No one knows how many deaf and hard-of-hearing people there are in the United States, although the figure is probably a few million less than the 50 million figure cited in this book’s subtitle. Katherine Bouton, a former New York Times editor, has written a heartfelt, evocative account of her experiences as a long-time member of this loosely defined group. I, too, am part of this cohort.
One important topic the author addresses is that she and many other adult-deafened people are frequently ill-equipped to deal with the emotional and social challenges that accompany a sudden or gradual loss of hearing. Her personal experiences of embarrassment, denial, anger, social isolation, stress and vanity, especially as they contribute to a years-long delay in the use of a hearing aid and, later, a cochlear implant and subsequent therapy, are discussed with admirable honesty and candor.
A recurrent theme in “Shouting Won’t Help” is exactly what the title describes. Because of unwanted background noise, poor acoustics or lighting, several people talking at once and so on, shouting doesn’t help. Bouton recounts numerous examples of failed communication, including daily group meetings when she was a newspaper editor. Because these meetings were relatively informal, people didn’t raise their hands and take turns while talking (a practice that helps people with a hearing loss track conversations). In addition, the acoustics in the open and spacious newsroom were a major problem for her. The author’s description of the anxiety and discomfort she experienced when she couldn’t understand her peers reminds us that it’s not easy for many deaf and hard-of-hearing people to acknowledge and deal with various communication-related conundrums in these types of situations.
We’re often not sure how those who can hear well will react when we tell them we’re deaf or have a hearing loss (many people have no idea what it means to not hear well or at all). It is also difficult to try to change the formal and informal standards of behavior that have evolved in various settings over the years.
There are no easy solutions to these problems, but Bouton does provide a helpful list of actions for people who do not have a hearing loss to keep in mind when interacting with those who do (spoiler alert: whispering doesn’t help either).
Bouton examines issues such as tinnitus and vertigo, various long-term and so far elusive hearing restoration efforts, and nonsensical medical insurance and Medicare policies that invariably do not pay for hearing aids but do pay for much more expensive cochlear-implant surgery. The author reminds us that a major and largely preventable cause of hearing loss today is noise-related, and that there are simple, common-sense modifications, such as using visual displays rather than public address systems, that can make life less of a hassle and inconvenience for everyone, including deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
Readers should not assume that Bouton’s experiences as a cochlear-implant user are typical; rather, experiences with implants vary considerably among users and over time. For example, she writes that, like many other cochlear implant users, she does not particularly enjoy listening to music. I have used a cochlear implant for a dozen years, about eight years longer than Bouton (we both have an implant in one ear), and for me much lyric-free music, such as jazz and Spanish guitar, now sounds wonderful.
There is much to admire about “Shouting Won’t Help,” but it also has shortcomings. In places too much information of marginal relevance is included while, at other times, important information is missing. Instead of including an extended discussion of a trip to Turkey taken before she even experienced a hearing loss, for example, the author could have provided a few illustrations (there are none) to clarify some of the technical issues she examines.
One thing that will bother many deaf and hard-of-hearing readers is Bouton’s frequent use of the phrase “hearing impaired.” Like the phrases “developmentally disabled” and “mentally retarded,” hearing impaired is best relegated to the dustbin of literary history (“deaf and hard-of-hearing people” is preferred).
But perhaps most disturbing is the author’s tendency to overgeneralize. For example, fewer than 10 pages into the book one reads the following jaw-dropping statement: “People with hearing loss lie, they pretend, they can be aggressive (it’s so much easier to do all the talking yourself), they isolate themselves, they are depressed, angry. Not fun people to be around.” If an author is writing a book designed to appeal to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, along with their families, co-workers and friends, this simplistic and inaccurate assertion is a strange way to begin. Or perhaps Bouton is just being flippant, a writing style that occurs with some regularity in the book. This includes her presumably whimsical suggestion that “every hearing-impaired person” needs a psychiatrist.
Bouton focuses primarily and often movingly on issues of concern to adult-deafened people, not deaf and hard-of-hearing children or those, both children and adults, who are part of the culturally Deaf community. For those interested in these other groups, Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” is an instructive, recently published complement to “Shouting Won’t Help.”
SHOUTING WON’T HELP
Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You
By Katherine Bouton
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 276 pp. $26