Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dance, Dance, Dance

It's Halloween. And what hearing people do for Halloween is dress up and go out dancing. Now, the dressing up part (and the carving pumpkins, and the eating candy) is definitely not foreign to me, but... music? dancing? These are things I've resolutely avoided since those awkward high school days, when I remember standing on the edge of the dance floor, sort of feeling the music thrumming through the floor, but not feeling at all inspired to move to it. Whenever I tried, I just felt stupid, like I was play-acting or pretending to be something I was not. The beat could be vaguely pleasant, but there was nothing exciting, nothing interesting at all in music for me.

Fast-forward a couple of years, to last night. My first time out at a dance party since the CI. I find myself in a dim room full of spinning disco lights and swaying bodies. Yes, I am in costume, as is everyone else. The speakers loom yards away, and my group of friends has started dancing right in front of them. The beat roars, pulses, rushes through my head until I almost cannot think of anything else. It tingles at my feet and up through my spine, more real and alive than it has ever been. But though I step back and forth from foot to foot, I realize that I do not know how to dance at all. I haven't done it before, and though I like the music my body does not know how it should respond. The bass is so heavy it roots me to the floor. I want to stand here and close my eyes and breathe. There's no tingling melody, and I cannot understand the words even though everyone around me is singing along.

Still, I dance. Not well, and often feeling like the song will wrench away and leave me stranded, but dancing nevertheless. Slowly my body loosens up, and although the noise teeters on the overwhelming (if only someone would explain what all this music is doing, what it's saying, where it's going), I find that I'm enjoying myself. I enjoy seeing how the other dancers interact, how they respond to the pulsing beat all around us, enjoy wondering how and why my body wants to move the way it does. I am stepping, moving, and though it feels strange, it is also exciting and new.

For a time, that is. After half an hour, my pleasure is ebbing. Everything at the dance club has suddenly become too much: the heat, the bodies, the light, and above all this music rattling through my head. My long-deafened brain can't take it anymore. Overstimulation is looming, and gasping I yell to my friends (thinking all the while, if only they signed, I wouldn't have to yell) that I'm done, I'm going out.

Weaving through the crowd, then outside into the cool night air, I reach up and rip off the magnet. The tension in my head releases as the CI dangles loosely in my hand. Ah, yes. Let there be silence.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Noises That Stimulate Wonder

Crunchy, crunchy leaves...

Contrary to my last post, not all sounds make me nuts - more often than not, it can be exhilarating to have my concentration disrupted, to have the world tug at my attention and insist that I perceive something, regardless of how small, in a wondrously different way. Of course, this has been happening all along with the CI, but here's the most recent chronicle.

This is my first fall of experiencing such vibrant, dynamic sound. Thus, when I walk outside, I find myself directly experiencing the things I've, until now, only read and heard about secondhand. Yes, I knew leaves crunched, and maybe I could hear that a teensy bit with my hearing aid - but then it was only a dull whisper, not like this. Not this crisp, crackly, amazing noise that so perfectly matches the chill edge in the air outside. I've taken to walking - no, stomping - through them whenever possible. Around me I can hear branches rustling, birds, other people talking as they pass, doors closing, occasional cars. When the breeze picks up, it is one of my favorite sounds, so soft and whistling and elusive. I feel like I could listen to it all day. There's a lot of cobblestone on the roads around here, and my most recent game is stepping from one surface to another, from smooth sidewalk to bumpy stone to cracked asphalt to gravel, and seeing how the sound changes. I shuffle my feet, tread lightly, stamp, vary my gait, and the fact that I hear something different each time is just... stunning.

Even while I'm inside, noises sneak up on me when I don't expect them. Last night, while reading for class with a pencil in hand, it suddenly struck me that each time the lead touched the page, I heard something. Even from way down in my lap. Scratch. Scratch. I was mystified at first, and then felt as if a light bulb had switched on - the scribble of a pencil! But of course! Suddenly jubilant, I scrambled to find a piece of scrap paper, then sat scribbling, scribbling, writing my name and other random words, scrawling out in cursive versus print, listening and grinning like a fool. It was only a pencil, but hearing it was like extending my reach even farther into a world I'd never really imagined. Other sounds keep making me feel the same way: the peel ripping off an orange or a banana, the constant rustle of clothes, the stir of my hair in its ponytail, the squeak of my hands on the glass or the china, the umbrella popping open. Each time the thrill of discovery is the same. It is this thrill that I love most about the CI, this sense of wonder that seems inexplicable (and maybe incompehensible) to anyone but myself.

How amazing, that the world has sounds like these! And how lucky I am, to be able to experience them!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Noises That Ruin My Concentration

Oh, there's a noise over there? Really? Okay, let's look. Oh, another noise? Wait, that one was only the door closing, not that important. Thank you for being so attentive, but let's concentrate now... I said let's concentrate! Yes, I know something else just happened in the corner, but it's not important either - are you listening to me? I said, are you listening? Come back over here! No, I don't know what that noise was, but I don't care - stop! We have more important things to do! All right. Thank you. Sit down. We are reading this book right now, and - yes, I know someone just coughed. At least, I think it was a cough - no, we are not looking! We are focusing! Hey, come back and sit down!

This is the way my CI makes me feel in the library. After four months, the noises that most fascinate my brain are the small ones, the rustlings in the corners and the muttered conversations far away - just the noises that, unfortunately, most distract my studies.

I used to think libraries were quiet places. Wrong. In principle everyone is working to keep the silence, but that doesn't stop the constant influx of sudden noises: floorboards creaking, doors clicking shut, pages rustling, people coughing. Aaargh! How am I supposed to think like this? My brain becomes hyperalert, my thought processes shatter. Never, never has studying been like this. In desperation to shut out all the clutter, I'm driven to music - which in itself can be distracting. (The other day I sat staring out the window and listening to Ravel's "Bolero" for ten minutes before I realized I wasn't reading.)

Forget the library! I'll try other places instead. But, even in my room, the sounds of the house creep in. The heaters and pipes and fans, plus who knows what else. Last week I went nuts for several minutes before realizing that the voices I was hearing (which I'd been worried I was imagining) were in fact wafting up through a crack in my window from the patio outside. There, when I looked, two people were talking in normal voices twenty feet below. Wow, and I heard that?

Even in a public place like a bus or a train, my mind is not completely my own. It keeps cavorting off to investigate murmured conversation many feet away, or the sounds of people heaving sighs and shifting in their seats. I'm reminded, moment by moment, that I am not alone or in isolation, but surrounded by others who are as functioning and alive as me. That's reassuring, in a way. But... but I like cutting the world off sometimes and sitting inside my own mind!

Too bad. Everything that moves makes a sound. That's been the rule from day one. Now - focus, focus, focus!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Advocacy, Really?

The older I get, the more interested I become in disability advocacy - mostly from wanting to apply my personal experiences toward positive change. Right now, though, I'm a bit frustrated (disillusioned?) with the advocacy scene in general.

Here's why. Today I attended a meeting for a disability advocacy group I'd gotten wind of, keen to contribute my abilities and perspectives. Of course, I went expecting no help from sign language or interpreters, and expecting little general deaf awareness - but, hey, since these people were already passionate about accessibility, wouldn't they be likely to really "get it" and communicate efficiently anyway? It turns out, no.

The scene, I thought, ended up being a bit ironic. Here's a small group of sharp, able-bodied people sitting and conversing avidly about how to solve disability and accessibility-related issues - all while forgetting the elephant in the room, that there is a disabled person in their midst, a person who is still struggling to engage despite all their well-intentioned talk. Argh. They all came across as inconsiderate - even though I am sure this was not their intention. And, from my end, asking people to slow down and speak in turn only goes so far. People forget, get wrapped up in their own ideas. All my CI did to help was pick up on the traffic noises outside, plus the bartender pouring drinks, wiping counters, and sliding chairs across the floor. Thanks a lot.

I won't go on, but I will say this at least. True inclusiveness requires action, directed toward the people whose needs are most immediate - not only theoretical strategies. Walking the talk, so to speak. General "advocacy" means nothing if it's impersonal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Seeing Another Language

During a rest stop on a road trip this past weekend, I glimpsed some hands moving across the room. When I looked up, my eyes fell on five or six deaf guys sitting at a table, signing animatedly to each other. A few tables down from them, another group sat, also signing. Immediately my heart leapt - as it always does, at seeing sign language used so fluidly and openly. But, of course, both groups were conversing in British Sign Language, which is completely different from ASL.

Oh. That's right, this is the UK.

If it had been ASL, I reckon I would have approached and struck up a conversation. But BSL was completely foreign to me. The facial expressions were natural and similar to ASL, and some of the gestures seemed intuitive enough. (Ha, my hearing friends are always demanding that I explain, "Why do you sign ___ this way? It doesn't make sense!" - yet this was exactly what I found myself doing yesterday.) As I watched, I realized that this was the first time I'd seen a group of deaf people since getting my CI, and I couldn't even understand them. How strange that felt. I'm far too used to having the meaning of speech evade me - but never, never sign.

That said, I've started learning the BSL alphabet (which seems ridiculous - a two-handed alphabet, really?) and hopefully will make some progress soon...

Monday, October 4, 2010


Something very, very cool happened today.

I had been looking around a small clothes shop in Oxford and was about to leave when the proprietor asked if I needed help finding anything. I said I was fine, thanks, and turned to walk out the door when I heard his voice behind me. I was not looking at him, but it said, quite clearly and distinctly, "Have a good day."

What? I could not believe my ears. It had been as simple as that. I heard him, and I understood. Snap, in an instant. There was no uncertainty, no frustration, no in-between struggle. Barely containing my own astonishment, I told him, "You too," and stepped out onto the bustling and noisy High Street.

Now, this exchange might sound trivial and not worth reporting, but for me it was a jaw-dropping breakthrough, a moment in which I literally functioned like a hearing person. That's just... unimaginable.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

National Disability Awareness Month

The month of October is National Disability Awareness Month in the U.S. (how can it be October already?!). Actually, as designated by Congress it's National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and anyone who has talked to me about my school and work experiences knows how strongly I feel about disability and level-playing-field accessibility vis-a-vis the common buzzphrase of "diversity."

But, that aside, I'd like to take a moment on this blog to promote real disability awareness - not only in the workplace but everywhere else. All too often, awareness is the crux that allows us to see past our first impressions to grasp a person's true substance and character. And all too often, a "disability" is just something that requires a change in perspective or lifestyle, not a tragic or overbearing handicap.

From my own standpoint, I see my disability not simply as that, a disability, but as one of the strongest shaping forces of my experience. More than anything else, being deaf has allowed me to better understand the things that are important in life, as well as the people who are truly worthwhile. So, in that regard, I can consider myself fortunate - and also obliged to help others find their way, even as I keep experimenting with mine.

Off my soapbox now. But never underestimate the impact of an open, inquiring, yet discerning mind.