Elvis was on Max Cable TV. I was in a hotel flipping through the channels. There he was with his own private audience. In his black leathers, sitting, singing and playing his guitar. He snarled, the girls screamed and bopped. I bopped along with them, though screaming may have been slightly out of place in a hotel so I refrained. What on earth was I doing. I have long since flat lined as far as hearing goes but here I was bopping along to Elvis even though I couldn’t hear him. But somehow I could. Whether it was the way he moved, swayed or shook his leg, the music seemed crystal clear in my head. Was I going nuts? Nah, it was just my phantom hearing coming into play.
Elvis can do that. He has a way of grabbing an audience and evoking memories. They showed old clips of him. He had dancing girls, dancing men and choreographed fight scenes in time to the music. As he moved to the music, as the dancers moved to the music … as his face changed and his hips swivelled a whole range of sounds came to my head … guitar rifts, saxophones, trumpets and even Elvis’s distinctive voice were clear in my head. I lost my hearing between the ages of 8 and 10 and my memory of his music is still clear. In our day we used to religiously watch his movies during the school holidays. Bad as they were we loved them. Can anyone remember the Monkees TV Show ?- Mickey rocked – Or the Beatles cartoon? – Ringo was everyone’s fave. There goes my phantom hearing again – “Hey, Hey for the Monkeeees.”
What one hears through phantom hearing will depend on the sounds that they have experienced. Phantom hearing has been likened to having a limb amputated. You still feel it there and moving, the nerve endings are still sending messages to the brain. Every deaf person will experience deafness in a different way. For example those born Deaf and who have immediate families who are Deaf will generally not experience deafness in the same way as someone who has lost their hearing later in life. David Wright in his book, DEAFNESS, acknowledges this fact when he says, ” Very few are absolutely deaf. Their experience must necessarily be different from that of the severely deaf, the partially deaf and the hard of hearing. The partially deaf, it seems to me, have the worst of both worlds. They hear enough to be distracted by noise but not enough for it to be meaningful.” (Wright, DEAFNESS, 1969)
Naturally the experience of deafness will vary according to the age of onset. Similarly the ability to cope with deafness will be different as well. Those who have experienced deafness from birth will not fully understand the grieving and heartache that accompanies a person who suddenly loses the sense of hearing that they have relied on all their life. Likewise those that have heard and valued seemingly trivial things such as the birds singing outside the window at sunrise will find it hard to understand the relative insignificance and dismissal of such things from those who have never heard it.
I once had a discussion with a Deaf man from a large Deaf family. I compared his experience of deafness with my own. I spoke to him about his thought process. Because I have heard, when I think I hear my voice is in my head. My voice helps me to analyse, verify and decide. If I am hungry a voice works in my head sorting through the options that I have – ” A sandwich perhaps? Or a piece of fruit? Maybe a grease attack at the local fish and chip shop?” A little voice in my head sorts through all of the various options at my disposal. But what of my Deaf friend who has never heard? How does his thought process work? I asked him as much.
He thought about this for a while. Surprisingly he found it hard to explain. I asked him if there was a little man in his head that signed to him. He said that this was the case sometimes and at other times it was just a series of visual cues. For example when deciding what he might like for dinner visions of various food might come into his head, fish, fruit, bread etc. He might then visualise the signs that would allow him to explore these options further – “Bread maybe, no” or “Fish, grilled or fried?” In this sense his thought process was not all that different from my own except it was more visual while my own was more verbal. Of course when I am verbalising in my head I have visual images of what I want to eat too. Different from my friend? – yes, not really, maybe … It was an interesting conversation and one of the very first times that I really analysed what being deaf meant.
But it is not just deaf people who experience deafness in different ways. Hearing people do too. Recent articles of The Rebuttal have been highly critical of Dr Bruce Shepherd and Professor Graham Clark for the misinformation they spout about cochlear implants. Shepherd, I believe, is a parent of deaf children. Clarke , I believe, had a deaf mother. Clark became a Doctor and ultimately pioneered the cochlear implant. I read somewhere that his mother inspired him to go down this path. He wanted a cure for his mother. Shepherd, being a Doctor, perhaps was frustrated that he could not “fix” his children’s hearing loss. The experience of these two imminent Australians, probably and ultimately, shaped their attitude towards deafness. Deafness to them is a sad and tragic affliction that requires fixing at all costs.
What of a child of a deaf adult? CODAs we call them. Some of them have parents who lost their hearing after giving birth to them (Not from giving birth to them). Some of them have parents who are deaf and who predominantly speak. Others have parents who only sign. My own children have parents that move from signing to speaking at will. Some will have been brought up predominantly around other Deaf people in the Deaf community. Some will witness their parents or parent severely isolated within hearing families and the hearing community. The experience of a child of a deaf adult is infinitely variable. I asked my own three boys what they thought of deafness and all three gave a different answer! “Sad” said one, “The same as anyone else.” said another, whilst the third shrugged his shoulders and said “Dunno.” The first later recanted his sad comment claiming that he had misheard me. He said he thought I wanted to know about death! Pushed he said – ‘You can make me deaf if you want. I wont care.” Needless to say I was not convinced.
If three boys from one family whose parents are deaf can have such varying views then how can we expect society as a whole to have any kind of consensus. And this is the crux of the matter. People experience deafness in different ways. For some it is a positive way of life. For others it hinges between positiveness and frustration. Many just see deafness as the pits and causing complete turmoil in their lives. For others it is to watch on in frustration as a loved one struggles to fit in and overcome the isolation that deafness can inevitably cause. For others it is to see parents living life fully within the Deaf community but struggling within the hearing community – and themselves wondering which community they belong.
For a parent the deaf child is often the first time they have had to confront deafness in any shape or form. Not surprisingly they want their kids to be like them. They want them to be able to hear and speak because it is all they know. So called experts like Shepherd, Clarke and many an audiologist will feed this turmoil that hearing parents must deal with by providing biased information based on what they see as the WAY! Billy Graham has nothing on these evangelists.
And yes I am rambling. I am rambling because I am trying to make sense of recent events. the cochlear debate rared its ugly head again. Ex aspiring Prime Minister, Brendan Nelson – who is thankfully about to retire, saw fit to host a symposium on deafness and exclude Deaf Australia and the views that they would bring to the table. Deaf Australia have protested and indeed Deaf people throughout Australia were mightily offended by his actions. For those with little knowledge of deafness the conflict probably seems bewildering. Many will favour the oralist and audist view simply because it is all they know. Will we ever console these different views or are we forever doomed to be waring factions with our own vested interests.
I don’t know. But in the meantime Elvis lives on in my head. His music and voice forever in my memory. Do I want to be able to hear it again independent of my phantom hearing? Yes cos its what I know but at least I respect and understand all the other scenarios that deafness gives rise to. But that’s another ramble for another day.