Since becoming the editor of this blog, one thing I’ve struggled with is the diversity of “hearing loss” experiences we would like to reflect. This is parallel with all the questions related to the minefield of hearing-related terminology, which we’ve touched upon in a couple of past articles. I actually drafted another article on the topic after Christina wrote hers about reclaiming the term “hearing impaired” for herself. But it’s been sitting there because I didn’t feel I was managing to get it right. And because I’m very much afraid of saying the wrong thing on a loaded topic (as I am with this very post).
In what I’ll call the “hearing loss spectrum”, for lack of a better expression, there is a reasonably obvious distinction, the importance of which was recently brought to my attention on a couple of occasions. Not that I wasn’t aware of it before, but I’ve come to a deeper understanding of it — and of its relevance to the editorial line of Open Ears (part of my job here).
The distinction is the following: is your primary means of communication through vocal speech, or signed language? Of course there are people who use both, but for most or us I think, it is one or the other. Is your culture hearing culture, or Deaf culture?
About a month ago I heard that Christine Sun Kim was giving a talk at the MIT Media Lab. Christine is a sound artist — and she’s deaf. Of course this made me curious, and I thought it would be interesting to talk about her work on Open Ears (which I’m doing, actually, by writing this ;-)). Then the “rift” between parts of the “hearing loss” and “deaf” communities was pointed out to me. My initial reaction was “no big deal, Open Ears is about the whole ‘hearing loss spectrum’.”
Hearing technology (hearing aids and cochlear implants, mainly) is about making it possible for those who want it to take part in hearing culture as normally as possible even though their “lesser hearing” makes this difficult, to varying degrees. In that respect, this blog is clearly about the hearing world.
A couple of weeks later, I met a woman whose son is deaf. He can hear very loud sounds (ambulances etc.) with the help of a powerful hearing aid, but that’s it. They sign, of course. She was telling me about how extremely difficult our Swiss ideal of “total integration in the classroom” was for deaf kids (like asking little hearing kids to take part in a class full of telepaths).
Her story kind of drove home for me how very different it is to be part of hearing or deaf culture — deafness here as a linguistic and culture minority: the Deaf.
And so, yes, there is a whole spectrum of hearing loss. But at some point there are two worlds that are culturally different and communicate via different mediums (oral speech or sign). To some extent, they are related to degrees of hearing loss, but not necessarily.
This is quite obvious, I’m aware. It’s not a new idea for me either. But as an editor who is forever thinking about and questioning the editorial line of this blog (do we write about this? and what about this? and this? or not?), these two encounters helped me clarify that we do not want to encroach upon the territory of all the great Deaf publications out there, and that Open Ears respectfully remains on the “hearing culture” side of hearing loss.