An Aural Foreign Policy, by Richard Rosenthal

Each of us who is hard of hearing faces a dilemma. We dislike conceding or explaining our deafness, and we want to hear as much as we can. We can’t have it both ways, advertisements of miracle miniature hearing aids notwithstanding.

We can’t do our best to comprehend what we are hearing and hide our hearing defect. Not for long. King Goa VI of Portugal might have come close to it in the early 1800s when he commissioned an acoustical throne with ear trumpets concealed behind the decorative lion mouth entries to the arm rests. The device emerged at his head as tubes he snugged into his ears. The king could sit back and hear in regal repose while the “lions” amplified the voices of his kneeling subjects. But certainly occasions arose when the king, on or off his throne, had to bend to hear. We all do.

In response, we develop a kind of aural foreign policy we refer to when deciding how much we will bend. We use it to resolve two questions: Under what circumstances do we conceal, concede, or actively discuss our deafness? And under what circumstances will we strive to hear or allow ourselves not to hear?

The decisions we reach in such matters are always lonely. I dislike mentioning this, as hearing loss is not fatal or disfiguring. However, what we must contend with is far more crippling than the hearing population realizes. We are more than a little bit cut off from the world, from the sounds that help make us whole, that please us or warn us of danger or that spoken softly by mothers and lovers assure us that we are cherished. No matter how “moderate” or “mild” our loss is classified, we can rarely participate in lusty conversations or dinner table chitchat, follow dialogue in a movie, or hear the songs of birds or the punch line of a joke when the joke teller’s voice tends to drift into mumble. 

Equally troubling, our shortfalls of comprehension are often taken personally by people addressing us, arousing anger and assertions that we could really hear better if only we’d try harder. It is no accident that the word “unhearing” can mean either deafness or not listening.

In determining my aural foreign policy, I have learned much from people who are deaf, who have virtually no residual hearing and find it difficult if not impossible to communicate by voice even if they have lip-reading proficiency and hearing aids.

The deaf refuse to cringe or conceal. Rather, they are declaring with their conspicuous hand sign language (which just a generation ago was widely maligned by lip-reading-oriented educators as coarse and “inappropriate”) that they are truly interested in knowing what one is saying to them and that they require equal respect in return.

Deaf groups are astonishingly successful advocates for their cause. With less than 5 percent of the hard of hearing’s population and modest financial resources, they have brought the country captioning for TV, telephones, and cinemas. They were in the forefront, along with the mobility-impaired, as lobbyists for the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. And when the board of their university, Gallaudet in Washington, D.C., declined to appoint a deaf president, as if no deaf person could be competent to lead an advanced institution of learning, the students went on strike and won.

On the other hand, an overwhelming number of us who are hard of hearing allow ourselves to be glibly psychologized by the hearing-aid industry, audiologists, and otolaryngologists with pseudoscientific, financially self-serving theories that we all prefer hiding our loss to hearing competently. As a result, we pay $8,000 for a pair of hideable hearing aids that the Veterans Administration pays barely $1,000 for and that probably between the two of them contain less than $40 worth of parts.

In my experience, these tiny aids, for all their technological sophistication, are less effective than a low-tech hearing aid I easily assemble myself for less than $400 from off-the-shelf microphones, amplifiers, and earphones that are available from audio parts suppliers. Consider trying this. Believe me, I am no techie. If I can assemble a superior device for meetings and noisy social occasions, anyone can. It’s as simple as plugging in a lamp.

In addition, we accept mumbling speech from TV personalities. Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, and Chris Matthews of MSNBC are fine examples of inaudibility. Matthews rata-tat-tats as if he’s calling a dog race. We also settle for indecipherable speech from overseas call centers that even normal hearing operators on my TTY printout system often report to be “inaudible” to them.

The next time Staples presents you with a sales agent you cannot understand, ask to speak with a supervisor about it and within a minute you will be hearing a crystal clear sales agent from our Midwest or Nova Scotia.

Most seriously, I believe, we too readily accept the denigration that we could hear well enough or read lips well enough if we’d only try hard enough. As an old fart raised during the Depression, I am foursquare for effort. But though helpful, lip-reading is not up to the job. Too many sounds look identical on the lips, “p,” “b,” and “m,” for example. Many others, such as “ka,” “ga,” and “ah,” come from the back of the mouth and are not visible.

We can start standing up for ourselves right here in East Hampton, where hearing access provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act and our own town disabilities code, enacted in 2002, have long been disregarded with bipartisan complacency inertia by a sequence of town boards, justice court officials, and our inert town disabilities advisory board.

Last winter, when I was in court, the legally required FM assistive listening system was so distorted I had to lend Justice Tekulsky my handheld FM transmitter in order to know what he was saying to me. Also contrary to the law, no signs were conspicuously posted announcing the availability of assistive listening devices for those who need them.

Perhaps we can start there, with proper signage and maintenance.

To me, it’s a matter of my survival as a whole person. When we don’t hear enough to converse with our friends, neighbors, and elected leaders we are fenced in, apart from our community, and excluded from our rights as citizens.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 8.6 percent of the U.S. population over 3 years of age is hearing impaired. In East Hampton, that’s about 1,800 year-round residents.

Let’s not be defensive about it. The laws are on our side. Their implementation would not be expensive or difficult.


Richard Rosenthal’s hearing was damaged by the noise of gunfire in World War II. He lives in East Hampton.