A Stone's throw: I hear you

February 2, 2013 8:49:43 PM

Betty Stone -


In some of the old "Saturday Night Live" television episodes the late Gilda Radner portrayed a deaf person speaking vehemently against something she perceived to be unjust because she misunderstood it. One example was a diatribe protesting "deaf' taxes in which she said deaf people have enough trouble without being taxed for their handicap. When told she had misheard the term "death taxes," she said, as always, "Never mind." 


One might argue she was correct to oppose "death taxes" (properly termed "estate taxes") as well. Not only did they tax a tragedy, but that money had already been taxed at least once anyway.  


Politics aside, the skit does demonstrate the plight of people who are hearing-impaired. They frequently hear things wrong. Normal phrases like, "Please pass the salt and pepper" may sound like, "Bees gas assault a leper." Lip-reading is not very helpful and leads to more mistakes, which could be embarrassing. "Alligator shoes" can look like "I love you." Try it.  


Song lyrics can be especially frustrating. Many years ago, when I was car-pooling children to school, a song we heard every day on the car radio was, I think, "More Than a Woman." I kept asking the children in the car why anyone would write a song about a "bald-headed woman." Sam Ford told me he used to think Tim McGraw's song, "Build Me Up, Buttercup," said instead, "Fill Me Up, Buttercup." 


Sam is a hearing instrument specialist. He owns the Columbus office of Hearing Aid Services of Mississippi on Bluecutt Road in Columbus. It is more like a calling than a business to him because he himself has worn hearing aids since he was 5 years old. He was born with his hearing severely impaired because doctors neglected to give his Rh negative mother the shots that would protect her Rh positive fetus from the antibodies her immune system produced against what it perceived to be a harmful invader. As a newborn he had to receive two exchange transfusions, but some damage had already been done. 


He was fortunate to have alert parents who realized early that he had hearing difficulties and provided him with remediation at an early age. He had extra classroom support when he was in school and, of course, hearing aids. As he grew, he had to change hearing aids every couple of years. He learned to cope well and, of course, mischievously tried to turn a problem into an advantage, often "not hearing" such demands as "Clean your room." 


Today a person meeting Sam Ford would never guess that he is hearing-impaired. His speech is normal and fluent. His hearing aids are not noticeable. He is the picture of -- and sound of -- an attractive and healthy young man. 


Although we can sometimes laugh about deafness, it is no laughing matter. The following comments are from two famous people who suffered from it: 


The musical genius Ludvig Van Beethoven said, "Forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you. My misfortune is double painful to be because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed." 


Helen Keller said, "Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But where the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare." 


Old hearing aids were not adequately efficient. No one liked them. They whistled if the wearer smiled, as well as at other inopportune times, like when a boy was trying to kiss a girl, said Sam. No hearing aid restored hearing 100 percent, but today distortions can be corrected, volume can be calibrated, and hearing can be directed to one's companions at a dinner table in a crowded or noisy restaurant. 


Today no one needs to place a big trumpet to his ear and say, "Eh?"

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.