t happened when I was six, my brother, four. It was during the war. We were making jam on the great black castiron stove - a rare treat as sugar was very scarce. A German V2 bomb came over, then exploded right above the house. Our foster mother (our parents were in more dangerous parts of England doing war work) told us to run to the shelter in the bedroom, a metal cage supported with steel girders issued to households with children in the path of the flying bombs. We didn't get to it in time nor would it have prevented what the bomb did. Shaken, we started to cry only when we found that the saucer of jam on the kitchen doorstep was filled with dust. We were to have been allowed to taste it. It was there to test whether the jam was ready to jell. Mrs. Beattie put out another saucer for us.
At first we thought all was well. The house survived the explosion. But we could not hear properly. People thought we were stupid. It became easier for us to think we were. One day everyone was asking me, "Can you hear the cuckoo?" Finally, because I could see how worried they were, I lied and said I could. That lying and pretending to hear, answering "yes" and "no" to questions I had not heard, was to continue until I was in my thirties and got my first real hearing aid. In England we say one is deaf when one is hearing impaired. As children that word terrified us. It sounded to us the same as "death." I used often even to wish I was dead rather than deaf. When we went back to our real parents when the war was ended it became more important than ever to lie.
(How many children, women, men, innocent civilians, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, are now deaf from our bombs?)
Our mother refused to admit that we had lost much of our hearing and would fly into rages if we ever mentioned anything about deafness. Our father took us to specialists and was kind. But we internalized our mother's denial - and also externalized it. I can remember as a child wanting to murder any older person I saw wearing a hearing aid - because I had once mentioned to my mother wanting to have one and her response had been so murderous. (Perhaps it was guilt about leaving us in an area where there was bombing?) People were always angry with us and we were always afraid. As well as the anger, we would be told "You can hear perfectly well when you want to!" and we believed we were faking. Now I know that I heard well sometimes when the room was quiet and well lighted and I was not tense but with background noise, bad lighting and fear - especially when I was trying hard - I could not unscramble what the other person was saying. The blind get pity and more help than they want; the deaf get rage or ridicule. What is especially difficult about this disability is that it appears to be a mental problem to other people, so important is spoken communication to human interaction, when it is really just a physical barrier. For years I lived in a state of intense shyness, fear and humiliation, when really I am an outgoing extrovert. I did not want to be ashamed of my mistakes.
It took me for ever to learn to read. It was the era of "look/say," learning to read by whole phrases. Finally, Mrs. Beattie, herself educated as a child in Scotland, taught me to read phonetically. In one week at eight years old I grasped what it was about and from that day you couldn't get me away from books. I read everything. (I still hear the words pronounced as I read which helps keep my speech clear - though it is very English English still, after years in America.) I could now catch up on all the things other people learn about through conversations. I could read things, even if I could not hear them. In school - and later in college - I learned to look at my neighbor's notes while not seeming to - and never doing this in an examination. I find my hearing impaired students do the same and that we are scrupulously honest about this surreptitious skill we have had to learn for our academic survival. We don't cheat on exams!
England, after the war, had National Health. I was in lip-reading classes and I was taken from the back row of my classroom (for they had earlier thought I was mentally retarded and uneducable) and put into the front row, and, at the same time that National Health straightened my teeth, I was issued a hearing aid. I loved being in the front row and finally understanding the teacher but loathed the hearing aid and only wore it one year. It was an horrendous contraption, the thing in the ear, a bulky bag with heavy batteries, an aid in the pocket that picked up every rustle of my clothing, dropped pencils and other noises, all drowning out the voice of my teacher, and wires and straps everywhere connecting the three seemingly enormous and far apart objects. It took me hours to dress and hide all the things under my clothing. When I went to America at sixteen I left it on top of the wardrobe. I wonder if any one found it. I felt very guilty for I knew it was expensive and that somebody else might have benefitted from it.
At sixteen in college in America I refused to try other hearing aids but did do more lip-reading training. By sitting in the front row (one professor did the alphabet backwards and I was again, as my name then began with B, in the back row and that was almost my lowest grade) and reading all the books, I got through in three and a half years with great distinction and departmental honors. Dr. Moses of Stanford, the then leading expert in the country on hearing and speech disorders, pontificated to me that I would "nevair learn ze foreign languages." I replied to him in French that I did know more than one language, English, French and Latin. (Because I wanted to defy him I have gone on to learn Italian well and beginning Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Greek, Hebrew. I really am grateful to him!)
Then I married and had three sons. My husband liked to humiliate me about the deafness. The high voices and crying of my children were excruciatingly painful. After nine years I took the children with me to Berkeley and went to graduate school. For five years we lived in utmost poverty. Disaster struck when I failed not one, but two, oral examinations for the PhD in English. The guilt I felt for my children was overwhelming. One can never retake the examination a third time. But Cowell Hospital stepped in, checked my hearing, scolded me about not having got help at the beginning (I hadn't heard their questions when I had entered graduate school and had given the wrong answers, which was also what I had did in the two oral examinations), and they said it was not possible for me to take an oral exam without a hearing aid. A wonderful woman doctor said to me, "Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said, 'She wasn't going to miss out on anything,' and so she got a hearing aid." Eleanor Roosevelt was my hero. So at last I didn't mind asking for one. I was also learning to say to people that I could not hear and finding that the world did not come to an end when I did so. I had not known it could be like that. But on $300 a month for four people (which I earned as a Teaching Assistant) there was no way I could afford a hearing aid. I asked Welfare and they said they could only get me one if I had no income at all - which was three months away when my TAship ran out. My husband had long before stopped paying child support and had threatened suicide if I asked for AFDC. No one knew what to do. With a scholarship I was able to take more speech-reading (a word I like better) classes with training to learn how to use a hearing aid at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco in a splendid program run by Roz Parenti. Then I remembered that when I got my American citizenship I had been sent a booklet by the State of California and in it it had mentioned the State's Rehabilitation programs. I applied to them. They were delighted because they like simple solutions like getting a hearing aid for a PhD candidate. Usually their cases are drawn out, expensive, and not effective. So I sat on benches with prison parolees, met with detention officers, had to go through humiliating medical exams checking on VD, and finally - after much red tape and so many months later that I had no income and could have got one through Welfare after all - I got my first real working hearing aid.
I wore it from the shop and the birds were singing! There aren't cuckoos in America but at last I could have heard one and was to hear them joyously when I went back to Europe. I passed my third go at the PhD orals brilliantly, got a job teaching at a small Franciscan college in Illinois while writing my dissertation, then became Assistant Professor at Princeton University. What was wonderful was changing. One didn't have to lie anymore and there is such a fine economy in truthfulness: "What a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive." And what was especially empowering and enfranchising about going from being hearing-impaired to becoming like a hearing person with the hearing aid was that I could for the first time be involved in political decision-making - which requires that one hear in order to speak appropriately. Because my hearing-impairment was caused by a war and a bomb, I was especially concerned about preparations for war and bomb-making. In college I had seen a nuclear bomb explosion on a science field trip to Death Valley and knew I had to work against that. My first published essay was on the beauty and evil of that bomb. I had had the same feeling when looking at the beautiful German craftsmanship of a V2 rocket I saw in a museum when I was a child. Because I knew what poverty was I lobbied for legislation for children's medical care and education.
Then my brother at the Food and Agricultural Organization told me about the Sahel Famine and begged me to do something about that too. I started Princeton Hunger Action with the students and we raised over $30,000 for Oxfam America our first year, more than twice my salary. In California and at Princeton I was able to lobby and raise money and work for all these causes and became a member of the Philadelphia Quaker Peace Committee, even meeting with the National Security Council's Zbigniev Brzezinski and the Soviet Deputy Ambassador Vladillen Vasev and getting the Geneva Arms Control negotiations restarted. The Soviet Embassy's Vladillen Vasev was at first gruff with our group but when he and I both realized we were hearing impaired in the same war we became friends! I became friends, too, with Buckminster Fuller because we both knew what being hearing impaired is about. It's a great ice-breaker!
I taught at Princeton for seven years but did not get tenure - mainly due to problems in teaching because of the hearing impairment. A hearing aid salesman threatened to arrest me and report me to the university when I returned a hearing aid to him that so badly distorted sounds I could not make sense out of the words I heard with it. "Sky" sounded like "by" and so forth. I found I could get no help from Better Business Bureau. Ralph Nader sent me to the Grey Panthers and their material, "Paying through the Ear," which noted that a hearing aid costs about $18.00 to make, far more to buy. From this experience I learned that it is far better to go to a hospital or university clinic for a hearing aid prescription, as a salesman may pressure one to get a hearing aid that is not optimum. Many are honest. A few are not. Go to them when you are sophisticated, not when you are naive; for your second, but not your first hearing aid. You also really need classes to learn how to use them. I wish hearing aid salesmen gave these. So much better would be hearing-impaired hearing-aid salesmen who know the score. Hearing aids are not glasses. You have to re-program your brain for them. Then, with time, they are wonderful and you cannot manage without them. I love putting on my hearing aids in the morning; putting on bird song, the world.
I next got a job at a state university only to be threatened with being fired because of the difficulties with hearing my students. So I got two hearing aids and went through more lip-reading training. But I was still denied tenure twice, because of the memory of the earlier difficulty, though now my teaching evaluations, publications and service were all far above average. In my desperation I had told my brother that he should use hearing aids too. His denial of his hearing difficulties was even greater than mine. I got to see him too late, only viewing his corpse with the cancer all about his ear and throat. He told people that my telling him he needed hearing aids caused his dying. I saved his life twice. This third time I was not told he was ill until it was too late. I found later he had tried hearing aids once, very expensive eyeglass ones, but which lacked any ear moulds so they had not worked. Please - I know some of the SHHH readers are hearing aid salesmen - only sell aids that can work. Then we'll always be coming back for more. I know we are difficult people. But be doubly careful with us. Our lives are a nightmare because of that denial.
The federal and state Civil Rights agencies helped with the tenure denial and investigated the university. The university adminstrators overturned their own decision, the president's advisory committee ruling unanimously in my favor on the basis of my scholarly work, and the Regents granting me tenure. Some of the Civil Rights agencies are effective; others are not. I tried them all. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in effect does nothing. The state's Commission on Civil Rights was the most efficient but has the least clout, the state university refusing to legally recognize their jurisdiction. The Department of Education - which specifically in law prohibits denial of tenure on the basis of a hearing impairment - could do nothing because of the Supreme Court Grove City College ruling, but they sent my file over to the Department of Labor Office of Contract Compliance. This was the most effective agency of all. Federal contract holders must certify that they are in compliance with federal Civil Rights and that they do not discriminate against persons on the basis of race, sex, age, or handicap, or they stand to lose their federal funding. I talked about this with people at Gallaudet University - where I would like to be a Visiting Professor in order to learn the skills my deaf and hearing impaired students need me to have at my present university - and they asked me to take this to court, or at least to write about it. A Quaker also asked me to write. These are the reasons for this essay.
I know hearing impaired and deaf people need a strong legal precedent to help them. But I also know that suing is not really an effective method for changing people's institutional attitudes. We need role models as well as legal cases. Such as Eleanor Roosevelt! I used my tenure appeal, every step of the way, to gently educate my opponents about hearing impairment, and included in the file for people to read material like Oliver Sacks' essays in the New York Review of Books on the hearing impaired and deaf. Wherever I have taught I have worked especially with deaf and hearing impaired students, at my present university being the faculty adviser for the group the students have named IHEAR (Impaired Hearing Education and Resources).
I won my case - and lost it. At the same time I was awarded the top AAUW American Fellowship and was able to carry out research in Europe amongst manuscripts in libraries and documents in archives on Dante's thirteenth-century teacher, and finish that book. I published three books, around twenty articles and a similar number of book reviews and notes in Medieval Studies, Victorian Studies and Women's Studies. I also know now that I have taken every step possible to make the hearing impairment not handicap my teaching. My three sons have given me eight grandchildren. They all suffered because of my disability and the discrimination against it. But we must live for, in and with the future. We all need to actively change patterns of discrimination and of denial in both our society at large and within our families and ourselves. Elizabeth Barrett Browning of Casa Guidi once wrote "My future will not copy fair my past." Civil Rights provisions can help in this changing.
Yes - and no. I promised my university, when they granted me tenure, to fire my lawyers and did. The President supported me. Not my Dean. My salary was frozen by him though my teaching evaluations soared to A+s, I went on to publish book after book, and to bring in thousands of dollars in grant money to the university. He used arson and asbestos to obtain documents from my office. In particular purloining the letter from his colleague saying that to include women and blacks in 'World Literature' would 'somehow lower standards'. The last straw was when devices were installed in all lecture halls to shut off lights which also shut down hearing aids. I had no more energy to fight, tried to, but it was too difficult. I took early retirement, giving the money for scholarships for Penitente women students at my university and to replace the hearing aids of a deaf student in IHEAR because his aids had been broken by the contraptions to turn off lights, as mine had also been. I no longer teach. My former Dean who stoops to arson is now president of a university named after Eleanor Roosevelt.
Deafness, particularly from a bomb, is a
trauma. I wish my brother had survived, instead of succumbed.
Now with blessed oliveleaves I remember the moment when I put
the frustrated deaf Buckinster Fuller's hand on my hearing aid
and smiled with him, sharing with him that we knew what hearing
people do not. Language can be heard, it can be seen, it can be
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