He was deaf, now he can hear — a pretty neat story

Adam Clark Estes writes a wonderful story over at Gizmodo about his recent experience with ear surgery at NYU that restored most of the hearing in his left ear (he’s still waiting on the right).

Estes is a great writer. So the story is an enjoyable, and quick ride, regardless of the topic.

I do wonder whether he’ll get some blowback for his use of the word “normalcy” in the story (“My hearing would also, hopefully, return to some semblance of normalcy”). I know in gay circles, the word “normal” became kind of thing back in the 90s, when people suddenly realized it wasn’t “normal” to be straight any more than it was “abnormal” to be gay. And I can understand similar concerns from people who are deaf.

Though it does raise an interesting question that Dr. Laura, of all people, unwitting raised all the way back at the turn of this past century: Is it “normal” to be gay or deaf, or did we end up this way because something went wrong?  Clearly, being deaf is not simply a different way of hearing. Something went wrong biologically, as the story makes clear.  Yet, there’s conflict in the deaf community over just that “fact”:

There is a long history of viewing deafness as a deficit condition. Aristotle said that those born deaf “become senseless and incapable of reasoning” (Carver). St. Augustine taught that the deaf were excluded from salvation on the grounds that they could not hear the world of God (Carver). The Deaf community has struggled to remove the medicalization of deafness. They have protested the deficit concept of deafness and have worked to develop a healthy self-concept of deafness. Members of the Deaf culture celebrate their deafness, and many, if given the opportunity to hear, would choose to remain deaf because they do not see deafness as a disease or a disability, only as a difference. Padden and Humphries describe the Deaf culture’s perception as having a “different center” (Ramsey, pg. 81).

Adam Clark Estes before his hearing surgery.

Adam Clark Estes before his hearing surgery.

Whereas hearing people work from the perspective that their hearing status is the norm, deaf people assume their deaf status is the norm. Each group is working precisely as members of a specific culture is expected. These different centers impact the way that each culture views the cochlear implant. Members of the Deaf culture view an attempt to make them into hearing individuals as discriminatory, and as some members of the Deaf culture have indicated, as an assault on their personhood. The hearing community, on the other hand encourages any attempt to move closer to their concept of center, which reflects their enthusiasm and general support for cochlear implants.

The ethical conflict considered here arises when an attempt is made to change the center of an incompetent infant from one cultural group to another cultural group. The Deaf culture views the implantation of an infant as an attempt to assimilate the infant into a culture different from its birthright. Harlan Lane has argued that children born deaf to hearing parents are biologically members of the deaf community at birth, even if they are denied the opportunity to acculturate. They view it analogous to the removal of young Indian children from their homes and placed in Government sponsored boarding schools. Just as you can’t remove a child’s Indianess by changing his culture, Dr. Lane contends that you can not remove a child’s deafness, his birthright to the culture of silence.

As for being gay, the same analysis applies (or does it?).  Is ours simply a different orientation that was planned from the beginning (to the extent nature plans anything), or is it something else, a “biological error” as Dr. Laura once famously said?

I remember going on some radio show, back in the Dr. Laura days, and arguing that God was incapable of error.  And to the degree God exists, he didn’t “make a mistake” when he created gay people.  I was harkening, to a degree, back to one of Carl Sagan’s appearances on the Tonight Show back when I was a kid. I remember Sagan talking about people who wear glasses, and whether it was a smart idea to genetically correct their deficiency (if it became some day possible).  As I recall Sagan’s point, he suggested that we had no idea whether the genes for myopia might be linked to the genes for, say, genius. And that by “correcting” vision problems, we might seriously damage our gene pool and future.

Sagan’s was an interesting twist on the notion of “error” vs. original intent. Even if myopia, deafness, and gayness were a “mistake,” how do we know that God’s-oops didn’t come with a pretty hefty silver lining?  Like show-tunes!

Here’s a quick snippet of Estes’ story. It’s not that long, and definitely worth a read:

I left the office with my coworker Bob. Bob’s from Scranton and enjoys chatting, so we chatted while we strolled to the subway. I slowed to a walk, when I felt anxiety creep up my spine. My hands were shaking a little, and Bob asked me if I was alright.

“Yeah, I…” I couldn’t figure it out at first, but then it hit me like a locomotive. “Holy shit, I can hear you!”

Bob looked confused.

“I felt like something was wrong,” I explained. “Then I realized that you were standing on my left side, and I could actually hear what you were saying! That’s never happened to me before.”

“Wait, so you’re telling me all this time we’ve been working together you haven’t been able to hear me?” Bob looked upset.

“No no no,” I was getting flashbacks to the “brusque” conversation I’d had with my boss a few years before. “I mean yes, I couldn’t really hear you, but I’d know what you were saying. Now I can actually hear you, and it’s tripping me out.”

Suddenly, the cacophony of the city swirled around me. A car door slammed down the alleyway. A couple chatted on the corner. The subway rumbled underneath. These were all sounds I’d heard before, but not like this. It was as if I suddenly had superpowers. It was incredible.


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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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