Tuesday, August 28, 2012

It's About Total Communication

"Do you still use total communication?" an old friend of mine asked me this past week.

It'd been a while since I used the term, but I said (and signed), "Yes. Yes, I do." We sat down and proceeded to catch up over coffee, and it occurred to me that "total communication" is, in fact, the best way to describe the varied conversational strategies I seek and use in my daily life. It also occurred to me that I haven't blogged about it before, at least not beyond a passing remark or two.

The term total communication (it even has its own wikipedia page!) refers to an idea that tries to find a middleground between the long-fraught territories of oral versus sign language-based deaf education. It was in vogue during my stint at the New Mexico School for the Deaf in the early '90s, and I also remember it playing into the philosophy of the summer camp for the deaf I attended from ages nine through 14. (By the time I entered mainstreamed schools in elementary school and onwards, total communication had firmly ingrained itself into my family's lifestyle and there was no going back.) Many of the communication strategies I used in my younger years and continue to use today are closely tied to total communication, which seeks to offer deaf individuals with a range of communication tools and strategies, from sign language (ASL/SEE/pidgin/whatever) to oral and auditory skills, to lipreading to reading and writing, to visual aids and captioning and all the technology that's available at the moment. Even cued speech, too, which I personally don't know but have seen a few friends use. (It's wild.) Basically, any form of communication goes – when you're living with a profound hearing loss, you need to make use of all the tools you can. You need to be multidimensional!

I've been reflecting on this multidimensionality lately, as it continues to be very marked in my life. With the recent medical/treatment/education shift to cochlear implants and other advances in technology, my opinion is that total communication is no less important than it used to be. Deaf culture-based arguments aside, a cochlear implant is not a "fix." It does not completely "cure" a child of his or her deafness, or an adult for that matter. I'm still as deaf as ever once the device switches off. When it's on, it has placed a massive amount of sound waves in my possession, but the sound quality still doesn't equal natural hearing. I still reach for my bag of tricks. As I get older and settle into my new sense of identity with the CI, I find that I'm strangely fond of my ability to switch gears at will. Listening is coming, slowly. I can lipread. If I'm with another deaf person or with a close hearing friend who signs, I sign. I see it, understand it, use it, and find it useful. Otherwise, I speak and that works perfectly well. I watch for nonverbal cues. I dodge any complications with making phone calls by texting and emailing constantly. Depending on the situation and the person, I may find myself communicating in many different ways. Being flexible with communication has empowered me in many different ways, and I find that I'm fondest of the people who can be perceptive and flexible in their communication strategies as well. It's a useful skill.

I keep dwelling over the state of deaf education these days, hoping that the new focus on cochlear implants doesn't smother all the other strategies that can make a deaf individual successful. It scares me to think of dumping a deaf kid into everyday life armed with his or her CI alone. Heck, even if that deaf individual doesn't require sign language after receiving a CI, signing is still worthwhile. (Signing is worthwhile for hearing people too. If only because it's fun.) And, switching to the other hand while returning to the Deaf culture argument, a fiercely sign language-based lifestyle doesn't justify ignoring the prospects of communicating via listening, lipreading, or writing. It's not one thing or another: the more ammo you have in your arsenal, the better. I used to be ambivalent about this idea, as one might find looking back over the very first posts of this blog, but I'm not that way anymore.

I sat down with my friend this past week, as I've sat down with a few other longtime friends this summer. We both talked out loud, we signed, we probably found ourselves lipreading and watching each other closely. It made things easier for both of us. I walked out thinking of a multiple-choice exam in which the answer is "all of the above." Total communication. That's it. The best part was doing it so effortlessly.

One more scenario: this morning I went to drop off a big package at the post office. Standing in line, I grew distracted and didn't realize the clerk was calling me to the counter. Then I grew distracted again and needed to ask him to repeat what he said. These two things must have tipped him off. I saw his expression change a bit. He started speaking more clearly. Then when I was walking off, he raised his open palm to his chin, then extended it outward: clearly the sign for thank you. Once, at a different time in my life, I would have almost kicked myself. Had I been that obvious, made my disability that apparent? Had I failed to pass completely, to integrate myself seamlessly into hearing person land? (Passing is a topic I ought to blog about sometime.) This time, though, no matter. I grinned, somewhat nonsensically signed thank you back, then walked out thinking, I love it when random hearing people do things like that.

Total communication.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

No Sight, But Sound

Right on the heels of my last post, I had a real-world experience in which, yes, I did listen and, yes, it did make a difference. I went to my optometrist two days ago for a routine appointment to get new contact lenses. While sitting with the nurse/technician, giving information about my current medical status, I noticed that my deafness must have somehow become apparent: she suddenly became cautious about communication, started gesticulating to accompany everything she said. At this point in my life, I usually don't care too much when hearing people are painstakingly trying to make themselves understood, but it still can be amusing to watch the signs they invent for things. Some surprisingly accurate and intuitive, and others… Then I took my contacts out, and listening became more essential. I had forgotten to bring my glasses, so I was feeling rather more aware than usual of the information coming in from my ears, as well as hoping that everyone would keep within a certain distance so their faces (and gestures) wouldn't appear too blurry.

After a few elaborate machines testing different dimensions of my eyes and vision, which inevitably made me think of listening booths and how much better I am at these, I returned to my initial room to wait for the optometrist. He arrived, we talked, and then the phoropter (yes, I had to look that word up) descended on my vision. I couldn't look anywhere but straight ahead at the letter chart, the As and Qs (that sometimes looked like Os) and Ts, and I couldn't see his face as he spoke to me, so I prepared to proceed by habit and by what I knew would happen. Read what he showed me, and so on. And, while little other knowledge than that is necessary for an eye exam, I found that this time the communication was different. Before the CI, and even in my early CI days, when I couldn't see someone's face, I'd talk blindly at them, sending out my words to, well, wherever they went. The person would say something back; I'd hear an indistinct muttering from somewhere in space, but no matter; I'd guess what they might have said and carry on. This time, though, looking through the tunnel-vision lens wasn't such a bluntly isolating experience.

"Read this line for me. Okay. What about this one? Is that blurry? Tell me which one is clearer. Do you want to see them again? Now look at this for me." I caught almost every word the optometrist said during that part of the exam. His disembodied voice penetrated my consciousness with startling clarity; instead of bulling my way through the exam – R, S, T, L, N, E, yes, that looks fine, answering nonexistent questions along the way – the interaction took on the feeling of a conversation. I was taking in information through my eyes, but I was also accessing information separately through my ears. Multitasking! We were working through this together. My communication access hadn't cut off with loss of sight.

The exam ended, I regained my full range of vision, I put my contacts back in, said goodbye to the quasi-signing technician, and walked out to the car – just another day at the doctor's office. But even now, thinking of that voice reaching me like a guiding hand extended through empty space: however simple the scenario was, it makes my mind implode with a sort of wonder.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Novus Modus Operandi

There is so much that continues to be unfamiliar to me. My brain continues in its attempts to be plastic – and sometimes it quite astonishingly is, while at other times it runs up against its longtime limitations. This summer, I've continued to notice how my preferences and modus operandi translate into my default interpretations of the world. As I've written about before, given a choice between seeing and listening, my brain's gears seem to be stuck in sighted mode. They grind as I try to prompt them toward sound. Sometimes I find this very frustrating: history stands in my way, through auditory memory but also through the habits formed from experience.

Still, I've noticed that the "half-and-half" approach that manifests itself in my daily conversations is continuing to improve. (It's probably not actually half-and-half. Maybe seventy-thirty, but with decreasing margins between sight and sound.) During meetings at my internship this summer, my coworkers know to face me when they're talking, but occasionally they forget. They'll look down at a computer screen, or away at a whiteboard, or start talking before I can properly see them. At first a part of me grows tense and prepares to ask for repetition. But that's before I realize I've actually heard and understood the words they said in that visionless gap. My brain has switched between modalities, sight and sound, and somehow the information ties together seamlessly. Not always, and not with people who I still find tricky to understand, but often. How dynamic is that?

Another trend from this summer: as I live at home for probably the last time before grad school and real life, my parents have been becoming sneakier about that sight-sound equilibrium. My mother often doesn't make sure I'm looking at her before asking a question anymore. She'll sometimes launch right into speaking, on purpose, often when she knows I can't see her. Sometimes she'll refuse to let me look at her after she begins speaking. After the first twenty years of my life, this is different from the norm. I still remember days when excessive hand-waving and shoulder-tapping was common in our household, and still remember going to deaf camp and other deaf gatherings where session leaders would flash the lights in a room, stamp their feet on the floor, or drum a fist on a table (in addition to waving) when they wanted to get everyone's attention. That's just the way things function in the deaf world. For a long time my natural strategy was to wait for some visual input implying that I should pay attention, then zone on to the new speaker or object with my eyes and all of my energy. My peripheral vision was usually on alert, and still is, but sound played a secondary role. If anything, it could only alert me to some unseen change in the environment that I should look at. It rarely told me what that change in the environment was. I couldn't pay attention to something, or gain any knowledge of transmitted information, without seeing it.

Now, those rules are changing, and my internal rules need to change also. The only thing is, the time it takes for me to shut down the visual sense and start paying attention to sound is about equivalent to the time it takes me to swing my head around and look at it. I hear; I look. I don't hear and listen. Listening needs to become a more primary way of taking in information, but as of now it is still not. My knee-jerk response overrides auditory processing, and by the time I hear someone speaking and then remember to listen the sound is gone. I can't access that sound through memory; I fumbled my real-time chance.

However, if I'm prepared, if I switch off the sight instinct and focus on auditory processing, I can do it. We got back to the car after dinner one night a few weeks ago. My father had forgotten his glasses in the restaurant, so as he ran back inside my mother and I sat in the darkness. One rule of my existence up to this point has been that I don't talk in the dark. I haven't been able to, and I don't think to try. Sitting there, me in the back seat and she in the front passenger seat, my mother started talking. "Turn on the light," I said automatically.

"No," she said. "Listen." I understood that part, and sat silently. No cheating now, in the darkness. My mother kept her phrases and questions short, ten words or less. They addressed parts of our day or our lives at that point in time. But they were otherwise open-set, and I kept on getting them. Actually, I got them with astonishing ease. My focus turned to my ears, we sat there in the dark silence, I listened to her familiar voice: everything seemed to glow with the force of its own unexpectedness.

A few other times, I've sat down at home and intentionally said, "I'm going to have a conversation without looking at you." I need to do it intentionally, to override those old habits. Otherwise I'll never listen instead of seeing. We haven't gone as far as sitting in the dark, but we might as well have. Again, in silence with that familiar voice, knowing that I can ask for repetition if needed: the surprise of being able to do it sneaks up on me every time. I would never have thought, three years ago before I considered getting a cochlear implant, that someday I would be able to talk to my mother just by listening to her. It's far from effortless, but at the same time it's surprisingly easy, given my expectations. I even need to say it out loud to make it feel real: "We're having a conversation. Not just listening drills, but a conversation. And I'm not looking at you."

Now maybe I need to sit down in the dark and the quiet with a few other friends. There I can run my ear over their voices, see what those voices feel like, and start to listen when I can instead of watching.