Most people have a mental image of what a deaf person looks like. Often, it’s someone old and frail wearing a beige hearing aid, living a beige life. The stereotype rarely looks like a young musical genius entertaining royalty, an innovator bringing light to the world, or a free-thinking political radical. This year, Deaf Awareness Week (May 6 – 12) celebrates Deaf Role Models and I’d like to recognise three people who prove that what we hear needn’t limit what we do.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
It’s hard to believe one of the greatest composers of all time couldn’t hear the music he played. While Beethoven enjoyed good hearing in his early years, he started experiencing a ringing in his ears during his twenties, followed by a loss of higher frequencies and finally bass sounds. From around his fortieth year, he was profoundly deaf.
Yet this never prevented him from composing or performing. His knowledge of music was such that he could imagine his compositions in great detail, even if he couldn’t hear them. He also found some low-tech solutions to his problem. For example, Beethoven’s housekeeper once recalled how he held a pencil between his teeth and touched the soundboard of his piano to feel the vibrations.
Could Beethoven’s hearing loss have been treated today?
We could have done a lot better than a pencil. The exact cause of his hearing loss is still unknown, but posthumous studies have pointed to inflammatory bowel disease, perhaps Chrohn’s, which can cause swelling and damage in the ear. Today, this ear inflammation could have been ameliorated using just a steroid cream. A hearing aid would have also improved the detail of his auditory world while CBT and sound therapy could have treated Beethoven’s tinnitus.
Every pub quiz fanatic knows who invented the electric lightbulb and gramophone. But a lesser known fact about Thomas Edison is that he was deaf from around the age of 12.
He once claimed his deafness was caused by a train conductor boxing his ears after his chemistry set exploded on the carriage. Meanwhile scholars have pointed to the many ear infections he suffered as a child and suggested these could have caused an abnormal growth in his middle ear.
Whatever the cause, Edison saw his deafness as a blessing not a curse. One that allowed him to read and think without distraction. “My refuge was the Detroit Public Library,” he once said of his ability to concentrate. “I started with the first book on the bottom shelf and I went through the lot, one by one. I didn’t read a few books. I read the library.”
Could Edison’s hearing loss have been treated today?
Medicine has come a long way since Edison’s time and it’s likely his ear infections could have been cured with a simple course of antibiotics. If the story about the train conductor is true, damage to his ear could have caused an anatomical blockage in his ear canal. In this case, a bone conductive hearing aid could have returned much of his hearing. Although, given the value he placed on peace and quiet, it’s debatable whether he would have chosen to wear it.
She was just 19 months old when her hearing and sight were taken by a mysterious illness. Rather than becoming isolated and distant, Helen Keller grew into one of history’s greatest humanitarians, powerfully in touch with the outside world.
Learning to communicate through sign, she became an influential figure in the women’s suffrage movement, a world-famous author, and a forerunner of the black civil rights movement. Through her charity, Helen Keller International, she has also helped to combat malnutrition and save countless lives around the world.
Could Keller’s hearing loss have been treated today?
Had Helen Keller been born today, her parents would have had many more options. Cochlear implants may have restored her lost sense of hearing while speech therapy could have helped her talk more fluently.
Beethoven, Edison and Keller all made a mockery of deaf stereotypes throughout their lives and, many years later, they still do, which is why they are deaf role models.
Our goal at Sevenoaks Hearing is to enable our clients to do the same, living life as richly as they desire and deserve. We consider not just your hearing but your overall wellbeing and the demands of your chosen lifestyle.
Call us today or book an appointment to see how we can help provide you with clearer hearing for a richer life.
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Written by Matt Cannon, Lead Audiologist at Sevenoaks Hearing. Visit our independent hearing centres in Sevenoaks, Banstead and East Grinstead or book an appointment now.