Summary of I Can Hear You Whisper by Lydia Denworth

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of I Can Hear You Whisper by Lydia Denworth

To be able to simply talk with a friend unhindered is a blessing that most take for granted. What would happen if you could not hear a single word they were saying? This is the reality of many people who are deaf or hard of hearing. They have not allowed this to hold them back though and have developed ways in which to communicate. Not everyone understands the complex language which has been developed and why is that? Is it because they do not know anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing? Or is it because they don’t believe that they should have to learn it?

With new technology being developed to help aid and possibly cure deafness, the way in which the deaf community communicate currently is actually under threat. Should it be placed on the back burner to make way for new technology? Or should all forms of language and communication be able to persevere?

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Understanding hearing and problems that people face
  • Language development
  • New understanding means new technology
  • Cochlear implants

Key lesson one: Understanding hearing and problems that people face

As a child, we take our hearing for granted. Honestly, who could blame us? We were lucky and were able to hear our parents voices and the other sounds around us from the time we were born. Those who are born deaf, however, have a completely different experience.

For those who can hear, the outer ear catches sound waves and sends them inwards towards the ear canal. The ear canal acts as an amplifier, amplifying the sound so that it reaches the eardrum. Here, the sound changes from acoustic energy into mechanical energy. The eardrum facilitates this as it vibrates and send the mechanical energy to the inner ear via three tiny bones called the hammer, anvil and stirrup. In the inner ear, the sound enters the cochlea and turns into hydro energy in this fluid-filled space. The cochlea contains tiny hairs which pick up this hydro energy and produce electrical impulses in the brain which allow you to hear the sound. This is the normal process that occurs for those who can hear and sounds ranging from 20 to 20 000 Hertz can be heard.

For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, however, things are very different. The range of sound that can be heard is greatly diminished or completely nonexistent. This is why from a very you age, those who are deaf have to develop different means of communication. If kids are born with hearing difficulties this means of communication is all they ever know. This means that they should not be considered as having a disability or lacking. Deafness is a part of their identity.  

Key lesson two: Language development

It is widely accepted that babies have an innate ability to learn a language when they are born. Thus, the younger you begin to learn a language, the better your natural ability to learn kicks in. This is why parents are encouraged to speak to their children normally from a young age and to avoid baby speak. The amount of language a child is exposed to when young corresponds directly to their IQ and ability to learn as they grow. 

Historically, deafness has been misunderstood. It was widely believed that if a child was born deaf, they were less intelligent. Thankfully, we have progressed a lot since then.

Kids who are deaf have the same ability to learn, however, language development for them works differently. Parents can choose either to focus on sign language or oral communication. Both methods have been shown to be successful in developing the communication abilities of young children. The choice, therefore, lies with the parents and their preference. The parents who teach kids sign language first actually help them feel more a part of the deaf community as it enables them to communicate with others. The most important thing is that their inability to hear is diagnosed early so that they don’t miss out on using their early years of language development. 

The debate as to whether kids should learn to use sign language or language has been around for literally hundreds of years. Kids tend to pick up sign language faster but people considered it inferior just because it was not the ‘normal’ form of oral communication. Alexander Graham Bell was a huge advocate for the teaching of oral communication to the deaf community in the US. He even founded the AG Bell Association which is a research organization that focuses on deaf education. Yet, despite this great push towards oral communication, sign language still persevered in the deaf community and in the 1960s, the first American Sign Language dictionary was published. The dictionary showed the world that sign language was just as developed and complex as any spoken language. It brought awareness to deafness in a way that made deafness a culture and something that people should not think of as inferior in any way.

Key lesson three: New understanding means new technology

As people become more aware of the deaf community and deaf culture, researchers also started paying more attention. In earlier years, the lack of technology and understanding kept scientists away from studying deafness. But as things started to change they began to develop tools to cure deafness. They first started by looking at ways to repair and damage present in the ears.

The technology that helped them begin with this was in fact the telephone. The first electronic hearing aid used the technology that was present in telephones. It was basically a battery attached to a telephone receiver that amplified sounds. Hearing implants were first invented in the 1950s when scientists discovered that electrical impulses in the brain were responsible for hearing.  Andre Djourno first used induction coils in a bid to help people heard. His first patient could differentiate between some sounds but never quite learned to understand speech. Unfortunately, the implant did not last long either. It stopped working after a few weeks. Later on, Bill House an otologist took up research on hearing implants. He decided to bypass the damaged cochleas in some people and directly stimulate their brains using electrical signals. This was the inception of the cochlear implant. The device used electrodes and a microphone to collect sound and send electrical signals to the brain. It took a lot of work to perfect the implant with the first ones designed not being able to collect a lot of sounds. It wasn’t until 1984 that the first cochlear implant was approved by the FDA.

Key lesson four: Cochlear implants

At first, cochlear implants were only issued to adults. It was only in the 1990s that cochlear implants were allowed in kids as young as two. At this point, the deaf community had already gained much recognition and respect so the concept of a cochlear implant was questioned. Was it really necessary to erase the identity that a deaf person had already developed in an attempt to make them more normal?

There were many people who were against cochlear implants in kids as they believed it was an attempt to erase the deaf culture that they worked so hard to create. There were already tools in place for deaf people like TV captions and dial assistants. They feared it would all be erased as everyone would believe that deafness was something that could be cured. The debate continued and the fact that cochlear implants were far from perfect also added to the arguments. 

Cochlear implants have two issues that are still trying to be resolved. The first is that it is hard to focus on the sound you want to hear if you are in a noisy environment. As you can imagine, having a conversation with someone at a party would be extremely difficult. The second challenge is listening to music. As music is much more complex than speech, it’s hard to differentiate between sounds through an implant. 

The debate continues but it did not stop cochlear implants from gaining popularity. As they became more accepted, the implications for learning were observed. The general thinking was that the implants would help those who had suffered trying to keep up with traditional learning. Many regular schools facilitated learning for deaf kids by employing interpreters or teachers who specialized in helping deaf kids but it was not uncommon for kids to only reach a fourth grade level of reading and writing. Cochlear implants didn’t have the effect that researchers thought it would on learning. In fact, it had no impact at all. 

This is why sign language is still important despite the development of the cochlear implant. It allows deaf people to communicate when their implants battle to work optimally and it allows them to remain a part of the deaf culture which is an important part of their identity. Cochlear implants enable them to participate in hearing culture as well but it is not an option for everyone.

The key takeaway from I Can Hear You Whisper is:

Historically, deafness was mistaken for lack of intelligence. However, this could not have been further from the truth. Kids who are born deaf or hard of hearing have the same learning abilities as kids who can hear. The most important thing is that deafness is diagnosed early to enable kids to develop language early whilst they still have the innate ability to. The choice between sign language and oral language is completely up to the parents of the child as both work equally well. However, the debate remains that conforming to oral language is denying one’s identity as a deaf person. The other debate is whether cochlear implants in children is also a way of conforming and forgetting about deaf culture. American Sign Language has been well developed and is just as intricate as any other spoken language. It is still an important part of the deaf community and culture and will continue to be even as research continues on ways to cure deafness.

How can I implement the lessons learned in I Can Hear You Whisper:

American Sign Language is an important part of our society. Why is it we can learn a foreign language to be able to communicate whilst on vacation but cannot learn sign language to communicate with those in our surroundings? It may be worth learning the basics so you too can communicate with the deaf. Try it out, you may discover this new language is an excellent way to boost your communication skills and make new friends.

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