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A daunting place to be deaf

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Thunder River Theatre’s latest play made me writhe, because it’s the story of my life. Or darn close to it.

“Tribes” is about a deaf child born into a hearing family. During the first scene, the family carries on a fractious, backbiting argument, replete with outsized, overblown gestures. Through it, Billy sits silently, saying nothing, hearing nothing. After the combatants storm off, Billy asks her brother what the tempest was all about. 

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His minimalist answer: Just dad acting up.

Having sat in Billy’s seat for decades, I know what it’s like to wordlessly watch emotion, gesture and turbulence. Feeling as anxious as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, wondering what’s coming next.

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I’m not deaf, but profoundly hearing-impaired. Since my brother’s hearing is acute enough to have warranted the chief sonar post aboard a nuclear submarine, it’s likely I too was born with keen hearing. I lost much of it as an infant due to a high fever and substandard medical care.

During my childhood, no concessions were made for my disability. My hearing loss was diagnosed by Montview Elementary in Aurora during my first grade. Back then, hearing aids were essentially amplifiers, of no help for “cookie bite” loss, which takes a chunk out of speaking tones but leaves one able to hear high and low frequencies.

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I do recall a speech therapist at school who made me practice articulating certain letters with my lips against a balloon. Thanks to oral skill and some hearing, I never developed a flat “deaf voice.” I worked at lip-reading, and like Billy in the play, I developed a knack for interpreting body language and filling in the blanks. It (mostly) worked. I managed to pass grades 1 through 12, passing as fully “aural” with only a few serious mishaps.

Eunice Mosher, my seventh-grade math teacher, insisted on seating the class alphabetically by last name, placing me in the back right corner—and at maximum disadvantage. Algebra might as well have been Greek.

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I’m not sure why my dad, who had custody, didn’t intervene as my grades dropped from B to C to D. Like Christopher, the father in Tribes, my dad held disability in contempt; I can well remember the scathing ridicule he heaped on anyone who showed physical weakness. But perhaps my father was just too busy dating and trying to regain his emotional balance, post-divorce, to pay attention?

Like Billy in the play, I have sat alone in a crowd, reading body language absent spoken language, understanding about as much as a cat would. It does leave one feeling, as Billy angrily put it, like “a mascot” rather than a participant.

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Hearing loss is invisible; and wary of being relegated to second-class citizenship by “abled” people, I spent much of my life “passing”. Thunder River Theatre’s creative director, Corey Simpson, looked stunned when I told him about my hearing loss. He’s known me for several years, but never guessed that the questions I emailed while writing theatre reviews were often prompted by my inability to hear lines.

In his notes for TRTC’s (excellent!) production, Corey mentioned an incident in which the “Tribes” cast requested an extra rehearsal. Michelle Mary Schaefer, the deaf actress who plays Billy, had no idea the rehearsal was being scheduled. Although she was in the room while plans were being made, no one was facing her during the discussion.

Been there, done that! Twice, I have belatedly discovered that my Alaprima painting group is holding an exhibition – one I know nothing about! Yes, I was in the room during the planning, but my friends keep a tinny radio turned on behind my seat. It jams my reception. The Alaprimas love me. They don’t mean to exclude me, but they’re abled and, thus, not on my frequency.

Our valley seriously lacks resources for the deaf and hearing-impaired. Alexis, the Costco audiologist who programs my hearing aids, tells me clients drive to Eagle from as far away as Durango! Hearing aids have evolved, and these days, they’re frequency-tunable. Most connect with broadcast devices that SHOULD be installed in all “places of public accommodation.” (That’s part of civil rights law, required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.) But I don’t recall ever seeing such a device advertised or offered at any theatre or public meeting outside the Aspen Music Tent.

In preparing for Tribes, Corey found that there are NO certified sign language interpreters in the Roaring Fork Valley—nor anywhere on the Western Slope! He also learned that after Aspen’s Deaf Camp closed, many of its employees moved away because of lack of resources.

I understand. This is a hard place for the hearing-impaired to live. It must be daunting for the deaf.

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