Posts that are hearing-ish
Being oral deaf is like being MacGyver with audio data, except that the constant MacGyvering is normal since you do it for every interaction of every day. Posting because this seems interesting/useful to other people, although I’m personally still in the “wait, why are people so amused/surprised by this… does not everyone do this, is this not perfectly logical?”
I was explaining how I use my residual hearing to sort-of identify speakers, using faculty meetings as an example. The very short version is that it’s like constructing and doing logic grid puzzles constantly. Logic grid puzzles are ones where you get clues like…
- There are five houses.
- The Englishman lives in the red house.
- The Spaniard owns the dog.
- Coffee is drunk in the green house.
- The Ukrainian drinks tea.
- The green house is immediately to the right of the ivory house.
…and so forth, and have to figure out what’s going on from making a grid and figuring out that the Ukranian can’t possibly live in the green house because they drink tea and the green house person drinks coffee, and so forth.
Now the long explanation, in the context of being oral deaf. Some background: I’m profoundly deaf, with some low-frequency hearing; I use hearing aids and a hybrid CI (typically the CI plus one hearing aid). Generally speaking, I can’t actually hear enough to identify people through voice alone — but I can say some things about some attributes of their voice. For instance, I can tell (to some approximation) if a singer is in-tune, in-rhythm, and in control of their voice, and I can tell the difference between a low bass and a first soprano… but I wouldn’t be able to listen to a strange song and go “oh, that’s Michael Buble!” (My hearing friends assure me that his voice is quite distinctive.)
However! When I know people and have heard their voice (along with lipreading and context) for a while, I do know that their voices do and don’t have certain attributes I can perceive. And even if I’m not using my residual hearing/audio-related gadgetry to get semantic information (i.e. the words someone is saying) because I have better alternatives in that context (interpretation, captioning) I will still want audio…
…and I will pause for a short sidebar right now, because it might seem, to hearing people, that this is the only logical course of action — that hearing more is always good for understanding more. It isn’t. Extra information is only information if it’s worth the mental effort tradeoff to turn it into useful data; otherwise, it’s noise. It’s the same reason you would probably be happy if the background noise in a loud bar went away while you were talking to your friend. That background noise is “extra data,” but it’s not informative to you and just takes more effort to process it away.
In my case — and the case of my deaf friends who prefer to not use residual hearing when there’s another access option available — we’re patching across multiple languages/modalities on a time delay, and that triggers two competing thought streams. If you want to know what that feels like, try to fluently type a letter to one friend while speaking to another on a different topic. Physically, you can do it — your eyeballs and hands are on the written letter, your ears and mouth are in the spoken conversation — but your brain will struggle. Don’t switch back and forth between them (which is what most people will immediately start to do) — actually do both tasks in parallel. It’s very, very hard. In our case, one stream is lossy auditory English as the speaker utters something, and the other is clear written English or clear ASL visuals some seconds behind it. (Assuming your provider is good. Sometimes this data stream is… less clear and accurate than one might like.) Merging/reconciling the two streams is one heck of a mental load… and since we *can* shut off the lossy auditory English as “noise” rather than “signal,” sometimes we do.
Anyway, back to the main point. Sometimes I don’t want the audio data for semantic purposes — but I want it for some other purposes, so I’ll leave my devices on. Oftentimes, this reason is “I’d like to identify who’s speaking.” Knowing who said what is often just as important as what’s being said, and this is often not information available through that other, more accessible data stream — for instance, a random local interpreter who shows up at your out-of-state conference will have no idea who your long-time cross-institutional colleagues are, so you’ll get something like “MAN OVER THERE [is saying these things]” and then “WOMAN OVER THERE [is saying these things]” and then try to look in that direction yourself for a split-second to see which WOMAN OVER THERE is actually talking.
This is where the auditory data sometimes comes in. I can sometimes logic out some things about speaker identity using my fuzzy auditory sense along with other visually-based data, both in-the-moment and short-term-memorized.
By “fuzzy sense,” I mean that auditorily — sometimes, in good listening conditions — I can tell things like “it’s a man’s voice, almost certainly… or rather, it is probably not a high soprano woman.” By in-the-moment visual data, I mean things like “the person speaking is not in my line of sight right now” and “the interpreter / the few people who are in my line of sight right now are looking, generally, in this direction.” By short-term-memorized visual data, I mean things like “I memorized roughly who was sitting where during the few seconds when I was walking into the room, but not in great detail because I was also waving to a colleague and grabbing coffee at the same time… nevertheless, I have a rough idea of some aspects of who might be where.”
So then I think — automatically — something like this. “Oh, it’s a man now, and not in my line of sight right now, and that has two possibilities because I’ve quasi-memorized where everyone is sitting when I walked into the room, so using the process of elimination…”
Again, the auditory part is mostly about gross differences like bass voices vs sopranos in no background noise. Sometimes it’s not about what I can identify about voice attributes, but also about what I can’t — “I don’t know if this is a man or a woman, but this person is not a high soprano… also, they are not speaking super fast based on the rhythm I can catch. Must not be persons X or Y.”
For instance, at work, I have colleagues whose patterns are…
- Slow sounds, many pauses, not a soprano
- Super fast, not a bass, no pauses, machine gun syllable patterns
- Incredibly variant prosody, probably not a woman but not obviously a bass
- Slower cadence and more rolling prosody with pauses that feel like completions of thoughts rather than mid-thought processing (clear dips and stresses at the ends of sentences)
- Almost identical to the above, but with sentences that have often not ended, but pauses are occurring and prosodic patterns are repeating and halting and repeating
These are all distinctive fingerprints, to me — combined with knowing where they’re sitting, and I have decently high confidence in most of my guesses. And then there are people who won’t speak unless I’m actually looking at them or the interpreter or the captioning, and that’s data too. (“Why is it quiet? Oh! Person A is going to talk, and is waiting for me to be ready for them to speak.”)
There’s more to this. Sometimes I’ll look away and guess at what they’re saying because I know their personalities, their interests, what they’re likely to say and talk about, opinions they’re likely to hold… I build Markov models for their sentence structures and vocabularies, and I’m pretty good at prediction… there’s a lot more here, but this is a breakdown of one specific aspect of the constant logic puzzles I solve in my head as a deaf person.
In terms of my pure-tone audiogram, I shouldn’t be able to do what I do — and it’s true, I can’t from in-the-moment audio alone. But combined with a lot of other things, including a tolerance of extreme cognitive fatigue? Maybe. In the “zebra puzzle,” where I drew the example logic puzzle clues from at the beginning, there are a series of clues that go on and on… and then the questions at the end are “who drinks water?” and “who owns the zebra?” Neither water nor zebra are mentioned in any of the clues above, so the first response might be “what the… you never said anything about… what zebra?” But you can figure it out with logic. Lots of logic. And you have the advantage of knowing that the puzzle is a logic puzzle and that it ought to be solvable, meaning that with logic, you can figure out who owns the zebra. In the real world… nobody tells you something could become a logic puzzle, and you never know if they are solvable. But I try them anyway.
This post could be written by a lot of people who belong to a lot of groups. This post has been written by a lot of people who belong to a lot of groups, and you should find and read those things too. This just happens to be the post that I can write, about a group that I belong to also.
Trigger warnings: audism, racism, discussions of police-related violence/shooting, probably some other stuff.
A number of (hearing) friends from a bunch of my (different) social circles recently sent me — almost simultaneously — links to news stories about Deaf people getting killed by cops who couldn’t communicate with them.
This is nothing new. It’s been happening for ages. Someone with a gun gets scared and pulls the trigger, and someone else is dead. Maybe that person is Deaf. Maybe that person is Black. In any case, that person is now dead, and that’s not okay. (Maybe that person is both Deaf and Black, and we mention the second part but not the first. That’s disability erasure that, statistically, correlates highly with race; that’s also not okay.)
I’ve been deaf as long as I can remember, and I’ve known these stories happened for a long, long time. But this is the first time I’ve watched them from inside the conversations of a Deaf community — for some definition of “inside” that includes confused mainstreamed-oral youngsters like me who are struggling to learn ASL and figure out where they fit.
I’m a geek, a scholar, and an academic. My last long string of blog posts is part of a draft chapter on postmodernist philosophy as a theoretical language for describing maker/hacker/open-source culture within engineering education, and honestly… that’s what I’d rather write about. That’s what I’d rather think about. That’s what I’d rather sign about. Not people getting shot. A large portion of my Deaf friends are also geeks and scholars — older and more experienced than me, with tips on how to request ASL interpreting for doctoral defenses and faculty meetings, how to use FM units to teach class, how to navigate accessibility negotiations when your book wins awards and you get international speaking invitations. They are kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful I love them and I want to be one of them when I grow up.
And we are geeks when we talk about these deaths, too. Kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful. And my heart bursts with gratitude that I know these people, because it’s such a thoughtful and complex discussion, from so many perspectives, drawing on so many historical, theoretical, personal, etc. threads… the narratives I love, the sorts of tricky complexity that brought me back to graduate school and sent me hurtling down years of studying intricate threads of thought so I could better appreciate the mysteries that people and their stories are.
And I can’t stop thinking that any of us — any of these kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful geeks in the middle of these great and rather hopeful discussions about complex societal dynamics and how to improve them — we could be taken out by a single bullet from a cop who doesn’t know.
I’ve learned a lot of things about being a deaf woman of color in the past year. I’m lucky; I look like a “good” minority, a white-skinned Asian who can play to stereotypes of quiet submission — but even then. And I know lots of people who can’t. And one of the first things I learned was how to stop pretending to be hearing all the time — especially in any interaction involving someone with a badge or guns (airports, traffic stops, anything). This isn’t just because it’s exhausting to lipread, but because it can be dangerous to piss off someone who thinks you’re ignoring them out of malice or attitude rather than the truth that you simply didn’t hear them shouting.
I first learned this sort of thing in undergrad, when some of my engineering college friends were horrified by stories of some other student from some other engineering college arrested by panicky cops for carrying around an electronics project. I thought they were upset for the same reasons I was — because it was a stupendous overreaction on the part of the cops and the school. And it was. But they were also worried because — what if that had been me? And the cops had shouted stop, and turn around, and put down the device — and I didn’t hear them?
“It’s fine. I mean, I’m deaf, but I can talk — I would explain things. I would figure it out,” I told them at the time. “I’m smart, you know.” As if that would protect me, as if I could compensate that way — because I’d compensated that way for so much, for all my life.
But being smart doesn’t make you more hearing — to hear shouts from people pointing guns at you — or less dead, once they fire them. And being smart doesn’t spare you from assumptions people make because of how you’re navigating tradeoffs. If you’re a PhD who decides to go voice-off while getting through airport security because it means you’re less likely to get shot, you’re going to get treated like a very small and stupid child. Maybe not every time, and not by everyone, but enough that swallowing your pride becomes a normal part of flying. No written note, no typed message, no outward display of intelligence that I’ve been able to figure out has made someone recognize the intellectual identity I’m trying to communicate when they’ve already assumed it isn’t there.
And being smart doesn’t mean you can think your way out of other people’s assumptions and their ignorance and their inability to see who you are. And being smart isn’t what gives your life its value; being human does. (Being smart doesn’t make you more special than people who don’t rank as high on whatever flawed metric of smartness you or the world decide to use.) And being kind and brilliant and passionate and wonderful does not exempt you from being heartbroken when the world is broken, and afraid because it hurts you, and your friends, and people like you, and people like your friends, for a lot of different reasons that shouldn’t matter in the world, but do.
I wish I were more eloquent, but I can’t think about this too much and still do things like finish my doctoral dissertation this week. I wish I could speak to how this isn’t just about violence against Deaf and disabled people, how I’m not just speaking up right now because I happen to belong to those groups too — this breaks my heart when it’s Black people and queer people and Christian people and female people and trans people and… people. It’s mostly that I can speak a little bit more readily from inside groups I’m in, and that I have a little bit of time to vent this out right now, between writing a section on “postmodern narrative sensemaking as plural” and another on “narrative accruals as co-constructing communities of practice.”
Back to the world, I guess. Back to writing my stories of the gorgeousness and complexity and hope that always lives inside the world that wins my heart and breaks it all at the same time.
From the category of “thoughts that won’t leave your mind until you write them down,” I’m taking a brief writing break from my thesis to get some thoughts out, and then… back to it.
When I was little, my grandparents were largely Phones To Shout Into. They lived in the Philippines (later, my mom’s parents moved to Seattle). I was growing up in Chicago. We called each other on special occasions — Christmas, New Year’s, maybe birthdays — and it was always short, because long distance calls were pricey.
There’s no way to lipread on a phone call, so my general impression of my grandparents came from my bewildered looks at nearby parents to explain the blurry audio and prompt me for the proper answer.
“Hello, merry Christmas! (Mom: “They’re asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too. Here’s mom! Bye!”
Not much in the way of conversation. More like hoping I could guess the right phrase to say into the phone, successfully enough and long enough that they would let me go. I knew they loved me, and they knew I loved them, but it’s hard to get to know someone like that.
Fast forward ten years later. It was my last semester of college, and it had been a good day. After spending hours volunteering at the tech nonprofit that would later become my first job after college, I had reluctantly logged out of an office flooded with rapid-fire English text conversations — computing discussions, made accessible to me for the first time by a distributed international group of contributors who happened to choose text chat as their collaboration medium. Warmed by the unfamiliar fuzzy feeling of full-throttle, large-scale communication, I was walking to the train on rain-slicked Boston cobblestones. It was a warm night.
My phone rang. I recognized my cousin’s name and was momentarily disgruntled at my family. “They know I don’t do phone calls, I can’t hear them.” And then: “Oh crap, I don’t do phone calls. Maybe something is wrong.”
My cousin said something on the other side. I knew he would be speaking English, but the words didn’t make…
“What did you say?”
He said something again. He sounded serious — his prosody was far slower and more somber than I was used to.
“I’m sorry, I don’t…”
This time, I thought he might have said our grandfather — our Chinese dialect’s word for grandfather. I wasn’t sure. I said the word, hoping I’d guessed correctly. He repeated… something that was also probably that word. I thought.
I don’t know how many times I made my cousin repeat it over and over: our grandfather was dead. (“What?”) Our grandfather had died. (“I didn’t catch that last…”) He had a massive heart attack. (“Something about our grandfather?”) It was sudden and unexpected. (“Can you repeat…”) There was nothing anyone could do even once the ambulance arrived. (“Hang on, can you back up? Are we talking about our grandfather?”)
We gave up, hung up, and I made the long transit trek back to my suburban college dorm, wondering if our grandfather was dead, hoping I’d parsed the phone audio incorrectly, deciding whether I wanted to email my parents and ask if he was alive and risk looking like an idiot.
Eventually, I found my parents over email. He had died. I was to fly home for his funeral and sit while people mourned around me in languages I didn’t understand. Sometimes it was in English, but it’s hard to lipread people when they’re crying.
Fast forward a decade later. My grandmothers both live in the Philippines again. This time, we have Skype. I’m sitting beside my youngest cousin, and she’s the one relaying phrases, prompting my answers.
“Hello! (Cousin: “She’s asking how is school.”) Uh, school is good! Uh, yeah! I love you too.”
This time, I could be more eloquent about school; at the age of thirty, far more so than at the age of ten, I’ve learned to use my hyper-fluency in spoken English to cover for my inability to hear it. But our grandmother is not a native English speaker, and that language has grown harder for her over time — so I need to dial my language to a different setting than when I am sparring verbally in academia — and the awkward 10-year-old comes out.
I’m the canary in the coal mine for my family’s intergenerational communications, or at least that’s what it often feels like. When my grandmother’s English grammar started to slip due to the mental vagaries of age, I started straining more and more to understand her — without clear sentence structures to guess at, the clues I could glean from lipreading ceased to make sense, and at some point a wall slammed shut before me. In contrast, my cousins and my aunts and mother, brother, father, uncles… they get her words, unscramble them so slightly and so fast they barely noticed it at first. There are conversations I can’t be in anymore; there are thickets I cannot, with all my intellect and skill with language, force my way through.
They say she’s still quite clear in our Chinese dialect, her native language, and I believe them. But I can’t lipread that. I’m only oral deaf in English, and in German, and a little bit in Mandarin and Spanish… languages with books, languages with grammars and phonologies I can learn in clear text first, and the fuzzy, lossy mouths of speakers second. And my family is made of people, not of books.
Sometimes — often — I can’t speak to my grandparents. But I can write — and so I write. Not so much to them now, but sometimes for them.
Hello! School… school is hard now. Hard in ways I never thought it would be hard. ButI know how much it means to you that someone in the family will get a Ph.D. You might not understand the words I’m writing, but you do understand that part of why I’m writing them is in appreciation of the generations worth of sacrifice and planning that it took to get us here.
I wish that there was more that I could say to you directly. I wish there was more of your world that I could understand, and vice versa. I wish it didn’t cost so much for me to try with spoken language, but it does, so I will do it indirectly with a written one.
Uh, yeah! I love you too. So yeah, here’s… back to my dissertation.
My friend Sheila recently shared this article about two (hypothetical) deaf kids of hearing families at the dinner table. It’s absolutely worth a read. Both children in the story are about 8 years old, and go to a school where they’re taught in ASL; both are bilingual in spoken English and ASL, and both have hearing parents who care for them greatly and want only what will give their children a better life. There are no bad guys here.
In this fictional story, the parents of “Sophia” sign, and use ASL with her at the dinner table; family mealtimes are full of learning and interaction for her, active participation, question-asking, learning more about the world, about her parents’ lives, telling them about hers. The parents of “Caleb” don’t, because they think it’s important that he learn to interact with the hearing world. Caleb learns to keep his CI on to keep his parents happy, even if he doesn’t understand. He learns how to pretend. He loves them. He knows they love him. It’s not a bad childhood, honestly.
“Over time, Caleb has learned that it’s best to pretend to understand more than he does, so he will annoy them less… [at dinner, when his parents smile,] Caleb smiles as well, because he likes to see his parents happy, even if he knows nothing about what they’re saying. He has not learned anything from this dinnertime, but he doesn’t usually, so he does not think anything of it… Caleb clears his plate and leaves the room to brush and ready himself for bed. He is not unhappy, and is in fact mostly fine, but there is a subtle quietness in his heart that he doesn’t completely understand. He can’t identify it yet.”
I grew up closer to Caleb, without the CI, other d/Deaf/HoH kids around, ASL exposure, and with a family that regularly creamed-up English sentences into a creole’d rush of Southeast Asian languages. I know Caleb is a fictional character, but his experience hits close to mine in many ways, though I exhibited no visible academic delays (plenty of social ones, though — and although I was always at the top of my classes as a kid, I wonder what sort of learner I might have been with full access to the world… but that’s a complex experiment that can’t be re-run in any case, and I could have turned into a hypersocial party girl who thought studying was boring, too).
When I was a kid, one of the running family jokes was that I would read anything, anytime. Literally. Anything. I’d grab a can of beans out of the pantry and read the nutritional labels, and I honestly would find it fascinating (“whoa, ascorbic acid is in everything!”). Everybody found it weird and hilarious and cute; I thought it was pretty funny, too. I didn’t know why I kept wanting to read at dinner — and really, all the time — but I just did. It felt like I always had to, like the books were food and I was always starving.
The joke’s still funny, but now it’s also sad — looking at that family joke now, the books were food, and I was always starving. I look back now and see a little kid so ravenous for information that she scavenged the best of what was available to her, which was… ingredient labels. On canned beans. In hindsight, I understand this as tiny-Mel’s attempt to make family mealtime (and all times, for that matter) an information acquisition opportunity, since most of the discussion was… not entirely a closed book, but a heavily blacked-out, liquid-smeared, highly effortful one to read. In many ways, I made my own learning experiences at dinner, got my own content to the table when I was allowed or was able to sneak it.
Sometimes that content was a book I’d try to hide under the table and read until my parents scolded me for not “being present with the family” at dinner, which I could only do through lipreading. Lipreading is exhausting and inaccurate — I say this now as an adult with advanced degrees and a high degree of metalinguistic fluency and topical knowledge with which to guess, so it was probably even worse for a small child who was still developing language skills and vocabulary, and had less knowledge of the world to guess with.
Books are hard to hide under the edges of the table, so it wasn’t usually books. It was typically ingredients. Cereal boxes. The aforementioned cans of beans. Or advertising catalogues that had arrived in the mail. (I became hyper-aware of what I’d now call a typology of the rhetoric of bulk mailings.) This was the information about the world that I could make sense of as a child.
This is not too different from the information I can usually make sense of during hearing dinners now… the difference is that I have more coping strategies and use my speaking privilege like a powerfully wielded machete to get myself into discussions, I have more capacity to moderate and strategize my use of energy and brainpower to focus on important cues and topics, and I have a far richer mental model of the world and all of the ideas in it that I can use to make sense of the spots of information I am able to extract. The information, though… it’s still a crawl, a drip, a broken stream.
I remember this past fall when I was invited to the house of a Deaf family I’ve come to know in town, along with a bunch of other Deaf folks who were mutual friends of ours from church. My ASL receptive skills, at that point, were enough to make sense of most conversation — not to understand it perfectly, but it had surpassed lipreading in terms of cost/benefit (energy expenditure vs accuracy) tradeoff. I wasn’t really signing much myself, yet. I was a linguistic toddler.
I remember sitting in their kitchen and just watching… people… talk. About… local restaurants. Their jobs. Their kids. The snacks. Picking up their kids from school. Job hunting. Whether a kid was allowed to have another piece of chocolate. Topics shifted, nothing was particularly important, nothing was… it was… the most insignificant conversational content ever. And I sat there, wide-eyed, thinking: oh, this is how it is — this is a type of conversation I have never seen — this is what people talk about after meals, this is…
This is the rhetoric of everyday life, the stuff I kept on getting error pages for during my childhood attempts to access it — the “oh, it’s not important” response, or the classic of “I’ll tell you later” with a later that never came. This is the experience of an ethnographer plunged into a foreign culture, but the culture I was plunged into was actually… my own, except with (partial) access to the language for the first time.
“Making the familiar strange” is a common phrase used in training qualitative research students, but I think I might always live inside a world that’s somehow strange to me — as do we all, but I am very much aware of this particular way in which the world is strange to me because of how I grew up with communication.
That’s all I’ve got for now.
I went to Hansel Bauman’s talk on DeafSpace in Boston last Wednesday. Here are a few of my notes, lightly edited.
First, I was struck by Bauman’s presentation/interaction choices; they were good reminders that the medium is so inextricably part of the message. He started his presentation in ASL, directly addressing the deaf folks in the audience and letting us know that he would be voicing most of the presentation, then switched modalities. After the talk and Q&A (all interpreted), he came out to the cluster of signers that had formed at that point, and joined us in conversation. It saddens me that this is so rare as to be delightfully surprising, but it was nice to be acknowledged in a non-othering way.
I also enjoyed their starting question (which I paraphrase here since I didn’t catch the exact wording): If there were no people on Gallaudet’s campus, how would we tell that it was a Deaf Space just by walking around? (Starting answer: “Huh. We couldn’t.”) This came after some discussion on how taking up space is the first proof of existence (that’s a quote from someone whose name I didn’t catch), and having to constantly adapt the world is a material dialogue of “you’re not supposed to be here.”
On this note, I also appreciated the subtlety of observations the architects made about usage of space, backed in obvious, concrete ways with film data. For instance, they showed how people shuffled tables/chairs into a circle, dealt with chairs with arms, looked at each other while walking down a street engaged in conversation, shifted out of direct lighting, and so on. They were largely things that are so commonplace an adaptation that one might not think to address it; it’s just what we do when we’re used to worlds never quite fitting us. Their effective use of film made me think about my intermittent hopes to use video to back up my own research-related observations; lightweight documentary filmmaking may be a skill to develop more later.
There are two things ongoing in DeafSpace work that I’d love to keep an eye open for. First is the pedagogy used to bootstrap the d/Deaf/HoH users from Gallaudet into engagement with the design process, which feeds into my interest in teaching human-centered design in general. The second is the pattern language they’re developing from the DeafSpace projects that have gone up and are going up. (Plus: using the term “pattern language” correctly already earns bonus points in my book — but these are architects, so they would use that term correctly, if anyone would.)
As a side note, this event was also one of my first experiences choosing to stay voice-off in a mixed group of signers and non-signers, instead of simcomming, asynchronously translating myself into voice, or some other English-dominant modality that refuses the possibility of another person voicing me. I’m used to speaking my own English, and I’m not (yet?) a fluent signer, so even the thought of someone else voicing me is unnerving and distracting. Plus, if I’m in a conversation that is fundamentally in English… I’m going to be in English too, because that is my native language, and… why wouldn’t I?
But this time, the signed conversation was way more interesting to me than the spoken one — which is a rarity for me. And I could join it directly, just as I usually join English conversations as directly as I can. So… I did. I threw my CI and hearing aid in my pockets, threw my attention as far away from auditory channels as possible, and dove into the conversation with Bauman. I was vaguely aware that, at times, different people intermittently and spontaneously voiced me as needed for non-signing hearing people to understand the conversation (which I was pretty quiet for, because the other signers had far more interesting things to say). I had to very, very actively try not to look at them to lipread how they were voicing me (I can tell when people are talking, but not what they’re saying). It was a good experience; it was also a growth experience, but it was uncomfortable discomfort because of the dynamics and who was around (a few other Deaf people I already knew).
Turning my voice on again afterwards took… a surprising amount of effort, which is an effect that still makes me pause and ponder. The different kinds of effort that it takes to be in different ways of being is… intriguing. I will use the word intriguing here, for now.
A recent Facebook thread had me thinking about my relationship with the languages spoken by my family. Almost all my relatives speak English to some degree, with the native/fluent proportion increasing with later generations, as immigrant generations tend to go. But we have others, including the regional Chinese-Filipino dialect I would identify as “my family’s language.”
My family’s language, but not mine. Probably never mine. In some ways, I have a heritage language I may never speak. I still can’t successfully lipread my family’s language, and can only speak a few childish words of it — brush your teeth, time to eat, go to bed. English had far more resources to learn with: libraries full of books I could read, drills on vocabulary and grammar so I had patterns I could guess at, speech therapists trained for the phonemes of that tongue. And so that was my language.
I’m used to being surrounded by that dialect when I’m home sometimes, and even more so when we’re in the Philippines. What I’m used to is not being able to understand it. That’s… just my experience with it. It’s ours, but it’s mine in a different way than it is theirs.
But if you asked what my family’s language is, I would still point to our dialect. And I want to see it preserved, and I want my own children (who are likely to be hearing) to someday learn it from my parents, aunts, uncles, brother, and cousins, even if I myself may never speak it. Many parents want to give their kids something they didn’t have themselves, and this is one of mine.
Another “get these thoughts out so I can focus again” writing run. In the midst of reading “Scholarship Assessed” by Charles E. Glassick, Mary Taylor Huber, and Gene I. Maeroff, I started thinking about how I wanted to be assessed — which led to thinking about what I wanted to be assessed on — or in other words, “what might I want to work on next?”
I suspect that one of my secret terrors with finishing the dissertation is that I kinda know what I want to work on next, and I really do not want… to want… to work on that. (Thanks to Julia Thompson for poking me on this topic.) Heck, I can barely bring myself to explore it in the (comparatively) safe confines of my private/personal life. I’m having trouble even typing it into this blog post. Which. Seriously, Mel.
Rationally, this makes no sense. I have a primary project to work on next; it’s my postdoc investigation of Olin’s impact on engineering education (which is a really really cool project that I am super-stoked about). That makes it worse; it means that I’m terrified to even think about this as a potential side project. Or even a potential side interest that has nothing to do with research/work/anything except… me being interested in it.
Oh man. I’m… afraid of even being interested in something. What the heck is wrong with me?
You can probably figure out the topic from omission: it’s Deaf culture and sign language and… all the… deafness… stuff. Stuff. Things. Vague noun phrases make things safer to talk about, right? Yes, I know I’ve pumped out blog posts and comics about hearing aids and cochlear implants – that was hard intellectual work, but almost no emotional work. It feels entirely different. I’m an engineer, and I know how to write about technology and how it works. But this isn’t technology; it’s more identity. And I don’t know how to deal with that. Because technology is not-me, and this… could be. (I don’t want to say “is” just yet.)
Almost all my family and friends have wanted me to blog about… that stuff. For people who haven’t stepped inside that space with me (which includes most of my family), it’s usually a “so, how is the cochlear implant?” query, as if it were The Biggest Thing. (I’ll admit that it Has Been A Thing, yes.) But the people who have stepped inside that space with me and listened to me talk, noticed what has caught me and what scares me and compels me — it’s always language, culture, something in that space — identity and relationship and things that are Not Surgery. I talk through terror I’ve thought through enough to share a little, and they listen, and they tell me: my gosh, that was… powerful. You… really ought to write that down. Please write that down. Please do. Please do that work.
I can’t. I can’t yet, I can’t. It’s too raw and new and painful still and I don’t want to set it down in any place that might be permanent or… linked to me, or… nope. I use the word “yet” in an attempt to open a small crack in the door, but dang, that door is huge. And made of steel. And guarded by Cerberus. Just so you know. (Cerberus is my hearing dog. It goes RARF RARF RARF Mel someone is at the door asking about the d-word shall I make them go away for you? and I say yes, good dog, please do.)
Right now, “all this stuff” is waaaaaay on the “completely optional, just for fun” side of the line. I’m simultaneously terrified and fascinated, and want to be able to drop and run at any time. I want to study engineering education. Faculty. Electrical engineering? Software? Maker culture! Philosophy of higher ed! I don’t care! Anything but this!
Aaaaand yet. And yet and yet. Working with Sara Hendren’s class was one of the best things I did last semester (my Minions team… amazing. Awesome awesome awesome). The things I want to read are starting to accumulate in drifts that pile around Deaf and disability studies. I’m reading faculty development because that is my current work; I love it, it compels me — and yet… so does this. It’s scary, because it’s happened before. It’s always how something becomes my Next Thing.
And every time I converse with colleagues in a way that plays with this as a potential research topic (for instance, Ian and I geeked out repeatedly about the cospeech gestures of engineering students through the lens of ASL linguistics), it feels like… fire. And I could choose — again, when I am done with the dissertation and in the clear for other projects — to start pursuing it as an Actual Research Topic — and that is both a terrible and an excellent possibility.
Yes, I realize that this is an arbitrary line; the activities I’m doing and the questions I am asking might not change at all, but the labels and the framing would, and… those matter. Glassick et al note that activities done by scholars aren’t automatically scholarly (I cook dinner and make my bed, but that’s not “scholarship”). “To be considered scholarship, service activities must be tied directly to one’s special field of knowledge and relate to, and flow directly out of, this professional activity” (p. 12).
But there is overlap. I’m infuriated and energized by the lack of support for disabled faculty in higher ed culture (and America does a comparatively good job; I don’t even want to think about what would happen if I went somewhere on a Fulbright now). I’m intrigued by the pedagogical hacks of other mainstreamed engineering oral deaf kids; we independently invented so many of the same strategies, share so much empathy that it feels like a culture even if we’ve never met. Stephanie and Margaret’s idea of “disabled research methods” fits perfectly with my usage of CART for realtime transcription during research interviews. I can’t put the “classifiers for engineering cospeech gestures” ideas down; that’s haunted me for months even before Ian and I talked about it.
And yet my own ability to use classifiers is… primitive, at best. And… okay. Yeah. I pretty much outright refuse to sign outside of clearly marked “This Space Is An ASL Space” boundaries (my Deaf parish, Eric’s ASL class at MIT, the tiny weeklong microresidency bubble at Olin when Ian and Sarah came). I speak in complex English sentences while shoving my hands in my pockets, cutting out my normal tendency to gesture. I used to perform being hearing — and now that I’m not doing that, I perform fitting-into-hearing-culture. And I perform it hard, with the dial slammed past 11. And I usually know exactly what I’m doing. It’s… all right, fine, I’ll call myself deaf now, even in public. But don’t you make assumptions about what that means. Because I don’t even know myself, yet. And in the meantime, here’s the way I know best how to be.
It’s exactly the sort of terror research is good for. It’s exactly the sort of thing that the academy is missing. It’s the kind of thrust towards community (both in the academic and the Deaf world, and their overlap) that I think might help me grow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my next project will be looking at… nature-based approaches… to teaching… statics… to 2nd graders. Or… creating a rock opera score for a computer architecture musical (actually, that would be kinda cool). But maybe it will be this. Maybe.
I’m glad there’s lots of room inside that maybe.
There. That’s out. I’ll post the other stream of thoughts that have been distracting me, and then I think I can grit back into the “faculty as learners” section I’ve been struggling with since last month.
The hybrid CI surgery is done (a week ago today) and I’m recovering nicely. People have asked how I am, how it went, what it’s like, etc — I don’t have good words for that yet (thanks, meds!) so I shall have to write that later. Right now, I want to write about my college ring.
Image description: Close-up photo of two behind-the-ear hearing aids. They are nestled on each other atop a dark brown surface. A simple silver ring band, engraved with the Olin College logo, is looped around one of the hearing aids.
Like many people with fond memories of their alma mater, I have a fair amount of college pride, and wear my Olin College ring to show that pride.
Unlike most people, my college ring is also an adaptive artifact/device for my two documented disabilities. I’m deaf, and I have ADHD.
I often wear hearing aids. However, I generally prefer to not have sweaty ear-filling plugs and plastic chunks of computer behind my ear when I can get away with it (i.e. I’m not processing auditory input). Logical, comfort-seeking human than I am, I take them off whenever I have the chance.
And then I put them somewhere. And then I go do something else. And then the ADHD kicks in, and I forget I took them off, and I forget that they exist at all, and… well. You know. A few hours later, I’m running around the room going “WHERE ARE THEY? THESE COST THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS!” Bad things to lose.
Solution: college ring as symbol/token. The ring is small, unobtrusive, and it’s easy for me to tell whether it’s on my hand. (You’d be surprised at how easy it is to forget that hearing aids are on. Please don’t step into a shower with them; they don’t like that.)
If I am wearing my Olin ring, it means my hearing aids are somewhere on my person. Often this means they’re in my ears, but sometimes it means they are in my pocket. (Yes, audiologists, I know you didn’t want to hear that. Seriously, though. I don’t carry a padded dehumidifier case with me at all times. I just have pockets.)
When I take off my hearing aids, I take my ring off too. I link the ring onto the hearing aids, like in the picture above. This is just enough of a movement that requires time, thought, and focus — I have to take off multiple small devices from various points of my body, and thread them together — that it marks something into my memory that doesn’t get wiped out by ADHD-brain. When I look for them later, I can remember that decision and (almost always) the location where I put all three things down. Plus, in the meantime, the lack of the usual ring on my finger makes me aware that my hearing aids are not on me right now and I should probably go get them soon.
So there you go. Environmental adaptations. Usage of college ring to interact with deafness and ADHD. For the record, I wasn’t thinking “wow, look at me working on disability stuff now!” or “ooh, transgressive use of everyday materials to make statement about disclosure and identity!” or… eh, not really. I mean, sure. The personal is philosophical is political, and all that. For me — I am an engineer. I had a problem, and I had things, and I used things to solve my problem. The solution keeps on working, so I keep on using it. That’s all.
I’m finally done — well, done enough — with my first graphic essay series on hearing aid technologies that I feel like I can release them into the world.
- “I have things in my ears. How the heck do they work?” (hearing aids primer)
- “A graphic guide to hearing aid frequency lowering techniques”
- “A graphical guide to wireless hearing aid technologies”
- Combined references/credits document (only lists references I ended up explicitly using facts from; I read more than what’s listed here).
Much of this information has come through the time and patience of others who are far more expert in the field than I. Particular thanks are due to Brandon Coventry, Sara Melnick, and Sarah Sparks, and especially to Joshua Alexander who first introduced me to the fascinating engineering behind hearing aids. All errors and omissions are my own. Comics below, followed by reflections.
I have things in my ears — how the heck do they work? (draft) by Mel Chua
A graphic guide to hearing aid frequency lowering techniques (draft) by Mel Chua
A graphical guide to wireless hearing aid technologies (draft) by Mel Chua
The original plan was to create 4 comics, each approximately 4 pages and centered around one specific topic. Instead, I came up with 3 comics that are 4, 7, and 15 pages respectively –a total of 26 pages, which is substantially more than the 16 I’d originally planned. Turns out you need lots of space to communicate complex topics with any level of sophistication — and yet I still feel I’ve oversimplified too much, left out too much… and the most common reader feedback I got was “wow, some of these pages are so crowded.”
Each of these pages took me between 1-2 hours to sketch and draft, and perhaps another hour to ink. That’s about 65 hours of drawing alone — not counting reading time beforehand, or revision/feedback cycles afterwards. Graphic essays take a long time, in part because they’re so integrated into themselves that they become hard to revise without redoing the whole thing — or at least the whole page. I also ran multiple pens completely out of ink during the process and started to look longingly at graphics tablets and people who knew how to wield them wisely.
Readers seemed to generally take to the humor I used to expand on difficult ideas. One technique that worked particularly well was anthropomorphizing logic and circuit components. For example, the hearing aid processor becomes a ponytail-boppin’ DJ with huge headphones. Snakelike audio signals hurtle their rumpled selves into the antialiasing filter, emerging sleek and shiny out the other side.
I also got positive feedback for my personal take on the issue, with a little cartoon Mel popping in with commentary on how I perceive or use various technologies. Even my younger self makes several appearances — for instance, sitting on the floor in speech therapy and gaily illustrating why consonant discrimination is so important to childhood language development. (Imagine learning the word “sit” without being able to distinguish between the “s” and “sh” sounds.)
If I were to do this again, I would redesign my process to make revision cycles easier. I have not yet found a good tradeoff. Graphical drafts are difficult to draw and revise, but writing out all-text “scripts” of pages lost so much of the graphical immediacy of the work that I gave up in frustration trying to prototype pages that way. A better route involved listing information I wanted to communicate, breaking it down into what data went on which individual comic pages, and doing rough thumbnail sketches of what information would be communicated in what area of the page — but that took forever (and isn’t counted in my drawing time, by the way). And all these things lived on paper, meaning that I had to slog my way to a scanner to get them out to anyone who wasn’t near me.
On the up side, it was never difficult to find reviewers; all I had to do was plonk down in front of people and begin sketching, and inevitably a small crowd would gather and begin to pass pages around. (Maybe this only works on academic campuses full of fellow geeks.)
At some point, I would like to meet more experienced artists who would let me professional artists with some degree of training and apprenticeship and learning-through-practice who would let me observe them and question them about their tools, techniques, choices… people from whom I can learn. I’m self-taught in pretty much all aspects of this work.
Awkward capture of a daily ritual I relish — thought I’d write this down before the time period where I can’t listen to loud music, due to my hybrid CI surgery coming up on Thursday. I will miss this.
One of the spaces I relish most — in both physical space and the passage of time — is driving alone in my car. It’s just the right amount of extraneous stimuli for my mind to relax but still think about other things for an extended period. I like the whooshing of motion, the vision of the world whipping by. I’ll often fall into prayer while driving, sometimes effortlessly (sometimes not). And without other people in the car, I get to turn my music on as loud as I want to play it.
My music is loud. Loud, loud loud. Probably the kind of loud that causes permanent hearing damage, except that I’m… already profoundly deaf, so that’s about as loud as it has to be for me to hear it in the first place. If others are in the car, they turn the music down so that it’s the right volume for them, and I can barely tell there’s music there at all. Sometimes I don’t even realize it’s playing.
My mind tries to follow along in auditory imagination, grasping at wraiths hidden in the thrum of the motor, working hard to fill in the gaps. And I can do it, often — I have a fantastic auditory imagination, far stronger without external cognition than my fragile capacity for visuals (if I don’t close my eyes, focus hard, and/or sketch, I lose what I’m attempting to imagine). But it strains me, and I often give up. Alone in the car, it’s my space and I can fill it with sound that I want.
Mornings and evenings when I commute, I’ll fling the volume control out to the right, usually until the screen reads MAX and the rear and side view mirrors start to shudder with the pulse of bass. I nudge my left knee out to contact the door, where the speakers are built in. Each drum kick and each low bass hum pads through my leg; sometimes I raise my voice and blend into the sound. I’m now surrounded, swimming in a signal that’s now deep enough for me to dive — in reality, not only in imagination. That’s what I miss; that’s what I want. That’s what I dance to, when I dance — I dance to blues, a form of music soaked enough with bass that I can hear at volumes approximating someone hearing.
My car audio can be heard — windows closed — from across a gas station. My headphones can be heard — with lyrics — from across the room. My phone conversations, such as they are, are audible to everyone around me long before they’re understandable to me (and barely so, without interpreting). But when I drive alone, it doesn’t matter. It’s my space to fill with sound, and so I do.