Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

Shoved into Another Culture

When we encounter people from a culture unlike our daily lives, we feel uncomfortable. We don’t fit in with them. We don’t know how to act and we blame our discomfort on them. They feel wrong somehow. Instead of classifying people whose physical realities don’t match ours as a separate culture, we classify them by what we think they lack—arms, legs, sight, hearing, etc. We call them disabled. Awash with pity, we might avoid them. But what happens when fate shoves one of us into their ranks?

Millions of us gradually lose physical functions as we age, so we purchase hearing aids, glasses, wheelchairs, and prosthetics to maintain abilities we’ve previously taken for granted. However, most of us won’t live to lose enough function to cross over into a different culture. (Of course, we may be sidelined in our own.) In contrast, the lead character Ruben Stone in the 2019 film THE SOUND OF METAL doesn’t have the luxury of time to adjust to his loss of hearing. A heavy-metal drummer, he loses all of his hearing quickly and finds himself shut outside his career and cut off from his lover and his former life. (The actor Riz Ahmed playing the part was nominated for an Academy Award.)

Ruben has a common reaction to his predicament: FIX IT! His drug counselor sends him to a deaf community to learn how to be a deaf man, and Ruben is eventually successful at fitting in. But he has no intention of spending his life deaf. He wants to reclaim his old life traveling with his girlfriend in an RV on heavy metal tours. He wants cochlear implants.

The deaf community at large is divided on the subject of interventions. Some believe that a profoundly deaf person cannot meet potential in our greater society, and parents with this conviction rush to have deaf children surgically fitted with expensive implants. Cochlear implants restore a measure of hearing. Note the caveat “a measure.” Hearing doesn’t return to what hearing people deem normal. It’s barely functional. Likewise, after experiencing excessive noise earlier in life (for example, my husband was among those victimized by multiple gun reports on police firing ranges prior to mandated ear plugs), even sophisticated hearing aids fail to meet expectations as hearing loss worsens. The cacophony of crowds (including dinner parties and conferences) as well as the complexities of music present challenges that are still too much for modern technology—regardless of the claims of commercial hype.

The opposing faction of the deaf community believes people who don’t hear don’t require fixing. They have their own culture with their own social behavior. They note they’re blessed with opportunities for profound stillness denied to others. They readily communicate information and emotions among themselves with American Sign Language, and many read lips to accommodate one-on-one interactions with hearing people. A famous champion of their community is Marlee Matlin, an actor who has won numerous prestigious awards including an Oscar for her work. She defies anyone to say her life doesn’t meet potential.

Cultures that are foreign to us often possess benefits, limitations, and qualities we can’t fully comprehend because we aren’t there. When we remember that fact, we can be more respectful, if not empathetic.

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