Friday, May 24, 2013

What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

Imagine for a moment that you like playing Scrabble. Imagine that you were playing against your friends, family and workmates. Now imagine that while they got the full assortment of letter tiles, the only tiles you got were M, D, N, E, L and U. Not a fair game you might say. Now, imagine if your life depended on this game of Scrabble. Do you reckon you could keep up with your peers' scores?

That's what my right ear plays with in this loaded game of life. My left ear has a few more tiles to play with, but no plurals, no G, K or T. And P's and H's are as rare as Zeds and Exes.

The technical name for the above diagram is "Audiogram with Speech Banana" (the original was nicked from here).

The graph's XY skeleton is the standard chart for describing someone's hearing. The horizontal axis charts the pitch or frequency, while the vertical charts the decibels or loudness. The thick black line at 20 decibels marks the border of "normal" human hearing, which can "normally" detect frequencies between 125 and 8000 Hz.
Just as most legally blind people have some vision, profoundly Deaf people are not all without sound (Hence Deaf Club Dance Nights). Unlike visual acuity, hearing impairment is not measured arithmetically but logarithmically.

While 20 metres is one tenth as far as 200 metres, 20 decibels is nowhere near one tenth the loudness of 200 decibels. 20 decibels is one tenth as loud as 30 decibels (I don't know what makes a sound 200 dB. Maybe a large meteorite. Rest assured most legally blind people would still see some light from the flaming meteorite, and the Deaf would hear/feel aspects of it).

The black silhouettes on the graph represent common sounds at their respective pitch and loudness. For example, a vacuum cleaner's whine is around 3000 Hz and about 60 decibels loud. The grey shaded area is known as the Speech Banana, and represents the area where the human vocal range occurs.

The red and blue dots graph my right and left ears respectively. As you can see, I was born unbalanced, and short of a few letter boxes. The ski slopes show typical congenital sensori-neural hearing loss. All the sounds above the coloured lines pass me by, like Vogons or neutrinos. And if you want me to hear your plurals, please say your S sounds at the volume of a motorbike.

I mention this crash course in Deafness for a few reasons. Firstly, this "Who says I need a cure?" article in Stuff Nation. Secondly, because I want to do my little part for the end of NZ Sign Language Week. And thirdly, because the pet WINZ doctor has kicked me off the Invalid's Benefit. This means for all practical purposes I am considered fit enough for the workforce.

I do want to work. I hate being at WINZ's mercy, let alone the judgment of the Doctor Gods who determine eligibility for incapacity. However, the hermit's life has given me some peace of mind for the first time in decades, and I'm not at all sure how long that will last if I'm thrust back into the barrage of white noise.

I learned long ago that one of the worst things you can be is different. Whether it was in the playground factions of primary school, or TV movies like The Boy with Green Hair or The Tin Drum, one was expected to not stand out.

Conformity became a personal issue when I discovered the old man was a practising eugenicist. I hid my Deafness deep down, learning to respond to personal interaction in non-silent environments not from the incomprehensible garble that came out of peoples' mouths, but rote reactions to their facial expressions. The method was hit and miss, but better than nothing.

Bluff and bluster can only take you so far in business. Misunderstandings, mishearings and mistakes cost time, money, and reputation. No-one wants the Deaf guy. Too off-key, too loud, too risky.

Hearing aids, you say? I got my first one at 18, an awful brick of a device that hit my brain like static on the radio. My current aids are much more advanced, but I still prefer not to wear them. I worked out why after reading Oliver Sacks' tragic tale in An Anthropologist on Mars. To See and Not See is about a man born blind who gains the ability to see before losing it again. There's only so much brain plasticity to go around, eh.

I have finally accepted who I am but the Norms still won't. However, you are most welcome to prove me wrong by hiring this Deaf guy. I don't want your pity. I want a job. Can you handle the diversity?