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 | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • kurtsteinbach

    How do you know that? There are many modern day authors and poets who struggle with mental illnesses even with medication. The medication, in many cases allows them to function, and when they are having bad days, or are off their medications, they write, paint, and compose. Just because someone is on medication does not mean they do not suffer other effects of depression. If Emily Dickinson were alive today, she’d still be depressed, but some medication might offer her some relief from that hell, even if just for a time. And most people, especially a mere Major Depressive, are not on 12 different medications. They are under a doctors’s care to keep the meds in balance and many are better off. Depression is not just being sad. It causes major life disruptions in multiple areas of life. Besides, Emily Dickinson was better known in life as a botonist. She liked to work with plants. She wanted her papers and poems destroyed upon her death. Most of her poetry was released after her death from a stroke. It is just as possible that were Dickinson alive today, she would not live over 40 years, she might have turned out to be a drug addict as well? She was not an alcoholic or drug addict in her lifetime. Should we leave such people to suffer, or try to help them? Because I am not aware of any judicial or medical authority in this country that forces blind or deaf people to get surgery or implants to see or hear better. As long as depressives and addicts don’t break the law, robbing and stealing, they are not forced into rehab or onto medication. In fact, being a depressive myself, I am pretty sure there are laws forbidding judicial, religious, and medical authorities from forcing me into treatment I don’t want….

  • kurtsteinbach

    Nobody is forcing deaf people to get cochlear implants or other aids to hearing. On the other hand, back when LGBTQ was in the DSM, gay therapy was often prescribed and even forced on teens and by Churches. Getting an aid to hearing such as a cochlear implant is not going to do psychological damage or physical damage to deaf people. Comparing the two is a false syllogism….

  • kurtsteinbach

    Really? St. Augustine thought that deaf people could not get salvation because they couldn’t hear god. I thought god was omnipotent. So Augustine really believed that god could not make his presence known; what he (god) is saying known to the deaf? This is why people are starting to think that the overly religious are laughable and may have a mental illness. It is because of religious extremists that I’m no longer sure if there’s a god. Even if there is, it really isn’t going to change how the universe or the world works.

    People are not often born myopic (needing glasses). They may be born blind or deaf, or both. It is a disability. The reason ASL is not taught as a foreign language in most schools, Jet Pack Angel is because they go to separate schools. It is a disability that is very difficult to accommodate outside of a special classroom or with a special teacher. ASL teachers needs special training, and yes, the parents can get assistance for school for their deaf child. Only very large school systems would have ASL teachers. Deaf people can even get Pell Grants and Federal Loans for higher education.

    Being LGBTQ is not a mistake made by god, or a disability, or a disease of any kind (mental or physical). Being deaf, blind, hard of hearing, pr needing glasses, while there may be support communities and even entire cultures surrounding blind, deaf, seeing and hearing impaired people, that does not make them analogous conditions to being LGBTQ. Yes, they are discriminated against, to the extent that some people will always discriminate against those with some kind of disability. The similarities in discrimination come as a result of both LGBTQ people and blind, deaf, visually and hearing impaired people often being discriminated against because of what they do have in common. What these groups do have in common is that they are different. It is called Xenophobia, and it no longer denotes just fear. Nowadays, Xenophobia, fear of the other or that which is or those whom are different, often denotes or code for just another bigot, a reason to discriminate.

  • Sam Jay

    I say Signed Exact English for learning. ASL is at best, slang, with no creal grammar and signs widely from region to region and even school to school.

    I am hardly coming at this from a position of ignorance. Actually, I feel terribly frustration at seeing the “deaf Culture” do far more damage then good. This is a “culture” of naive, pollyannish views and little or no economic opportunity. ASL, while a useful language, has a very small vocabulary and has terrible grammar structure. Do people understand ASL is NOT english language, nor does it translate to written english. DO people understand there is something called Signed Exact English that deaf culture fights against. Yet those schools that embrace it fair far better. The person talking about ASL first kids understanding Shakespeare clearly is the one not well versed in deaf education.

    To be blunt a deaf kid should be able to go into a restaurant and order a hamburger by SAYING “hamburger”. In the Deaf Culture that kids is considered a traitor.

    Im sick of people that have not worked in the trenches of the ASL only, voices off deaf education telling me everything is hunky dory. ITS NOT. These kid are being sold a bill of goods and set up for a life of missed opportunity and menial jobs . I am all for Deaf culture, AFTER school. Luckily the vast majority of parents implant their kids, deafness from deasese is now very rare and the “deaf culture” is a dying way of life.

  • Sam Jay

    No, I don’t sell implant. Just heavily involved in the oldest deaf school in the country.

    Call the social security administration and get the numbers yourself. I am not at all against learning ASL and use it all the time. But any child needs to be given every advantage. And a implant is a major advantage for kids that qualify. How many of the deaf kids without implant have IEP? I suspect all of them are getting special services paid for by public schools.

  • Sam Jay

    Great points Heimaey. Well said. Its about loss of critical senses develop to keep us safe.

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  • Jim Olson

    I’m Ok with the end of LGBT radicalness. I look forward to the day when we are so un-newsworthy that you never hear us talked about.

  • jamesnimmo

    I’m not trying to slight anyone with disabilities, no way. I do not think I’m disabled for being gay. Discriminated against for being gay, yes, I am. Comparing discrimination with being gay with the discrimination faced by people with disabilities is mixing apples and oranges.

  • 1jetpackangel

    One thing that still makes me mad about High School is that it was required to take two semesters of a foreign language. Why wasn’t ASL offered? Sure, there weren’t any deaf students in my class, but it just feels wrong to not be able to communicate properly with people who are otherwise speaking the same language (English).

  • 1jetpackangel

    I didn’t even want to THINK about losing music.

  • emjayay

    Or cataract surgery or having your retina stitched back on with a laser.

  • emjayay

    Plus you get to take your dog with you everywhere! The PBS documentary a couple of years ago about training dogs for disbled kids and matching them up was really interesting and moving.

  • emjayay

    Yeah, arguements framed around things that don’t exist are kind of irrelevant. But I get the point of the deaf community arguement. It is however still a disability, unlike being gay, although both establish a community and have their own good stuff going on. Certainly signing is a different way to communicate,

    A couple of years ago a deaf lesbian couple got pregnant with sperm from a deaf guy so they might have a deaf baby and they did. This in my opinion was very, very wrong, taking a positive concept to a dillusional absurdity.

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey

    I would miss music the most.

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  • 1jetpackangel

    I think the thing that scares me the most about being blind or deaf is ‘missing’ a sense that could warn you of danger. (Yeah, I admit I’m paranoid.) I’m happy that humanity has progressed to the point where most of us don’t have to worry about our non-average children being picked off by large predators, but there are other dangers. Some people go too fast around corners and assume that a quick shout of warning will be enough to avert catastrophe, but it just worries me that I might end up running into someone who couldn’t hear me coming… or someday I might BE the one who couldn’t hear it coming.

  • jamesnimmo

    You lost me with the comparison of a “god” creating gay people and whether this was a perfect or imperfect “creation”.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    OH, didn’t realize I messed up the link – thanks, just updated it.

  • markpkessinger

    The politics of various differently-abled communities can often be surprising to those of us who are not part of those communities, or who do not have a close friend or loved on who is. Many years ago, I was partnered with a man whose father was the director of training for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which trains guide dogs for blind persons, as well well as for those with other or multiple disabilities, and also trains their disabled owners in how to work with their dogs. I was never aware, until meeting my partner’s father and discussing his work with him, that there is a rather large philosophical rift within the blind community between those who use guide dogs and those who use canes. From what was explained to me, apparently many who use canes object to the use of dogs because, in their view, it is undesirable to be ‘dependent’ upon anything or anyone besides oneself. I guess I can understand that — but having seen the amazing work guide dogs do, I think if I were in the position of being blind, I’d be more than happy to ‘depend’ on a good guide dog!

  • nicho

    Were Emily Dickinson alive today, she be zonked out on 12 different medications, seeing shrinks three days a week, and would be no better off — except she wouldn’t be writing poems.

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey

    And how many great writers, artists, etc. have had some sort of emotional issue that pills now help out with? Would there have been a Proust if he had access to OCD meds?

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey

    The distinction, for me, between being gay and being deaf or blind is that if you are born gay with all your senses you can still love, it’s just a different “who” that you love than the majority of people. If you are born without one of the five senses, like hearing, you do not have the opportunity to hear at all. And if you do not want to have that sense, and are happy being deaf, then you should be able to remain that way should you chose.

    The language gets tricky, but being born gay does prohibit you from the full human experience. And that’s not to say you can’t have a regular life or even a way more fulfilled life being born deaf, but it does mean that you are lacking one of the five senses and therefore are deprived of the full experience.

  • DrRandyG

    To support Dr. Sagan’s point, it’s clear that some “genetic errors” are, in themselves, side effects of some benefit. For instance, hemoglobin S disease (also known as “sickle cell anemia”) affords protection from malaria infection when one abnormal gene is present – that’s probably why the prevalence of the condition is so high in people whose genetic ancestry is traceable to the malaria-endemic regions of Africa. Having two copies of the defective gene often leads to early death, especially in the pre-modern-medicine era, but one copy appears to result in increased lifespan. Today, with the very low prevalence of malaria outside the equatorial zones, the damaging effect of the mutation is predominant, especially in the US.

  • Sam Jay

    I have a great deal of experience in the deaf world. EVERYONE MISSING THE CRITICAL POINT! 90% by some measure, and possible more, of deaf adults end up on social security disability. They believe deafness to be normal up until they apply for disability. The other sad fact is the deaf today that have been educated in Deaf Only ASL schools read and write at 2 or 3 grade levels if that. In fact many are functionally illiterate. Don’t believe be. Find a ASL deaf only web site and try to read the posts and comments .. And then you have the deaf parents that refuse to implant their children. EVERYDAY I watch these kids struggle in the hearing world needlessly. Great potential lost because “deaf Culture” insist they are normal. But then these same parents preps them for a life of government dependency. I am sorry but deafness and Gayness have nothing in common. One involves a damaged cochlea, the other is a fact of birth. One can be repaired. One doesn’t need fixing.

  • dcinsider

    I thought it was a terrific article and his reaction was priceless. I get the concern expressed by some in the deaf community to the concept of a “cure” for deafness, just as many react to the “cure” for being gay. However, being gay is not curable. Being deaf is to some extent thanks to modern medicine. That does not mean that being deaf is bad or negative, it simply means that there may be some adjustments available to increase hearing. The hearing aid is not an assault on the deaf, any more than eyeglasses are an assault on the blind. Like wise this surgery, or Lasik surgery.

  • PeteWa

    it’s pretty amazing that he was able to regain the hearing that was slowly lost over a series of decades.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    That’s it, in a nutshell.

  • Ryan

    It’s similar to those who bemoan the end of LGBT radicalness. The ability of people to reintegrate into the larger society leads to the end of communities formed on the basis of their differentness.

  • SkippyFlipjack
  • Drew2u

    Think of it as a person born into the deaf culture that may then leave that culture. It’s less about gaining or losing a sense and more about cultural identity and the notion that something is “not normal” or something needs to be “fixed”.

    There was some kind of conference for deaf people a couple weeks ago in California, I wonder if there’s anyone who reads this blog that went to that. Maybe they can help shed a finer light?

  • zadig

    I absolutely get that there are centuries of stigma to overcome for deafness. But I really don’t get the unwillingness to regain hearing if the option exists. If you can have an additional sense, why wouldn’t you? If I had been born without a sense of smell, is there some moral principal in avoiding a treatment that would give me a sense of smell?

    For that matter, while there’s certainly no stigma attached to the state of not being telepathic, if telepathy suddenly became an option for me, grabbing that opportunity as fast as I could would certainly not be a judgment on my prior state of lacking telepathy.

    Honestly confused here. Great article though.

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