Seeing Voices, Talking Hands

For those who live in silence, their problems often fall on deaf ears: a role model, and a personal story about overcoming the odds

Jarmer became deaf at the age of 2 | Photo: Die Grünen/Katharina Gossow

Imagine you are sitting in one of the many cafes in Vienna. People are drinking their coffee, talking to each other. A young man is trying to impress his girlfriend and you can hear her laughing as his attempts fail miserably. The waiter trips right next to you and the dishes clink loudly as they shatter on the floor. You frown at the noise. Now, as on your stereo, you turn the volume down, until it is completely silent. People are still talking to each other, but you can only see their lips moving. The girl’s laughter at her boyfriend – you can’t hear how high it is. And the clumsy waiter? All you can make out are the startled looks of the other guests. It is hard to imagine.

The human ear is divided into three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, which begins with the eardrum and consists of the three smallest bones (ossicles) of the human body and the inner ear with the cochlea. Similar to the shell of a snail but not bigger than a pea, the cochlea contains the actual acoustic organ. There we have thousands of tiny hair cells, which register sound waves and send them to the brain. The result is what we hear.

When there is a problem in the inner ear, it is often that the nerve endings of the cells do not transmit signals to the brain due to missing or inoperable hair cells. In many cases, the degree of loss is so high that even devices such as a cochlea implant or the hearing aid cannot correct for the problem. Still, sound is physical, and the deaf have other ways of building bridges to the world of sound.

For Scottish musician Evelyn Glennie, sound is something she feels.

“There is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence,” wrote Glennie in her “Hearing Essay.” Born in 1965, she has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12 from a nerve disease. She is a percussionist and senses music and rhythm by their vibrations. “We tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing,” she says.

During her live performances, she is barefoot. “The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet,” she explains, “high sounds – on my face, neck and chest.” For Glennie, her deafness does not play an important role. She can hear people speaking and understands the details with lip-reading. “My hearing [problem] is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me,” she says.

Viennese Helene Jarmer could not agree more. Having worked at the Institute for the Hearing Impaired (Bildungsinstitut für Gehörlosenbildung) between the years 1993-1998 as the first deaf teacher, she is now a Member of Parliament for the Green Party. “It does not only concern us deaf people but everyone,” she insists. “Handicapped people are all measured by the same yardstick. One needs only to have patience.”

Both her parents are deaf. Jarmer wasn’t until she lost her hearing as the result of a car accident when she was two years old. Today at 39, the tall, blond woman can hardly remember the world of hearing.

“I can only recall the tones of an organ in a church,” she says, “but I can’t bring back what language sounded like. I remember it as a pleasant sound, though.”

Helene Jarmer’s translator is sitting behind me as we are doing the interview, talking to me in German but only looking at her boss, whom she is lending her ears and voice. They are communicating in the Austrian sign language.

“There is no international sign language,” Jarmer sets the record straight. “The American sign language is as different from the Austrian one as it is in the spoken languages,” she explains with the example of the difference between Monday and Montag. Her hands are moving so fast it’s hard to follow. She clearly is a fast speaker. Several times, Jarmer gets sentences ahead while her translator is trying to keep pace in talking. It seems her eyes are wandering around the room with almost the same speed – we are able to take in information seven times as fast with our ears as we can see and absorb it.

“This is something deaf people are better at than the hearing majority,” the politician explains, forming sounds and words she can’t hear. “Our visual system is more developed. I see things that others don’t even notice.”

Since 2001, Jarmer has been the president of the National Institute for the Deaf (Österreichischer Gehörlosenverbund). Her biggest accomplishment so far, not only for her but for more than 10,000 deaf Austrians, has been the acknowledgement of the Austrian sign language in the constitution in 2005. For two years, she has been in the Austrian parliament. “As a teacher I couldn’t take action and I have always wanted to change the situation not only for deaf but handicapped people.”

A knock on the door interrupts our interview. Jarmer’s translator immediately signifies what happened. A young man in a wheelchair enters the office.

“I need your signature,” he says quietly.

“I knew you’d come today,” the translator says for Jarmer. As soon as the door closes behind the young man, the politician starts gesticulating again.

“In the constitution it states that you have to be able to speak in order to study at an Austrian university,” she says. “As a teacher, I could not do anything about this, but as a politician I can demand that this part should be abolished.”

It is only one item out of many that Jarmer wants to check off her list. At this point, seeing how ambitious and yet how patient she is, I realize the time has come to make a personal comment – to tell a story that, already at the very beginning of our conversation, I knew I would come to. I take a moment to gather my thoughts and find the right words.

“I am actually very familiar with the subject,” I tell her.

My younger sister, Hanna, has been hearing impaired due to a gene deficiency since she was born in Tyrol in 1995. Hanna did not go through any hearing tests after her birth because the hospital didn’t have the necessary equipment. Ten months later, a doctor at the University Hospital in Innsbruck determined a hearing loss of 80% in the left and 70% in the right ear. A great number of the hair cells in Hanna’s cochlea are inoperable.

“At least she is not deaf,” I remember my grandpa saying.

Children start speaking between eight to 11 months of age. Hanna spoke her first word when she was 17 months old. Still, she went to an elementary school where she was the only hearing-impaired child in her class, but nevertheless achieved good grades. Hanna then attended a Catholic school for girls only, which offers assistance for handicapped children.

At first, she felt well integrated.

“Most of the time I remained silent, though and I did not say anything,” she says. “I had a co-teacher sitting next to me during tests for which I had more time than the others.”

Her schoolmates knew about her hearing impairment, but they did not seem to accept it. Hanna eventually became an outsider. “They were envious because I had more time and received the questions for an upcoming test beforehand.”

Despite all she had to go through, my sister graduated from her school with good grades. The bullying, however, had left a mark and she decided to leave school and start working. Through the efforts of our grandfather, Hanna will start at the district court as an assistant in December. Her dream job, however, is a different one.

“I have always wanted to become a photographer,” she says. Something one can tell right away upon entering her room. “I collect cameras and I have many books on photography and artists.” I will never be able to feel the way my sister does, comprehend what it must be like to take out the hearing aids and to not hear anything. But I have learned that it does not need to be an obstacle to success. The hearing world is just scared and does not know how to deal with deaf people.

“It is not your sister’s duty to explain that she is like everyone else,” Helene Jarmer says. “It is society’s fault that handicapped people are always seen as outsiders.”

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