Monday, October 17, 2011

A New Sense


It happened again.  The latest "brand new cochlear implant, watch this person hear for the first time ever" video.  Sure, you can watch it here. (Disclaimer: The woman in the video is a real person who also keeps a blog (which I won't link to unless she is ok with that, but you can find it through the video links), and she seems brainy and passionate and positive- all things which make for interesting human beings, and which do go to show that different people have different experiences.  End disclaimer.) 

The video was posted by a lovely, passionate friend of mine who posts really interesting stuff.  She's posted a lot on the very interesting, if baffling, Occupy Movement. 

I hate these cochlear implant turn-on videos.   They make me angry. (Even if the person in the video seems to have a great time.)   I have a cochlear implant, and indeed it has transformed the way I live my life.  I can talk on a phone, hear people from another room, and watch TV or listen to the radio without needing captions.  (I still use captions, though, mostly because I am exceptionally lazy.)  

But I never had that moment of bliss at first activation.  Sound was not beautiful.   Indeed, for months afterwards, I really couldn't understand sound at all.  I was implanted at 20 after a long, slow progressive loss.  I suspect that by the time I was implanted, I had lost most of my memory of sound.  Besides, there were new noises in the world.  Computers make a high pitched hissing sort of sound.  I was just a little kid when I started losing my hearing, and we didn't have computers then.  I never knew that computers made that sound.  When I was "turned on", at first, I couldn't hear people speaking over the noise of the computers.  It took me months to figure out what "loud" and "soft" was.  

I remember watching a singer on TV and asking my mother if she was singing high or low.  For a musician like me, this was enraging.  It took months of playing scales to begin to re-learn pitch.  

I hate the videos of activation because it seems to show that the patient suddenly understands everything.  Comprehension is far from instant.  Thankfully, my dad had warned me that I might be turned on and experience a wave of "What the hell have I done to myself?"  I was indeed turned on and had precisely that thought.  

Sound sucked.  

It was a huge let down from what I was expecting.  Really, over the last 12 years, my most common thought about the miracle of sound has been, “Are you serious?  How did you people ever evolve?”  A close second is the overwhelming urge I have to smash those annoying little serenity fountains… which hearing person ever decided that the constant fake bubble of running water was soothing? 

Forget "I love you".  I still remember the first word I understood.   Figuring out what speech was took literally months. Cars driving by or the dishwasher running sounded exactly like a voice.    But one day, shortly before I left for England, I was at dinner with my family, and my sister asked for the ketchup.  That was the first word I understood, "ketchup".  (Sometimes I wonder if my 9-years-younger sister knows that her voice was the first one I ever really understood...)  

In England, I continued to struggle to understand what speech was... until one day, I was traveling with friends in Scotland.  We were hosteling around on a bus tour, and we were in a town, surrounded in a pub by tall burly men with really nice biceps.  (Yes, I do love that about Scotland.)  And suddenly, it was like something clicked, and abruptly, I began to understand speech.  One moment, I couldn't, and it was literally like someone flipped a switch.  To this day, the Scottish accent sounds like home to my ear.  

But simply having a cochlear implant did not put me on level footing with anyone else.  Sometimes I get frustrated with people who try to explain racial discrimination to me, with the assumption that because my skin is white, I don’t understand what it’s like to be a minority.  I would argue that as a deaf person, I know exactly what that is like to be one in a million. 

I’ve been watching Occupy Wall Street news as the protests have spread and gone global.  I’m not jumping on board the protest conga line for a few reasons.  First and foremost, I’m a priest who serves as a police chaplain.  I have always seen my role as choosing my public causes very carefully.  “My” officers and deputies deserve to feel like I’m a safe person.  There are some causes I am willing to put my name and face to- like marriage equality which has a definite goal and which I see as the great civil rights cause of my era. 

But Occupy?  I am not troubled by the fact of protests, but I am troubled by the lack of direction.  I am confused that the protestors don’t seem to be asking for anything, but just expressing their discontent.  Expressions of discontent are fine, but at some point, we need to move beyond, to begin to ask for payback.  The Civil Rights movement had specific goals:  Separate but not equal is not good enough.  We want to be served equally at a lunch counter.  We want to ride sitting down on the bus.  The Marriage Equality movement, I believe, will be successful because it also has specific goals:  Domestic partnership is separate and unequal.  We want marriage, to marry the person we love and to share the benefits society offers a couple who agree to live together under a formal contract. 

Occupy lacks that focus.  But I did see an interesting picture of a sign in my Facebook feed… it’s a common theme.  The person wrote of how she was in debt from school and would have to take on $136,000 in law school debt if she were to follow her dreams, and how she no longer believes in the American Dream.  You know, that idea that we can all achieve our dreams and live in comfort if we just work hard enough? 

I guess that if Occupy wins its undefined cause tomorrow and life somehow in some unknown way gets better, they can achieve their American dream of opportunity for the qualified. 

The American Dream has always been a lie to me.  As a deaf person, I knew from the days I was a teenager that certain career paths were irrevocably closed to me.  As I went into grad school and experienced the discrimination of the work place, I learned first hand that it is legal- completely legal- to deny me employment if you believe- without burden of proof- that I would be dangerous to my fellow employees.  People, please... I'm a chaplain.  I'm about as dangerous as a kitten, the really cute fluffy kind.  

I’m not even dangerous on the tri course.  (Well, except in Nation’s when I almost took out that poor Army girl, but I was getting hooked in the handlebars by a clumsy person behind me, so I’m off the hook, right?) 

I knew a long time ago that this country would never offer me equality.  I knew a long time ago that it would never matter how hard I worked… I’d always be a less-than. 

I hate knowing that it’s legal for me to be a less-than, and that it seems like I will never be on equal footing as people in my position who have less education and certification… because they are not less-thans, and I am.  

I wonder how anyone ever makes peace with that sort of injustice.  


1 comment:

Adrienne Lannom said...

Thanks for expanding my awareness and my heart. Aging brings a "less than" status. Real ability becomes tied to an arbitrary number and that's how others classify and identify me. My attitude can verify it, or not, which is different than your situation.