I wonder if, at some point in life, everyone wonders whether he or she would rather face blindness or deafness. It’s a natural question; anyone who expects to live to an advanced age can expect to face one or the other eventuality, or both. Eyesight declines and changes with age. Glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration cause various degrees of visual impairment. Age-related diseases like diabetes can choke the capillaries that feed blood to the eyes and cause blindness. Hearing also diminishes naturally with age, although in most cases it is not entirely lost. Most people will die from an age-related cause or disease before becoming profoundly deaf.
Of course, we treat the question as an either/or one. To become completely blind and profoundly deaf is rare, even in advanced age.
As a child, I lived across the street from a retired teacher who was over 80 years old and was blind from cataracts. She could see light and shadows, but nothing more. She may have been slightly hard of hearing, as one might expect to be at more than 80 years old, but she recognised the sound and cadence of my footsteps, and she told me the ways in which my speech sounds Pennsylvanian (from my parents) and in the ways in which it sounds western New York (from where we lived). Interestingly, her son, who lived with her, was both mentally impaired and hard of hearing from birth. They took care of each other.
When I was younger, I asked myself which I would rather lose — sight or hearing — given that loss of one or the other seems inevitable and given my experience with my neighbour. My eyesight was already poor. In second or third grade, when I was no longer among the first to answer flashcard questions, the school gave me a vision test and then had my parents take me to the optometrist. It turned out that, like my brother, I was very nearsighted and astigmatic. I remember clearly that, when I came out of the optometrist’s a week or so later at twilight with my first pair of glasses, I realised that trees have individual leaves — something I’d forgotten as the world had slowly and imperceptibly become blurry to me, like an Impressionist painting. I could see the trunks and the colours, but only with glasses could I see the details. It was a visual epiphany.
Meanwhile, my hearing has never seemed very good to me, but it passed muster when tested at school. I’ve never liked anything loud — loud concerts, loud bars, loud noises, loud parties, or the voices of loud people. I could not stay at loud parties or bars long, and I tend to turn televisions and radios down to as low as possible sot that I can hear them without being overwhelmed. I try to avoid any assault on my hearing. Elaine Aron, Ph.D., would probably attribute these sensitivities to more than simply being an introvert; she might think I am an “HSP,” a highly sensitive person easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by too much sensory input.
About 20 years ago, I noticed I have a constant ringing or whine in my right ear. For a while, I thought nothing of it, but finally asked my father’s doctor in New York about it. He ruled out high blood pressure and said it’s nearly impossible to narrow down the cause of tinnitus.
Being blind or deaf seemed an impossible “choice.” Blindness would take away the pleasures of observing sunlight through the leaves or the moon over the lake, appreciating Manet and Monet, and reading words on paper. I’m a visual learner, so audio books, are not a viable alternative. At the same time, it would be difficult for someone as stubbornly independent as I am to rely on others to help me navigate the streets. I also could not imagine day-to-day living blindly, not able to see anything and relying on touch and order to know what things are and where they are. I am so visual that I do not know how well I could adapt to the disorientation that I would feel. I do not adapt well to change (perhaps some of that being related to HSP traits). One has few alternatives, however. To live and adapt or to live and fight oneself and drain one’s own energy futilely.
Deafness is no more appealing than blindness. I’ve always been fond of voices and liked actors such as Orson Welles and Richard Kiley as much for their voices as for their other abilities. I prefer a good, rich, or interesting voice to good or interesting looks.
Then there is music; I cannot imagine life without Celtic, Renaissance, or medieval music, without Stravinsky, without Dvorak, without Mozart. I cannot envision it without the evocative pop songs of my childhood or all the joys and sorrows music.
As with blindness, there’s the practical side of life. Most human communication is through speech. Even with e-mail, most people I know in the work place prefer face-to-face meetings or phone calls. The world presumes that you can hear. Cyclists yell, “On your left!” so you’ll move aside for them. Everyone you meet during a typical day, whether it’s cashiers, lost tourists, or strangers on the sidewalk, assumes that you can hear them and that you can and want to speak with them.
In this, blindness and hearing impairment are different. Blindness is usually obvious, with markers such as a guide dog, a white cane, special glasses, or a friend who leads the way. Hearing impairment is usually not so evident. It’s easy to be perceived as rude when others don’t know why you don’t respond to them. I’ve been as guilty as anyone else, too, of impatience when I have to repeat myself several times. In a couple of cases, such impatience has been warranted because I knew the person simply wasn’t listening. In others, it was my own insensitivity, perhaps mixed with ignorance and fear.
How often in history have physical impairments been consciously or unconsciously associated with mental impairment? How often have people thought children and even adults were “slow” because they suffered a sensory deficit?
As his hearing loss deepened, Ludwig von Beethoven became aware of how the deaf could be perceived by others. He wrote a letter explaining himself to his brothers; a translation is at Hearing Center Online. This frustration not only with his hearing loss, but also with its practical, social, and emotional ramifications, is palpable and heartrending.
The explanation for this entry follows in the next.