David Wright wrote this autobiography about the influence of deafness from the time that he became deaf until he graduated from college. He was born in South Africa in 1920 and became totally deaf in 1927 due to scarlet fever. He states that he was fortunate in many ways. At seven, he was old enough to have learned to speak and to read, but he was still young enough to focus on mastering his disability and not become a victim.
Having heard, he maintained auditory imagery throughout his life. He emphasizes that being deaf was not the handicap that others imagine it to be. It must not have been, since he became a poet. This book was published in 1969 and I just became aware of it through the recommendation of a colleague. I have chosen excerpts of what struck me so you can sample his thinking and writing. My first excerpt is from a page-long aside.
This is a book about deafness, but as it is in part autobiography I have to digress. Like all Caucasoid South African children I have been unconsciously and therefore thoroughly conditioned to the caste system of the society to which I was born…. It was by deliberate effort that I had to rid myself, long after I had left Africa, of this appalling insensitivity to which I had all my childhood been conditioned: an insensitivity to the humanity of one’s fellow-creatures, to which is coupled an absurd, though equally appalling, sensitivity to the pigment of their skins.
The deaf-born, if not taught language – and it was not until the sixteenth century that this was attempted or even thought possible – can become so uncouth as to be indistinguishable from idiots or the mentally deficient. This is not because they lack intelligence, but because, being languageless, they have no means by which to think.
But the born deaf and those who become deaf in early childhood have the compensation that they do not feel the loss of a faculty they never had or cannot remember. They are at least spared the painful effort of adjustment. The later in life one loses hearing, the sharper the test of character and fortitude: because adaptability lessens with age.
Accepting pity not only humiliates, but actually blunts the tools needed to best the disability. To accept pity means taking the first step towards self-pity, thence to the finding, and finally the manufacture, of excuses. The end-product of self-exculpation is the failed human being, the victim.
Compassion, compared to pity, is hard. It makes a moral and intellectual demand; it is not concerned with the ego.
In my case, silence is not absence of sound but of movement. Suppose it is a calm day, absolutely still, not a twig or leaf stirring. To me it will seem quiet as a tomb though hedgerows are full of noisy but invisible birds. Then comes a breath of air, enough to unsettle a leaf; I will see and hear that movement like an exclamation. The illusory soundlessness has been interrupted. I see, as if I heard, a visionary noise of wind in a disturbance of foliage. The ‘sound’ seen by me is not necessarily equivalent to the real one.
I am now, after forty years of what we will term silence, so accommodated to it (like a hermit-crab to its shell), that were the faculty of hearing restored to me tomorrow it would appear an affliction rather than a benefit.
Lipreading is not simply a physical operation in which the eye has learnt to interpret for the ear, if is also an intellectual exercise. Lipreading is ninety per cent guesswork, because while most vowels are easily distinguished many consonants are not, since these are often produced by nearly identical lip movements. This means that in effect a great number of words and syllables which are distinct in sound appear to the eyes as like as peas.
People wonder how Beethoven composed his music after becoming deaf; I don’t; for, as I should know, it is not necessary to be able to hear in order to hear. The inner ear exists as much as the inner eye.
Not being able to overhear, rather than not being able to hear, is the real turn of the screw.
For handicaps of this kind bring with them a consolation, albeit of a left-handed sort. Consolation is not the right word; it is more in the nature of a quid pro quo. The handicapped are less at the mercy of vague unhappinesses that afflict so many, especially those without aim in life, whose consequent boredom promotes what use to be called spleen. The disabled have been given a built-in, ready-packed objective which is always present: a definite impediment to get the better of. Like the prospect of hanging, it concentrates the faculties wonderfully.
Lipreading is not simply a question of interpreting movements of the mouth alone. The intonation of the voice must be read as well. Someone for example says, ‘You bastard.’ This conveys nothing unless the accompanying emotive qualification is obtained. What is meant by the expletive phrase may be admiration, gratitude, chagrin, or disgust, entirely depending on the tone used by the speaker. The most obvious visual clue to the emotion qualifying the spoken word is the expression of the eyes. So in lipreading one actually focuses on a speaker’s eyes rather than his mouth, reading below the line as it were the verbal enunciation of his mood.
There is so much in what he writes that we deal with daily; told from a different perspective. We all have prejudices and biases which we may not realize. They are unlikely to change if they remain subconscious, and difficult to change even after recognizing them. You must have grit and perseverance so you do not become a victim. Our perceptions are not passive. We must actively engage the stimuli to receive the best signals possible from which we construct perceptions. The senses are integrated, but this is so seamless for most of us that we do not notice as he does when he hears the leaves rustle. We discuss visual imagery daily. Auditory imagery sneaks into my consciousness when I find myself humming or whistling a song and must reflect to determine the trigger. As social humans, we must all learn to read body-language; another example of implicit learning. What causes happiness and unhappiness and why can’t I find a better word? This struck me as I just read Fahrenheit 451. The people were continually kept entertained and told that they were happy; they all believed the same things and did not have to argue; but if they got a quiet moment to think, they realized that they were not happy. We need substance, challenges overcome, and relationships with others to be deeply happy.How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens