A Memoir of Deafness

By Henry Kisor

Hill and Wang. 270 pp. $18.95

IN 1988, through the Deaf President Now Movement mounted by students at Gallaudet University, American Sign Language, deaf culture and the civil rights struggle of deaf people became household words. In What's That Pig Outdoors?, Chicago Sun-Times book editor and columnist Henry Kisor has made a serious effort to give us some insights about the deaf person who has chosen to live, work and communicate in the world of the hearing rather than the world of the deaf.

There are more than 22 million Americans who have less than normal hearing. Slightly more than 2 million others are deaf, for they are unable to comprehend speech through hearing and depend on their vision for communication purposes. Some use sign language; others, called oralists, depend on lipreading and speech. Still others combine the two approaches when needed. As an oralist, Kisor presents a face of deafness that many in the deaf community will find disturbing because of the author's personal rejection of the basic values -- including sign language, the community of the deaf and special education for deaf children -- of what has come to be known as "deaf culture." Yet Kisor's views command our attention and respect, even when we disagree with the factual accuracy of some of the details, such as his biased stereotyping of educators for the deaf.

Shortly after Kisor was deafened at age 3 after successive bouts with influenzal encephalitis and meningitis -- each potentially fatal -- Kiser's mother lamented, "It isn't fair. It can't happen to one of my children." Yet she and her husband, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, determined to make little Henry's life as close to normal as possible. They enlisted the help of a private teacher, Doris Irene Mirrielees, an early advocate of home-based teaching of deaf children to speak and read lips, in laying the foundation of what was to become Kisor's "mainstreaming" into the hearing world. He grew up attending public elementary and junior high schools, graduated from Evanston Township High School, and earned an undergraduate degree with honors from Trinity College. Kisor then went on to earn a master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism, graduating with distinction to pursue what was to become an outstanding career as a newspaper journalist for major newspapers, including selection as one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1981.

Throughout his life, Kisor has experienced the difficulties (such as mistaking, because of the vagaries of lipreading, the question "What is that big loud noise?" for "What's that pig outdoors?") common to deaf people who chose to live in a hearing world, as well as those common to everyone who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s and worked during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Clearly, the less-traveled road he has taken is far different from what might have been had he embraced the world of deaf people and of sign language. (What might Kisor's social life have been like had he attended a school for the deaf and learned sign language? Where would he be today professionally had he graduated from Gallaudet? What state or national organizations of the deaf might he lead today?) His tell-it-like-it-is, no-holds-barred story -- he is often critical of the ways of the deaf community, the limits of sign language and the inadequacies of educators of the deaf -- can be counted on to arouse the ire of many, particularly leaders of what Kisor calls the "New Orthodoxy" of the deaf culture, which he seems to interpret as mandating, among other things, that all deaf people use sign language as well as subscribe to the values of deaf culture. Nonetheless, the book is a "must read" for its human interest as well as its unusual insight into life in the hearing world for deaf people who choose this road.

It is a sad commentary on the vast chasm that has separated hearing and deaf people during our times that Kisor, despite his own deafness, failed to escape absorbing many of the stereotypes commonly held by the public toward the deaf community. He writes: "Early on, a deaf child learns that much of what people say in everyday situations can be predicted," and "Little has been written {about the deaf} by the deaf themselves. Their handicap has kept most -- especially those born deaf -- from achieving the necessary command of English." As has been the case with the public in the past, he is at times quick to overgeneralize about deaf people and attribute to all of the deaf those characteristics of only the few: "Most deaf breadwinners work at menial jobs if they are unlucky and the blue collar trades if they are lucky." He tends to paint all other deaf people with the same broad brush that he strenuously objects to when that same brush is applied to him by the hearing community.

Despite these shortcomings, Kisor's autobiography is a triumph. Ultimately, it must be judged not as the tale of "just a deaf man" but as the absorbing story of one who has fought all his life to have the world treat him as a man. This is Kisor's achievement of one of his life goals, for as he quotes his blind friend, New Yorker writer Ved Mehta: "As I grow older it matters very little what people think or say . . . You can't change what people think of you. People are what they are . . . But a time comes wwhen you're defined by what you've done. People don't consider that 'the deaf Beethoven' wrote the Ninth Symphony or that 'the blind Milton' wrote the later poems. It's a matter of what you achieve at the end of the road."

In his closing pages, "at the end of the road," Kisor reviews the years of his life as a deaf man who enjoyed the fruit and paid the sometimes steep price for living in a hearing world. What is the cumulative emotional and spiritual cost of being different in the midst of a world that values conformity? Of having to be constantly alert while trying to understand spoken language without the benefit of sound? Of trying to learn word pronounciation and to speak clearly to others? Of being constantly at a disadvantage in a business world where the medium of communication is sound? He reveals, poignantly, a truth that remains in his heart, even after having had to battle with both hearing and deaf people for almost half a century to maintain his own identity:

"Some of the deaf, due to varying talents and temperaments as well as happenstance, can successfully communicate with the world of the hearing. It is not always easy for us to do so, but the hearing also can find it difficult to achieve those linkages, not only with us but among themselves as well. It may not always happen, but when two dissimilar people -- one perhaps deaf, one perhaps hearing -- manage to share their humanity with one another, it can be a beautiful thing."

I. King Jordan is the first deaf president of the 126-year-old Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university for the deaf in the world.