Pioneers of Silence


MY title is suggested by a letter from the Editor of the Atlantic in which he compares deaf people to the early pioneers who were thrown in upon themselves for companionship. He says further that the wholesome sweetness of many of the deaf seems almost in direct proportion to their handicap. I confess I had not regarded us as an especially sweet lot. My personal reaction to such kind words is somewhat that of the Negro who, when a white man, too hurried to note his color, dashed up exclaiming, ‘Here, can you change five dollars?’ replied with courteous regret, ’I can’t, boss, but I thanks you for the compliment.’

As for being pioneers, perhaps all humans are that, emigrants from some native land temporarily forsaken to become homesteaders of life, until, the job completed, or cut short, death conducts us back again through the last frontier. At any rate it has always seemed to me that those who explore the wilderness of some physical handicap may indeed blaze trails, and hack out dead wood for later comers. Did not Robert Louis Stevenson do this to some extent for the tubercular? And what a pioneer for both the deaf and the blind has Helen Keller been!

Since, with a somewhat care-free gesture, I tossed a recent article into the Atlantic dealing with my own experience, and was startled by the tidal wave of letters from the deaf which it raised, it has occurred to me that I too in a humble way might do a little trail blazing through that silent country. Hence this paper, which is written both on behalf of the deaf and to them. On behalf of the deaf, since it seems to me that someone should speak frankly about us to hearing people. To the deaf, because, though I cannot truthfully say, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine,’ still, through certain new developments of education and science, together with the facing of some facts and the pondering on a philosophy or two, one may find the old swimming hole not so bad after all.


First, then, a word to hearing people, with the hope that it may make things easier for some other deaf person somewhere. After all, since we have set aside one day in the year when ministers preach on ‘Be Kind to Dumb Animals,’ why not take a little time also to study kindness to deaf humans? Even as I write this I seem to hear a faint rustle over the country as of Bibles being turned for texts. Don’t bother, brothers; I’m already in the pulpit! But if you must have a text, remember it is written, ‘Thou shalt not curse the deaf.’

Deafness is the stepchild among the handicaps. It begets more irritation, more ridicule, and less understanding than any other physical impairment. If we ourselves are not actually cursed, our deaf ears are frequently the cause of extreme exasperation, not always suppressed. No doubt we should be as cross ourselves if the circumstances were reversed. Still, it is not always easy to remember that the irritation is addressed to our ears and not actually to ourselves, for after all one’s self is very close to one’s organs. ’I am rapidly becoming a source of discipline to my family,’ writes one deaf lady. Presumably Attila liked being the Scourge of God, but few of us enjoy that rôle — it makes us feel too apologetic.

We become the butt of ridicule, too. If you doubt this, recall how often some old deaf person is the subject of a comic strip. Do you ever see blind people caricatured, and would it amuse you if you did ? This is due, I think, to the fact that people do not realize the difficulties of being deaf. Someone (who took liberties with truth) has said, ‘Blindness is an affliction; deafness is only a nuisance.’ Blindness is indeed an affliction, but so is deafness. Of the two, — and I speak with some knowledge of both, — I think loss of hearing causes more nervous strain, isolation, and general suffering than loss of sight. It is not as crippling a handicap, but is a more exasperating one. If the deaf have any wholesome sweetness of character, as the Editor of the Atlantic is kind enough to contend, it is because, like the syrup of sugar cane, it has been ground out between an upper and nether millstone.

This frank speaking will shock some people, the deaf as much as the hearing. There is a convention among the handicapped of keeping a stiff upper lip and making the best of things. Thank God for it! Only thus may such a life be lived. Every now and then, however, some truth should be spoken. I do not want the thankless task, but am assuming it deliberately with the hope, as I have said, of making the going a little easier for other deaf people. With this ‘porpoise close behind me,’ then, let me quote the vigorous words of another deaf lady, who, to judge from her photograph, is gallant, cheerful, and humorous, just the person to go pioneering with, or to lead forlorn hopes. She says, ‘I have never been able to see any advantage whatever in slight or increasing deafness, and I hate, detest, and abhor not hearing as much as I ever did.’ Good for you, my girl! You belong, I gather, to the school of those who believe that happy and useful lives may be lived under almost any physical handicap — but in spite of it, not because of it.

This, however, is nebulous and speculative, whereas I set out to hurl some truths as concrete as brickbats. Here’s one: The way of the deaf person is made hard largely through the unconscious cruelty of hearing people. This is usually due to a lack of understanding of how serious the handicap is. One rarely thinks that blindness is an advantage, but one is constantly told that deafness is. Has n’t a poet written something like the following?

The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-prick goes —
The butterfly beside the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.

I know Edison is said to have regarded his deafness as a blessing. I wonder! Well, if he did, he was Edison and unique. If anyone really wants to discover the advantages in being deaf, let him stuff up his own ears and try it for a week. A week! He’d have the plugs out in two seconds — the first instant anyone tried to talk to him. I sympathize, of course, with those who have to live with a deaf person. That is hard, I know. There is one thing harder, however, and that is to be the deaf person lived with.


I asked one lady, a particularly charming one, what she especially minded about her deafness. She said, ‘People’s impatience, and being regarded as stupid.’ Yes, it would be helpful if our friends would realize that it is deaf ears, not feeble minds, that make us slow on the uptake. Some people do, indeed, tuck in behind their deaf ears and dry up, but most of us are a rather alert lot. We have to be. To keep in the conversational running at all, we must constantly perform mental gymnastics which brighten up the wits. Something like this is always happening: —

My friend, in conversation, mentions a name that I fail to catch. I ask her to repeat, which she does in a lower tone. Again I miss it. It is either Shelley, Schiller, or Schelling, all to defective ears much alike. To ask her to repeat again may dry up her delightful talk altogether. Still, it’s the pivotal word for all she is saying, so I must cast about a bit for the scent. She is not philosophical, so I drop Schelling overboard. Shelley or Schiller, then? I think it is Shelley. I risk it. It is! Eureka! I’m hot on the trail, in at the death, giving tongue joyfully. Still, it required agility to get there.

Perhaps it is because people unconsciously associate deaf ears with feeble minds that we are so frequently treated like children unable to speak for ourselves. I once arose and departed from a doctor’s office because he persisted in talking over my head to a hearing friend who happened to be present, instead of to me, though the subject of conversation was an organ of my own, which presumably, since it was in my person rather than in hers, 1 knew more about than she did. Perhaps he was merely following the path of least resistance, which for him was ‘Talk to hearing ears rather than to deaf ones.’ If so, then he could scarcely blame me when I also followed that same path, which for me led straight out of his office and away to another doctor, all flags flying.

At this point I may touch lightly upon the matter of being patted, though I feel it must be approached with the utmost delicacy. A friendly and understanding pat in season is indeed a pleasant thing. It is only those that fall upon us in and out of all seasons which are irksome. At a public meeting I once sat next a lady, a very nice lady, but given to patting me as though I were an extremely young child behaving nicely. Halfway through the meeting I uncrossed my ankles and recrossed them — a simple human gesture which she must have seen performed many times. The instant I stirred, however, pat, pat, pat, fell her motherly hand upon my shoulder. What were they, I asked myself? Pats of approval, of sympathy, or just of sheer admiration for the accomplishment of an act so difficult by one so young? At funerals also I am unduly patted, even when I have no close connection with the deceased.


Next we come to the matter of conversation. Members of the Junior League are learning to transcribe books for the blind — a splendid thing! With even less effort they might acquire the art of talking to the deaf — also a splendid thing. Anyone who is sufficiently kind to do so will, I think, be astonished at the appreciation which his efforts beget, and may be rewarded by some delightful talk. What golden treasuries of thought we have for those who will dig for them! And how simple are the rules. Very simple, yet very essential.

First, then, will you kindly remember that, as a rule, general conversation is impossible. Most people not extremely deaf can enjoy one person if he has a well-placed voice with a clear enunciation, and if he will sit near by and not turn his head away when speaking. Very few deaf people, however, can talk to more than one person at a time. Exceptionally clever lip readers may sometimes do so, and, for a few, satisfactory ear phones may give back this lost pleasure. But for the vast majority a tête-à-tête is all that can be managed.

For this reason, if you see a deaf friend talking to one other person, leave the two alone. Do not be tempted, I implore you, to rush up and join in. The minute you do so your eager tongue sweeps the deaf talker straight out of the game. Neither should a third person toss irrelevant remarks into the tête-à-tête from time to time. That also breaks the pattern of the conversation as completely as a small boy’s stone smashes a windowpane. Of course, when the inconsiderate person does this, the considerate one may interpret by simply repeating, or giving a hint as to the fresh subject. Conversation for us is much like a game of hare and hounds, the topic the hare, and we the hounds in hot pursuit. When it is snatched suddenly away to some unexpected subject, we are naturally thrown off the track. Remember the deaf old lady who, when the conversation had been about the songs of insects, but went off to the fine singing of the new vested choir, remarked, ‘Yes, and they do it all with their hind legs.’

How long, I wonder, should deaf people be expected, for the sake of politeness, to sit and look on at colloquies out of which they have been swept? Conversations heard are usually interesting; merely looked at, they speedily become wearisome. How often have I sat thus, not hearing a word and eager to be off to a thousand and one other things, yet restrained by politeness. No deaf person should require people to make him hear all the time; yet no hearing one should expect the deaf to sit for long periods entirely as spectators. Time is as valuable to us as to other people. A little understanding of this might make things easier all round. There are, of course, no hard and fast rules to be followed, but any family that wishes to consider its deaf member may easily work out some technique of its own.

There is one rule, however, that I wish indeed might become hard and fast forever. That is, do not make personal remarks before the deaf which you do not wish them to hear. Who would do such a rude thing? Plenty of people otherwise well bred do it constantly, and then remark smugly on the suspiciousness of the deaf. Who would n’t be, under the circumstances! You may talk about a whatnot, a hassock, a pug dog, or even a very young child before its face, but a grown-up person, merely because his hearing is defective, is neither a piece of furniture, an animal, nor a young child, and to be treated as such is exasperating even to our sweet tempers. Besides being the height of rudeness, such remarks are rarely safe. Deaf ears occasionally hear unexpectedly well, as, for instance, in a loud noise. It is on record that a certain autocratic old Scotch lady, discovering that she heard better in a noise, had a small page stationed by her chair to beat a loud drum when visitors were present. It must have been startling to have some timid offering anent the weather played up thus, but at least it must have discouraged anyone from making remarks about that old lady before her face.


And now, having blown off a little steam on behalf of the deaf, let me turn with less effervescence to the deaf themselves. A word in your ear phones, my friends!

I wish I had space to recount the history of the education of the congenitally deaf as it has developed through the years. Some of it is the oft-told tale of man’s inhumanity to man; but more is the less-known saga, man’s humanity to man. That, however, requires a whole article to itself. Suffice it to say here that science, my friends, is at last sitting up and taking notice of the needs of all varieties of impaired hearing. We in turn should sit up and take notice of what it has done for us.

I had a lesson in this not long since. For some foolish reason — inertia, shyness, vanity, or skepticism — I had never tried the ear phones with which some of the motion-picture theatres are now equipped. A few weeks ago, however, encouraged by a friend, I was given one of them at the box office. The usher plugged it into the seat. With but little hope I cocked it over one ear, when presto! in one instant every word of that play was pouring straight into my ear, absolutely clear and distinct, with nothing for me to do but sit and enjoy the performance. And all this hitherto lost pleasure might have been mine at any time within the last year or two had I not been too supine to do even that small amount of pioneering.

Of course no ear phone, whether of church and theatre or carried about on one’s person, can ever be as good as a good ear. It is only somewhat better than a bad one. So let us not expect too much. It is true, also, that ear phones are harder to get used to than hearing people — those butterflies beside the road — realize. Nevertheless one should give them at least a trial, as well for one’s self as for one’s friends. The loss of sound is to some extent the loss of life, and no amount of sensitiveness, pride, inertia, or vanity should be allowed to stand between us and all the life of which we are capable. If one does acquire a suitable hearing aid, what a delight it is to get back at least some sound to deaf ears — especially if those ears are one’s own! The next best thing is for some other person to experience the same pleasure. I think we deaf people enjoy what we do hear more than does the normal person who takes all sound for granted. The other day in a rainstorm I sat in a car and was carried away with delight by the running patter of rain just over my head — and all for nothing! Not one penny did I pay, or could I have paid, for those raindrops. And just now, resting in my room, I enjoyed the click of a typewriter in the study, and two loud paternal sneezes from the back of the house.


‘Since language is the problem for the congenitally deaf, what, then, is the problem for those whose deafness comes later in life?’ I ask next.

‘Adjustment,’ we are told.

Adjustment — oh yes, all summed up in one little word like that! Easy to say, yet how hard to accomplish! When I dipped my pen and thought to set forth some pat sentiments on the subject, truth and laughter rose up suddenly, and with their fixed stare upon me I can only confess that my own adjustment is in constant need of readjustment. At the long last it is a matter for each individual to solve for himself—one which, fortunately, he can solve better than anyone can solve it for him so long as he is not a moron or a jellyfish. Far be it, indeed, from me to pose as a law and a prophet for anyone, yet, with these reservations, I may offer a few humble suggestions.

First of all, then, let us face the fact of deafness, not attempting to conceal it either from ourselves or from others. Because, up to a certain point, it may be hidden more easily than any of the other handicaps, there is the constant temptation to bluff. Also, as a rule, deafness creeps upon one rather slowly, so there is rarely any one moment of realization. For a long time one may almost hide it from one’s self. Sooner or later, however, it will out, and it had better be soon than late. Personally I would rather have people know I am deaf than think I am rude, inattentive, or feeble-minded. And, since we make so many mistakes, think something they will, unless the truth is known.

I believe that most people who suffer this handicap are deafer than they realize, their friends often being more aware of it than they are. For this reason those who attempt to fool others are usually merely fooling themselves. Therefore, aside from the undesirability of living a lie, the attempt to do so is rarely successful. Yet how many are making that attempt at this moment — are endeavoring even to hide the fact from themselves, and so making it all the more difficult. An unpleasant situation evaded or run from will inevitably pursue after, leap upon the back, and ride like the Old Man of the Sea. But turn upon it, walk right up, look it straight in the eye, and behold what an immense relief is experienced. ‘There, that’s that! Now let’s get on to other things,’ you exclaim, discovering that all the energy expended in abortive flight may now be turned to creative adjustment.

In thus facing the inevitable we are not only serving ourselves, but others as well. Many people are so unhappy over their deafness that they cannot experience the relief of speaking of it unless someone else first blazes the way for them. Frank admission is the safest thing, also, since to pretend to hear when one has not heard may lead to disastrous consequences. We may permit a good deal of conversation to go downstream, trusting that some chance word may presently offer a clue, but sometimes there are things which really must be heard. One deaf lady told me that a certain gentleman had to propose to her three times before she finally made out what he was up to. Probably at the third repetition his ardor had somewhat cooled, but how fortunate that she persisted in hearing, and was not tempted to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ at random!

I heard of another lady, — gallant and charming, no doubt, but hardly so wise, — who, having discovered in her studies of lip reading that the word ‘cake’ is an impossible one to make out, since it is pronounced in the back of the throat with no motion whatever of either the lips or the tongue (Yes, dear readers, I hear you saying it over to yourselves to discover if I prevaricate!), decided to put down as ‘cake’ all words which she failed to understand. A cheerful conceit! But life is not all beer and skittles, nor are all lost words ‘cake,’ and I do not doubt she soon found herself in deep waters.


This question of when to hear and when not to bother brings me around to my own experience, which I see, in my notes, I have hastily dashed down as ‘The Problem of Oh.’ This sounds mathematical, and indeed I have been letting ‘oh’ equal for me the unknown quantity. That is to say, after the third repetition of some remark which I have failed to hear, I have been prone to respond with a noncommittal ‘Oh,’ feeling it to be safer than a direct ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ It is a good little ejaculation, and, murmured with a rising inflection, may cover a multitude of conversational blanks — but not all! I discovered it was tripping me when to some direct question, such as ‘What is Gertrude Stein’s theory?‘ or ‘Are you for Roosevelt?’ I had been responding with feeble-minded ’ohs’ when I might have had much to say to both questions.

Having discovered, then, that even ‘ oh ’ is not safe, I have lately invented a slogan for myself, which is ‘Listen.’ ‘ Prick up the ear ’ might be even better. How I wish we could! A sudden pricked ear of attention would be much more effective in getting people to speak louder than any number of polite requests for repetitions.

Needless to say, for the deaf it is easier to talk than to listen. Nevertheless, for several reasons we should make all the effort we can to hear as much as possible. In the first place, although we cannot improve the actual condition of the ear, yet by being alert we can force into service all the hearing we have. Many of us, through inertia, are deafer than we need to be. Also, it is polite to listen, and the deaf should certainly be a little more polite than anyone else. If we are nuisances, — and very often we are! — much of that may be mitigated by a little extra courtesy on our part. And what is so courteous and so attractive to most people as an attentive ear — even a deaf one! Indeed, if we will keep pricked up all the ears we have, we may become better listeners than many a hearing person who is walled in behind such a barrage of his own talk that no outside word can penetrate. Again, this attempt to listen, backed by some genuine interest in what the other person is saying, may reap for us pleasant rewards. Not to do so may lose us a job. It did for one deaf lady, who talked so continuously in the endeavor to hide her deafness when being interviewed by a possible employer that he concluded she was merely trying to be coquettish, and so would have none of her.

Along with this need to listen as acutely as possible goes the warning which I am constantly giving myself, to be careful as to what I repeat. Since we frequently hear incorrectly, we are in danger of passing on all sorts of inaccuracies if we are not circumspect.

Of course there are some people who ‘simply cannot talk to the deaf.’ Well, one must just laugh and let them go. Life is short, the world is wide, with an innumerable number of people in it, so why bother with the ones who cannot make us hear?

There are also certain times when it is especially difficult to hear — as, for instance, when eating food which crackles, like toast or lettuce. How often in company have I not asked myself, ‘Shall I try to hear what the lady on my left is saying, or shall I eat that salad?’ And how frequently — I blush to admit it! — the salad wins.

And now I have said a good deal and yet hardly touched upon some problems. What about pride, for instance? Some deaf people arc crushed by their handicap because they are too proud to be helped. They themselves would give with the utmost readiness, but they will not receive. This is true also of proud hearing people. Well, it is a give-and-take world. It cannot be onesided. If we refuse to receive, we deprive ourselves of the full privilege of giving.

And what have I to say of the problem of employment for the deaf? Very little, I fear. Yet, come to think of it, — and surely this is good news, — every single deaf person I can call to mind on the instant has a job if he wants one, and some have very good jobs indeed.

And speaking of jobs, whether paid or otherwise, let us not insult our deaf ears by offering them as excuses for shirking whatever responsibilities or opportunities of service come our way. True, there are certain things which we cannot do, but there are many more which we can. The world is far more in need of a spirit of helpfulness than it is of perfect hearing, and there are more good deeds to be done than even the Boy Scouts can manage.


And now, having set out so confidently to write this paper, I find myself at its close with a feeling that I have somehow been inadequate to the task, leaving unsaid many of the most essential things. Perhaps I should try again, but I am tired of being merely my ears, since there is much more of me than that. Somewhat in the spirit of the adventurous goat on tour, who, according to a worried station master, ‘had done et up where he was going to,’ I also would fain eat my tag, forget that I am a deaf person, and get on with the interesting business of being alive in this very alive, human, fallible, but exciting world. Is not this the ideal for us all? To remember, and have our friends do likewise, that first of all we are human beings, and only secondarily handicapped ones?

Nevertheless, I would say one last word to those of us who are traveling this rocky road to Zion — at least I know it is a rocky road, and I have every hope and belief that it leads to a Zion of sorts. Especially I would speak to the young travelers among us; to those who, perhaps on the threshold of life, full of eagerness, zest, and desire, find themselves, as I did, checked and thwarted by failing ears. You are lonely and baffled. Pity is the last thing you want, but perhaps you would like some word from an older person who knows what you are facing. Well, I do know.

Are you a young woman, and do you sometimes rush off to your own room and shut the door fast in loneliness and defeat, because you can no longer keep up with the crowd? I know; I understand.

Are you a young man, a lawyer perhaps, finding yourself constantly held up in your chosen profession because you have failed to hear something important — the nervous mumble, possibly, of some witness? I know about that also, though only vicariously.

And I know the many other difficult phases of the problem. But do not think I am a will-o’-the-wisp leading you astray into a bog of self-pity. On the contrary, I am stressing the hard aspects, of which you are already fully aware, because I have an enormous belief in the hardihood of human nature. No, not a mere belief; an absolute confidence that, because you are a human being, you can stand truth rather than rose-water fiction, and a further certainty that on the very hardness of the facts you can rise triumphant and make the world your own. What is better than to know the worst, and yet find in our make-up something capable of facing it, of wresting victory out of disaster?

Why physical affliction is in the world — or any affliction, for that matter — I cannot say; whether it is here of design or has crept in through some mischance, I know not; whether it is a good or a bad thing, who can say? But this I do know: humanity is not to be chained, but, through the divine gift of inspiration, may rise gloriously above adversity. And I believe that when this is done, somehow, somewhere, a great hidden purpose is served, the whole tide of human courage is raised a little higher if only by one drop. And all creation moves a fraction nearer to some ‘far-off divine event.’ Perhaps it is the privilege of the handicapped to serve in this especial way. So three cheers for us, and for the adventure! Play up, play up, and play the game!