deaf/HoH experiencesteaching

The best place for my hearing aids is on my desk

I recently had the honor of writing an essay for Uncharted-Uncharted: How Scientists Navigate Their Own Health, Research, and Experiences of Bias, Edited by Skylar Bayer and Gabi Serrato Marks. With permission from Columbia University Press, here is the essay

The moment I get to my office desk, I take off my hearing aids. As I do so, the world around me softens. Gone are footsteps, hallway chit-chat, brushing clothes and papers. Now I can finally focus.

With my hearing aids, the world’s sounds are harsh. High- frequency  sounds  that  I  can’t  usually  hear  are  amplified  by hearing aids. Hearing aids make all the frequencies of speech louder than my hearing thresholds, which vary with sound frequency: high-frequency sounds need to be extremely loud for me to hear them. For example, I don’t hear birds or the difference between “M” and “N,” and while I can hear some vacuum cleaner noise, this sound is soft and easy for me to ignore. I’m often amazed that these two tiny machines that fit behind my ears can amplify all these sounds. But the most amazing part of the hearing system is the brain. How does my brain process all the incoming acoustic information compressed into the narrow volume range of my hearing? I don’t know. I’m a physical scientist and have no idea how my brain operates, but whatever my brain is doing must be very hard work. For example, distinguishing the “T” and “F” sounds from the background noise of fans or cars passing by, which is critical for understanding speech, drains my energy. After an hour of listening, I start to drift away from the discussion. I experience listening fatigue.

Because my job as a professor at a primarily hearing insti- tution involves a lot of oral communication, I have to manage listening fatigue every day. Consequently, any time that I am not required to listen, I pull off my hearing aids and put them on the desk. Immediately, the world becomes more familiar. My shoulders relax—I am home. In the gentle world of my natural hearing, my energies can shift from the challenging chore of listening to other tasks that I enjoy. I no longer have to work to distinguish speech from background noise and carefully speech- read to fill in the gaps in my understanding. I can spend my energy on science. I can be my authentic deaf self.

I  didn’t  always  think  of  myself  as  deaf  or  disabled. Before graduate school, I used to say that I was “hearing impaired.” This identity aligns with the medical model of disability, which focuses on the deficit  within the  individual’s  body or  mind. I was diagnosed with sensorial-neural bilateral hearing loss in kindergarten when a savvy teacher noticed that I was speech- reading her. This was back in the 1970s, before routine early childhood hearing screening. The revelation of my hearing loss triggered many years of appointments with audiologists, surgeons, and speech therapists, who were paid to try to make me adapt to and function more easily within the hearing world. These medical professionals perceive our disabled bodies and minds as deficient, and so our medical diagnoses deliver to us our first identities based on the medical model of disability.

But what happens when we flip the medical model around? Instead of changing me to become more hearing, what if we change the environment to become less disabling? This is the social model of disability, which posits  that  environments  can be disabling to people. I was introduced to this model of disability in graduate school when I met other deaf and disabled people. Through those transformative conversations, I learned to recognize disabling environments. Lectures in dark rooms are disabling to me. Noisy conference poster halls are disabling to me. This shift in thinking empowered me to let go of “hearing impaired” as my identity and embrace being part-deaf; the label “hard of hearing” has never sat well with me. To me, “hard of hearing” emphasizes the hard work that I need to do to pass as hearing, while “deaf ” and “disabled” emphasize my perspective on life and on science.

This shift in disability identity also maps onto how I use assistive technology. Audiologists always instruct me to wear my hearing aids for all waking hours to train my brain to process the new sounds. They have tried scolding me for not wearing my hearing aids enough. The medical expectation that I be as hearing as possible sets me up for constant failure because I will never be hearing. Instead of striving to be hearing, I choose deafness whenever I can. At the same time, I choose to use technology when I need to interact with hearing people who don’t know how to communicate with deaf folks. At work, I use hear- ing aids, assistive listening devices, and transcription software to make communication with hearing colleagues less disabling.

By taking my hearing aids out and putting them on my desk, I become my authentic self, who happens not to hear birds or sharp consonants. My authentic self enjoys thinking about how faults in the Earth’s crust evolve over time. My authentic self enjoys setting up laboratory and numerical experiments where my graduate students and I test the impact of various processes on fault evolution. My authentic self enjoys coding and developing new software tools to explore fault system evolution. My authentic self loves working with graduate students to figure out why  their  laboratory  or  numerical  models  didn’t  produce  the expected results. My authentic self also has terrible drawing skills and enjoys being in the woods. In my authentic world, I can focus and work: composing articulate emails, coding scripts to analyze data in new ways, and crafting papers or proposals. My hearing aids are tools to help me interact with people around me, but they are not part of my identity as a scientist or as a person.

I recently read Jillian Weise’s piece “Common Cyborg” in Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility, which refers to disabled people who use technology to navigate the world as cyborgs.1 What an interesting idea! I grew up watching science fiction shows and admired cyborgs, such as the Bionic Woman and later Geordi from Star Trek Next Generation. In every episode of The Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers saves the day with her badass bionic hearing skills. While my hearing aids don’t give me badass hear- ing, they are similar to Geordi La Forge’s visor, which gives him enough vision that he can operate as if he were sighted. Folks on the Enterprise don’t act weird about his visor and value Geordi as a fully contributing member of the team. However, these television cyborg role models hardly ever remove their technology. They portray a message that our technology improves us. With technology we might be able to contribute to the team or save the day, but without technology we are far less valuable. This thinking arises from the medical model of disability.

My hearing aids are like my car; I appreciate being able to travel places without being out in the elements, but I don’t love driving, and I’m  not dependent on my car to go everywhere.  I do take better care of my hearing aids than I do my car—I dress them up with blue glitter ear molds. On the few occasions when I’ve misplaced my hearing aids or run out of batteries, I feel that something’s amiss, as if a helpful friend that I’ve come to rely on isn’t there for me. This has happened before teaching a few times. Teaching is a time when modulating my speech and hearing student questions and comments is important—at least within a classroom of hearing students. I could cancel my class. I could announce, “The instructor is not able to teach today.” But that isn’t quite right. I am able to teach; it will just be different. Although I miss that dear friend, I can rely on myself.

In both instances that I ran out of batteries before class, I proceeded with my lectures and explained to the class that I would be deafer than usual that day. Was the science that I taught that day of lower quality? Did the equations that govern the physics of rock deformation lose their magical power  of relating regional contraction to uplift of the Earth’s crust? No. I still guided a discussion of the material even though my speech was probably blurry. The students still asked great questions, even if they had to repeat themselves and speak clearly (no  mumbling!). In a way, isn’t  this  the ideal social  model  of disability? Instead of expecting me to strive to be a hearing professor, why not expect that each of us makes the classroom less disabling to one another? In this way, we can stumble together toward universal design and inclusion.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields valorize ability. We applaud accomplishments and grade perceived effort and outcomes. We often glorify long hours at the lab bench, at the computer terminal, and in the field. The ability to orally deliver clear and impactful treatises on esoteric processes is the hallmark of an accomplished scientist. When I realized that I would have to teach without my hearing aids, my own internalized ableism was appalled. How dare I expect students to accommodate my hearing impairment!? How dare I appear as a flawed instructor instead of perpetuating the image of the all-knowing and influential scientist!? By teaching without my hearing aids, I risk invalidating my role as an instructor. How dare I appear

  • Flawed 
  • Weak 
  • Deficient 
  • Disabled 
  • Human?

I reject the supposition that scientists need to be perceived as invulnerable. By disclosing our differences and vulnerabilities, we show students that people, rather than facts, are the heart of the STEM enterprise. Additionally, mainstream STEM culture can learn from disabled scientists. Our approaches, with or without cyborg enhancement, expand the narrow definition of who can be a scientist and expand the traditional ways to do science. For example, one of the best oral science presentations I ever attended was delivered by a colleague with a pronounced stutter. He used visuals in creative ways so that he didn’t have to rely on his speech. I learned from him how to employ visuals in my own talks to  make them understood by a wider audience. These crip hacks (life hacks, but for disabled folks) that we employ leverage our dis- abled experiences to make science more accessible. Not only does STEM need to include more disabled scientists among our ranks, but STEM also needs to pay attention to how we are radically changing the ways that we do science to make it less disabling.

Am I less of a scientist when my hearing aids rest on my desk? Without my hearing aids, I am an innovative scientist exploring the evolution of faults within the Earth’s crust while also eroding the disabling nature of science.


1. Jillian Weise, “Common Cyborg,” in Disability Visibility, ed. Alice Wong (New York: Vintage, 2020), 63–74

Image by Tiffany Chen

Excerpted from Uncharted: How Scientists Navigate Their Own Health, Research, and Experiences of Bias, Edited by Skylar Bayer and Gabi Serrato Marks, published by Columbia University Press. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press.  Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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