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I Think I Hear You
Comments () | Published September 13, 2010
Pride in deafness—nowhere in the world is there more of this than at Gallaudet, the only university for the deaf and hard of hearing. In a way, the successful protests of 1988, which were driven by a desire for a deaf university president, and the confusing protests of 2006, ignited by a complex variety of issues, can be seen as outbursts of that pride, attempts to convey to the world that having one less physical sense doesn’t mean you’re less of a person.

Both cochlear implants and deaf pride have life-changing consequences for a global deaf population of about 300 million. But the developments don’t always mesh. One of them aims at curing deafness, one at celebrating it. And in no place are the two trends in as heightened a dialogue as at Gallaudet. Deafness is evolving—can the university keep pace and attract students from the two camps? The survival of the university may be at stake.

Since I got an implant in my right ear, my hearing has improved by 600 percent on word-recognition tests. When Gallaudet wrote me in the summer of 2008 to offer a visiting professorship, my initial thought was: No, thanks—I can hear well enough now.

Still, the offer pulled at me. In my years of going from hard of hearing to deaf to implanted, I’d almost always felt alone. I spoke and read lips instead of learning sign language, and there’s less of a community for the hard of hearing than for someone who signs.

I learned in my solitude that a gap develops not so much from not hearing as from not being able to convey essential features of your experience to those closest to you. My parents couldn’t understand the frustration I felt if a dinner-table conversation was too noisy for me to follow. My last girlfriend—intelligent, beautiful, kind, a perfect match on paper—spoke in quick whispers that I missed more often than not. She couldn’t grasp that there are times when asking someone to repeat herself feels akin to saying you’re broken. And you don’t want to be broken.

Which, to be honest, is how my bank account was at the time. I accepted Gallaudet’s offer and moved onto campus.

Perhaps you’ve driven by it? It can be intimidating at first. The high spiked fence lining the north side of Florida Avenue, Northeast, backed by a moat of grass, stately trees, and red brick buildings more than a century old. Built originally as a place of sanctuary for the deaf, the campus seems to retain an imprint of that purpose in its DNA: separate and full of “others.”

It made me uncomfortable. But all right, I’d try it for a year.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 09/13/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles