf people I knew until after I finished college. (Obviously, my hearing loss had a genetic cause.)


Learning to function in the hearing world was hard work. Lipreading was the key to understanding the speech of others; after much practice I learned to recognize the difference in the shape of a mouth saying "please" and "thank you"; saying "peas" as opposed to "cheese." I became quite good at it and could lipread from all sorts of angles: "The peas please, please pass the peas" — sure, no problem. Learning language this way made for an eclectic vocabulary—while only 20 percent of English syllables are recognizable on the lips, nearly 100 percent of all televised basketball coach profanities are. I learned many interesting words from Bobby Knight.

Lipreading was the warm-up; the real focus of my sessions with Adele was on improving speech. Day after day, week after week, year after year, Sam and I labored to enunciate everyday words by reading from Babar, the Berenstein Bears, and Dr. Seuss. S's were particularly difficult for me to say correctly — "The Grinch sssstole Christmasss" — I whistled them, hissing like a snake. "S" is the highest-pitched sound in English and even with my hearing aids turned up full blast, I couldn't hear it, and it is difficult to say a sound you can't hear.

Which points to one of the intractable problems I faced:  hearing aids helped a great deal, they were invaluable actually, but they were as sensitive as two microphones shoved into my ears.

Flesh-colored, comma-shaped, aids wrap around the back of the ear then connect via a little plastic tube to a mold that fits snugly in the ear canal. Sound enters the aids, is amplified, and sent into the tube, through the mold, and into the ear past the eardrum. A little ways past the eardrum are cochlea, seashell-shaped tubes the circumference of quarters, in which 15,000 tiny hair cells wave and shudder with the sound. These waving motions are conveyed via the hearing nerve to the brain, which then interprets them as downshifting trucks or growling dogs, clattering dishes or beeping timers, or often, if sound came through hearing aids, just loud white noise. Hearing aids amplify every single sound they encounter, including the ones you'd rather they didn't — your own voice, the vacuum cleaner, the bus brakes and baby cries, your mother calling you to do chores. All that noise is difficult to decipher, so hearing is not quite the right word for what hearing aids bring forth. Amplified 90 decibels, voices aren't saying words so much as the idea of words. With lipreading and guesswork, your brain has to turn the ideas into words — and while I did fine in quiet places, in noisy surroundings I was lucky to get a tenth of what was said.


We worked hard at hearing. My mother spent hours every day laboriously repeating words and phrases that gave me difficulty. It's not that easy to say "the snakes slid through the sand," a hundred times before dinner, but she never once complained or gave up. On weekend, my father read entire novels to us. I was extremely grateful to my parents for their dedication though I have to point out one confusing aspect of their approach was that they never wanted to talk about my deafness. I don't think they were ashamed of it so much as they worried that mentioning it too often would damage my self-confidence, but I wasn't able to grasp that distinction at a young age. I was certain something was so wrong with me that it couldn't even be mentioned. If everyone avoids something it has to be a bad thing, no?

It's actually not so hard to pretend deafness isn't there. It doesn't announce itself when it enters a room like a spastic limb or a Seeing Eye dog does. Looking at a picture, you can't pick out a deaf person unless you search for the hearing aids, and these can always be hidden under long hair or slipped into pocket before the photographer says cheese. Then, if you believe that that the quality of the person's image in the picture, his attractiveness and wrinklelessness and so forth, has a direct correlation on the quality of his life, you can easily convince yourself that the un-disabled, untroubled-seeming person in the photograph really is those things. He's no different from us, he just says 'what?' a lot.

This is obviously mistaken. Imagining your underwear is gold doesn't make it so. But here's the rub:  Adele's lessons worked so well that they reinforced the seeming legitimacy of ignoring so well that they reinforced the seeming legitimacy of ignoring my deafness. Many people never realized that I was deaf. I could speak almost perfectly. You only picked up the faintest deaf accent if you were really listening for it, if I was tired, or if you were a highway patrolman and I was exaggeratingly slurring my words in a play for sympathy to get out of a speeding ticket. Like the high school sophomore at the college bar with a great fake ID, I could fool everyone into believing I was who I pretended to be — which enabled me to go places (Mununga, for one) I wouldn't have otherwise.

Great, yes, but it gnawed on me that this way of navigating the world was based on a fundamentally untenable position, a two-sided lie. To others:  I can hear you; to myself:  it doesn't matter how much I miss or how alone I feel so long as other think I can hear.

I drove me crazy. I kept doing it, it was all I knew. It drove me to Africa.

Reprinted from The Unheard:  A Memoir of Deafness and Africa by Josh Swiller. Copyright © 2007 by Josh Swiller.

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Josh Swiller: a graduate of Yale University, Josh Swiller has had a wide variety of careers: forest ranger, carpenter, slipper salesman, raw food chef, Zen monk, journalist, and teacher, among other things. In August 2005, he had successful surgery for a cochlear implant and partially recovered his hearing. Swiller now speaks often on issues facing mainstreamed deaf individuals, and works at a hospice in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives.

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