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Seeing at the Speed of Sound

Lipreading, which makes one sense do the work of another, is a skill daunting to describe. Rachel Kolb, '12, deaf since birth, shares its mysteries.

Julia Breckenreid

By Rachel Kolb

I am sitting in my office during a summer internship. Absorbed by my computer screen, I do not notice when my manager enters the room, much less when he starts talking. Only when a sudden hand taps my shoulder do I jump. He is gazing expectantly at me.

"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in," I say.

"Oh, right." His expression changes: to surprise, and then to caution. He proceeds to say something that looks like, "Would you graawl blub blub vhoom mwarr hreet twizzolt, please?" I haven't the faintest idea what he said. I have no excuse, for I was looking straight at him. But despite my attention, something went wrong. He spoke too fast; my eyes lost focus.

"Um, could you repeat that, please?" I ask.

His eyebrows raise, but he nods and says it again. I sit up straighter, attempt to concentrate, but again it reaches my eyes as a garbled mess.

"It's fine," he answers. "I'll send you an email."

Well, at least I understood that part, I think as he walks out.

Lipreading, on which I rely for most social interaction, is an inherently tenuous mode of communication. It's essentially a skill of trying to grasp with one sense the information that was intended for another. When I watch people's lips, I am trying to learn something about sound when the eyes were not meant to hear.

Spoken words occur in my blind spot, a vacancy of my perception. But if I watch a certain way, I can bring them into enough focus to guess what they are. The brain, crafty as it is, fills in the missing information from my store of knowledge.

Want an example?

---- the ---- before --------- when ------------- the house

not --- cre --------------------- even ---- m------

Do you recognize the opening of "The Night Before Christmas"? Perhaps so, because in American culture the poem is familiar enough for one to fill in the blanks through memory. Filling in the blanks is the essence of lipreading, but the ability to decipher often depends on factors outside of my control.

It is my first week as a freshman at Stanford, and I feel lost. Instead of coasting through routine interactions with people familiar to me, I have thrown myself into a place where almost nothing is predictable. I sit down at a table of strangers. One of them, I realize, is the guy from the room next to mine. "What's your name?" I ask him.

He answers, but I frown.

"Could you say that again?" I say.

He does, but I still do not understand. The name starts with a B, and ends with a Y, but it is not a name I have seen before. Bobby, Barry, Buddy—none of them match what I saw on his face.

My neighbor, sensing my struggle, mumbles, "Just call me Ben."

Later that day I find out his name is Benamy.

Rachel Kolb
Photo: Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Profound bilateral hearing loss notwithstanding, Kolb earned her bachelor's in English with a minor in human biology and is working on a master's degree in English. She is managing editor of the literary magazine Leland Quarterly, active with Christian ministries and as a disability advocate, and president of the Stanford Equestrian Team. In November, she was named a 2013 Rhodes Scholar.

Even the most skilled lipreaders in English, I have read, can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said. I believe this figure to be true. There are people with whom I catch almost every word—people I know well, or who take care to speak at a reasonable rate, or whose faces are just easier on the eyes (for lack of a better phrase). But there are also people whom I cannot understand at all. On average, 30 percent is a reasonable number.

But 30 percent is also rather unreasonable. How does one have a meaningful conversation at 30 percent? It is like functioning at 30 percent of normal oxygen, or eating 30 percent of recommended calories—possible to subsist, but difficult to feel at your best and all but impossible to excel. Often I stick with contained discussion topics because they maximize the number of words I will understand. They make the conversation feel safe. "How are you?" "How's school?" "Did you have a nice night?" Because I can anticipate that the other person will say "Fine, how are you?" or "Good," I am at lower risk for communication failure.

My companions could be discussing any topic in the universe: the particulate nature of matter, the child who keeps wetting the bed, the villa in Nice that they visited last summer. And, because the human mind is naturally erratic in conversation, ever distractible, ever spontaneous, this is just what will end up happening. How am I to predict the unpredictable? The infinity of the universe, and of man's mind, strikes me as immensely beautiful—but also very frightening.

I don't like superficial remarks and predictable rejoinders, but staying in shallow waters is better than sinking. So long as I preserve my footing, I keep up the appearance of being able to converse—to other people and, more important, to myself.

"You know, you could be a spy," David, who lives in my dorm, tells me as we are sitting at brunch.

"Why do you say that?" I ask.

"Because"—he leans in excitedly—"because you could look through binoculars and lipread and understand everything people are saying!"

"Oh." I smile and cross my arms.

"Could you understand those people over there?" David points to a couple at another table. "Maybe," I say, without trying. I dare not explain that they're too far away.

The term "lipreading" implies that the skill is, in a sense, exactly like reading—in which the words on the page are clear and perfectly legible. "Can you read my lips?" strangers ask when they meet me. (Never mind that the question is inherently illogical: If I couldn't lipread, how on earth could I answer?) As they ask it, I can see the other, unspoken questions reeling in their heads—What if she can't? What will I do then? Mime?

When I answer that, yes, I can lipread, they relax. Then they prattle on as if all preconditions are off. Because I can "read" their lips, I must therefore be able to "read" everything they say. After all, it would be absurd for me to protest that I can sometimes read the words in a book, but sometimes not. Either you can read, or you can't. (Likewise, either you can hear perfectly—meaning hear and understand everything—or you can't hear at all. Forget hearing aids and microphones and other assistive devices.)

"How did you learn to lipread?" is another common query. I do not have a satisfactory answer. The truth is, I can't explain it. No more than I could explain how I learned to walk, or than anyone else could explain how she learned to hear and understand language. "Practice," I usually answer. Since I entered a mainstreamed public school in first grade, there have been no other deaf people occupying center stage in my life. My world is primarily a hearing one, and I learned to deal with this reality at a very young age. There was no reason to sign with anyone besides close friends and family, no reason to expect anyone to communicate on my terms. Surrounded by hearing people all the time, my only option has been to adapt, and lipreading is the skill that I have practiced most.

But this answer is too simple. The foundation for my success with communication was laid in my earliest years, at a deaf preschool. That was perhaps the only time in my life when I experienced full communication access each day. Everyone—students, teachers, speech therapists, parents, siblings—signed. From ages 2 to 5, I lived, breathed and conversed with people like me—at least, as alike as a young child understands. There was no reason for me to doubt myself or my abilities, so I grew fluent and confident with language. I learned its nuances, its facial and emotional expressions. I learned that it was not inaccessible, as it would sometimes later seem.

Self-confidence fuels the desire to practice and protects against the degradation of communication breakdown; but my ability to lipread is attributable not only to my own efforts, but also to the contributions of others. When I was less than a year old, my parents started me in speech therapy, which I continued for 18 years. There, I encountered the visual and physical fragments of the sound that was so absent from my world. This sound was mysterious to me. I could not grasp it—even with hearing aids—but I could see it. Under the tutelage of a succession of speech therapists, with support from my family, I became a student of its aftereffects.

In teaching me how to make sound's shapes with my own mouth, they taught me how to focus on their faces with the deepest intensity. Like a detective-in-training, I learned to recognize consonantal stops, the subtle visual differences between a "d" and a "g." (On the other hand, "p" and "b" are all but impossible to distinguish by lipreading alone, because their only difference is that one is voiced and one is not.) I learned how to zone in on the minutest changes in the muscles of the face. Over many years of drills and refinement, I learned how to construct the appearance of functioning like a hearing person. But I did not hear: I saw.

It is the first week of first grade, and the teacher has instructed us to line up by the door so we can follow her, duckling-like, to lunch. I do not know that she has asked us to line up in alphabetical order. My interpreter, who is usually around, seems to have disappeared. Satisfied to follow the other children, I take a spot in line and wait. Only then do I realize that my peers are talking, that they are rearranging themselves. I frown when the girl in front of me says something.

"Uh, what?" I say, not understanding her.

She says it again, to no avail.

"What?" I repeat, frustrated at the way the words brush off her lips and fly away.

She repeats herself. This time I understand that it is a question. Well, most questions are easily answerable with "yes" or "no."

I decide fast, "Yes." Surely a positive response will make the girl happy.

Instead, she frowns, and I realize I have said the wrong thing. Panicking, I tell her, "No," then, "Um, I don't know."

She giggles, as if I have said something funny, and whispers to a friend. Then she says it again—and everything clears in a rush. "What's your last name?"

As I answer, a cold surge rises in my chest. Without knowing it, I have made myself look too dumb to say my own name.

Sometimes I feel guilty that I lipread at all. I fear that I am betraying myself by accepting the conventions of the hearing world. I fear that I lack balance—that I am abandoning the communication tactics that work for me, in order to throw myself headlong at a system that does not care about my needs. When I attempt to function like a hearing person, am I not sacrificing my integrity to a game that I lack the tools to tackle, a game that in the end makes me look slow or stupid?

Deaf people—meaning Deaf people who live solely in the Deaf community, and hold on to an inherent pride in their Deafness—often speak of communicating as they please and letting the hearing world "deal with it." They believe in the beauty and, dare I say it, the superiority of sign language. Spoken language, compared with the visual nuances of signing, might as well be caveman guttural grunts.

When I lipread, I leave the clarity of sign language behind. I attempt to communicate with hearing people on their terms, with no expectation that they will return the favor. The standards I am striving for seem ridiculous: I am trying singlehandedly to cross the chasm of disability. Might not my stubbornness be of more harm than good?

I struggle with this. Some days I wonder what it would be like if I refused to speak. I could roll out of bed one morning, decide to take control of my communication on my terms, and make everyone write it down or sign, as other Deaf people do. Some days I resent myself. I wonder if I am weak, ashamed or overly anxious to please.

I am 12 and at a summer camp for the deaf. The entire group has just gone whitewater rafting and is stopping to get ice cream. My peers line up by the counter, signing to each other about the flavors they want. I smile and join, finding the conversation perfectly normal. But when the clerk speaks to us, the other kids freeze like mice after the shadow of a hawk has swooped over the grass.

With a jolt, I realize that they have no means with which to understand this hearing woman. Most do not speak, go to deaf schools, have never had reason to learn to lipread. Their barrier is the same as mine, but completely—instead of partially—insurmountable.

Kolb at camp
Courtesy Rachel Kolb
HAPPY CAMPER: Summer camp was a place where everyone signed, but not everyone could lipread.

"What did you say?" I ask the store attendant, looking her in the eye. My voice feels thick from disuse, but still I am aware of its clarity. The other kids stare at me, their hands slack.

"I said, would you like a free sample?" the attendant says. I understand her and sign the message to the others. They nod, and sign which flavors they want to taste. I repeat, speaking, to the attendant.

After the ordering, when I finally sit down, my own ice cream in hand, I feel strangely lightheaded. This—being able to endow spoken words with meaning, rather than having them translated by somebody else—is new for me. Because I have so often felt powerless, I have never realized the power that I possess.

What would I do, I wonder, if I could not lipread? How could I ever stand it?

Some people are all but impossible for me to lipread. People with thin lips; people who mumble; people who speak from the back of their throats; people with dead-fish, unexpressive faces; people who talk too fast; people who laugh a lot; tired people who slur their words; children with high, babyish voices; men with moustaches or beards; people with any sort of accent.

Accents are a visible tang on people's lips. Witnessing someone with an accent is like taking a sip of clear water only to find it tainted with something else. I startle and leap to attention. As I explore the strange taste, my brain puzzles itself trying to pinpoint exactly what it is and how I should respond. I dive into the unfamiliar contortions of the lips, trying to push my way to some intelligible meaning. Accented words pull against the gravity of my experience; like slime-glossed fish, they wriggle and leap out of my hands. Staring down at my fingers' muddy residue, my only choice is to shrug and cast out my line again.

Some people, though not inherently difficult to understand, make themselves that way. By viewing lipreading as a mysterious and complicated thing, they make the process harder. They over-enunciate, which distorts the lips like a funhouse mirror. Lips are naturally beautiful, especially when words float from them without thought; they ought never be contorted in this way. There are other signs, too: nervous gestures and exaggerated expressions, improvised sign language, a tic-like degree of smiling and nodding.

I sense that such people are terrified of not being understood. What they do not realize is that, when they are not at ease, I cannot be either. I am used to asking for repetition when I miss something, but if I do, such people will only freeze. In their minds, they have not tried hard enough. They turn this into a failing—instead of an unfortunate circumstance.

Encountering people who are nervous about lipreading gives me a strange complex. I wish only for them to be comfortable, not agitated or guilty. I want them to perceive me as more skilled, more normal, more approachable than they first thought. I do not want them to see me struggle. If I detect nervousness in a companion, I do my best to gloss it over—and present a semblance of normalcy, not the chaos I feel inside.

But despite its frustrations and misunderstandings, lipreading is sustenance for me. I once heard that prominent deaf educator Madan Vasishta said that he would rather have an incomplete conversation with a hearing person, one on one, than a conversation using a sign-language interpreter in which he understood everything. I take his point: The rawness of unfiltered contact surpasses even the reassurance provided by translation.

When the connection clicks, when I can read the curve and flow of a person's face, my ebullience soars. Our exchange is less like taking wild guesses at my own risk, and more like using the deftness of strategy and skill. I interact with hearing people as if I am one of their own. That they don't notice, don't remember that I am deaf! However unconscious, that is the greatest compliment of all.

Daniel is from Singapore. He speaks English, but his accent makes his syllables march in dizzying formations. To my eyes, his every utterance is bewildering.

Most people, once they figure out that I have such difficulty understanding them, stop trying. They feel the breakdown in the air, as I do, and they cannot tolerate its weight. But not Daniel. One day, he walks into my dorm room, says hi, and looks down to type on his cell phone. Thinking him sidetracked, I look out the window and wait. But soon he comes closer and shows me the screen.

How are you today? it says.

I grin. I want to leap up and hug him. "I'm fine," I announce. "How are you?"

He types: I'm pretty good. Sorry about my accent. I know it makes it hard.

"It's all right," I say. "I really wish I could understand you."

Daniel shrugs and smiles. How are your classes? Have you written anything new lately?

Anyone passing by in the hallway, hearing only my voice, would find this an odd, one-sided conversation. But, for me, it is perfect clarity.

Everyone has an Achilles heel, something that exposes her weaknesses. Mine is darkness. When it is dark, my appearance of communicative normalcy no longer stands. No speaker, no understanding can reach me. There is no way for me to penetrate any mind but my own, or to grasp whatever words other minds might exchange.

That sounds bleak, but it isn't really. With utter darkness comes resignation, a kind of peace. When it is completely dark, the responsibility for communication is no longer mine. Lipreading, writing, seeing: There is nothing more that I can do. I am free to retreat into the solace of my thoughts—which, in the end, is where I can feel most comfortable.

It's dim lighting, or bad visual aesthetics, that is a torment. When there is even the slightest sliver of light, there is still a chance. When lighting conditions are impractical or when I cannot squarely see the person who is talking, I still try. More often than not, I frustrate myself in the effort.

With lipreading, each day brings a moment in which I literally cannot do it anymore. I grow too tired of the guessing game that I can never quite win. The muscles behind my eyes ache from the strain. (Hearing is very different from sight, in that it does not involve muscular tension. I think of ears as very passive, whereas eyes are continuously moving to focus and see.) Often my corneas go dry; my vision gets blurry. The words on people's lips melt away, sliding down their faces like condensation on glass. I am back in the blind spot again.

The audiologist sits in the booth, where I see her face from my seat in a soundproof testing room. It is time for the tests I take every few years to monitor the ongoing status of my hearing, sometimes for official disability documentation. We have just finished a tone-recognition test, and now she will ask me to repeat back the sentences she reads. It is, of course, pointless to say that I will not be able to do it.

She places a piece of paper over her mouth, and I hear her voice as garbled noise, individual units barely distinguishable. I sit helpless, but once in a while take a guess. At most, I catch a word, or two. After nearly 40 sentences, I struggle to remain composed. This, such a simple exercise for anyone else, but for me —

I see her lower the paper from her face. My eyes latch onto her clear, articulate lips. "The bag of candy was on the shelf," she says.

"The bag of candy was on the shelf," I say, instantly smiling.

"The rabbit ran into the hole," she says.

"The rabbit ran into the hole."

We continue, then she wags her eyebrows and turns off her microphone. A new trick! "The mouse stole the cheese," she says, soundlessly. Any hearing person would spin into murkiness, but I can see, and that is enough.

"The mouse stole the cheese," I say, wanting to laugh.

Several more, almost perfectly, before she lays down her pencil. We gaze at each other. "You're amazing, you know that?" she says, and I glance down, letting my eyes take a rest. I smile and I smile.

Rachel Kolb, '12, is a graduate student in English from Albuquerque, N.M., and a Stanford magazine intern.

Comments (32)

  • Charlene Noll, DVM

    You have a wonderful way with words, Rachel. I really enjoyed your fascinating article!

    Posted by Charlene Noll, DVM on Mar 8, 2013 11:23 AM

  • Kyle Duarte, PhD

    A beautiful story. As a sign language consultant and interpreter it's wonderful to see your perspective on direct communication and the challenges it sometimes poses. Godspeed in your next adventures!

    Posted by Kyle Duarte, PhD on Mar 9, 2013 11:12 AM

  • Mrs. Natalie Marinez

    Inspirational story. As parents of our now 18 year deaf daughter (Julia) your article only reinforces the importance of the methodology choices that we make for our deaf children.  We picked oral as we felt she needed to be able to survive in the real world and very glad we did.  Julia was mainstreamed at an early age , wears bilateral CI , lipreads and is now getting ready to attend college. Congratulations to you and your parents.  We wish you continued success!  

    Posted by Mrs. Natalie Marinez on Mar 10, 2013 11:34 AM

  • Ms. Yvette Fung

    Thank you for sharing your perspective.  You have opened my eyes to the challenges experienced by the deaf and made me more sensitive to their needs...  I will not change my speech patterns!  Your article also resonated with me since I have an 18-year old daughter who is a dwarf.  People also make assumptions about her and what she can or cannot do.  Thank you for being an inspiration to so many of us!  

    Posted by Ms. Yvette Fung on Mar 10, 2013 5:16 PM

  • Mr. Charlie Mintz

    This is so good! But, I have to say, I've been a fan of Rachel Kolb's work for a while. In fact, the radio show I work for, the Stanford Storytelling Project, has produced two stories by Rachel.

    In our Human Voice show, we had a story about lipreading:

    And in our brand-new Listening show, we told the story of Rachel's experience learning to listen with a cochlear implant.

    Thought you might like to know. And I should add, the Stanford Storytelling Project is always looking for more great stories about universal human experiences.

    Charlie Mintz
    Stanford Storytelling Project

    Posted by Mr. Charlie Mintz on Mar 11, 2013 10:46 AM

  • Mr. Rushabh Sheth

    Dear Rachel,

    I am a fellow Stanford grad (B.S. Mech Engr. 1997) and my life experience is almost exactly like yours.  I am deaf (100% hearing loss in both ears from meningitis infection at a age 5), I grew up reading lips in exact same fashion as you did, I got my first cochlear implant a year after I graduated.  I used to do sign language until the age of 6 when my parents put me into an oral mainstream school in 1st grade.  I still rely about 60%-70% on lipreading and the remaining from hearing through cochlear implant to communicate with people.

    With 16 years of post-college experience behind me, I will tell you this much about life after college:  it gets harder, not easier if you are an ambitious person (which I presume you are).  Your ambition in the professional world will be frustrated by your disability because you will be competing with hearing peers every working hour (at least in high school and college, your destiny was completely in your hands since all you needed to do was use your brain to get the A's).  The professional world can be merciless and no amount of brainpower will overcome the sine qua non of moving up the career ladder:  communication skills.

    If you would like to learn more about what to expect in the professional world, just contact me anytime at sheth (at) rushabh dot com and I would be more than happy to discuss my experience with you.  

    With regards,

    Rushabh Sheth

    Posted by Mr. Rushabh Sheth on Mar 11, 2013 7:08 PM

  • Dr. Tomas Rokicki


    I would like to counter Rushabh with my experience that
    post-graduation, life gets easier, not harder.  Struggling
    to understand professors and lectures was, for me,
    torture, I find collaborating and working with my teams
    in a professional environment to be much more pleasant.

    But then, my cochlear implants are helping me a lot, and
    perhaps as a technical professional I don't encounter the
    same situations that Rushabh must deal with.

    Your story is beautiful; please continue to share and
    inspire.  Everyone's path is their own but learning what
    is possible if we persevere can make all the difference.


    Posted by Dr. Tomas Rokicki on Mar 13, 2013 12:28 PM

  • Edgar Smith, Jr., PhD

    What a wonderful article!  Thank you so much.

    I would like to add that most of what Rachel says also applies to people with some degree of hearing impairment such as old duffers like me.  I also find that context along with some lip reading can be a magic key.  It is amazing how the brain can fill in the gaps.  

    Posted by Edgar Smith, Jr., PhD on Mar 13, 2013 2:21 PM

  • Ms. Julie Kaufman

    I agree with Edgar - I have moderate to severe hearing loss and have been wearing hearing aids for about 30 years.  I really rely on lip cues to hear.  Rachel's difficulties (so well-described and accurate) are also experienced by those who are hearing-impaired even if not deaf.  It is exhausting for me to hear, especially in loud environments, perhaps because I am taxing two senses at once.

    If you're in the Stanford area in July-August, there is a new play opening at TheatreWorks called "The Loudest Man on Earth".  It was done last summer in the company's New Works Festival, and now will premiere on the main stage.  It's about a relationship between a deaf man and hearing woman, and the deaf man is played by a deaf actor.  Lots of signing - lots of humor.  I go to the theatre often (I sit close to the stage and use the assistive listening device, normally), and this play was the first ever where I felt I could "hear" more of it than the rest of the audience, because I could read lips as people were signing.  The play is terrific and I encourage you to go see it.

    Posted by Ms. Julie Kaufman on Mar 13, 2013 3:42 PM

  • John Hills, MA

    Dear Ms Kolb

    Let me alone with my awe of the above - but let me raise these questions:

    1. May I presume you've read (are readingI) all of C Dickens (Little Dorrit my absolute favorite - 5 readings, now hearing it on MP3 audio), W Collins, and A Trollope. I could not survive long without these medications.

    2. Plus the PhD in English, may I also presume that your work in biology will lead ultimately to your working on restoring hearing via stem cells or other miracles. You're way too smart to stop at the Eng doctorate and the R scholarship. I want to live long enough to see how you are contributing to hearing recovery.

    John Hills, '49

    Posted by John Hills, MA on Mar 13, 2013 3:52 PM

  • Professor Anthony Fisher


    My mother, Helen Dwight Fisher became profoundly deaf as a young woman, after graduation from Vassar.  She learned to lip read on her own.  My father (H. H. Fisher) was Chairman of the Hoover, and my mother had to lip read all kinds of accents.

    I must confess that I had no idea how hard she had to work at it.  She was a very intelligent, very able woman.  She lived a somewhat closed but active life. I'm even more proud to be her son than I was before I read your piece.

    Thanks for that.

    A. D. (Tony) Fisher, Ph. D. 1966 (AB 1958)

    Posted by Professor Anthony Fisher on Mar 13, 2013 5:03 PM

  • Mr. Darin McGrew

    I am familiar with the struggle blind computer users have with screen readers. It never occurred to me that deaf lipreaders encountered a similar experience of "trying to grasp with one sense the information that was intended for another", as you so eloquently put it. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    Posted by Mr. Darin McGrew on Mar 13, 2013 5:09 PM

  • Ms. Karen Rosenbaum

    In 1972, five years after I began teaching at Ohlone Community College, in Fremont, the legendary George Attletweed and others set up the Deaf Studies program there. (As I recall, George was the third Deaf person in CA to earn a teaching credential.) Until he died, in 1991, George advocated "Total Communication" for the Deaf. Ideally, a Deaf person would be fluent in American Sign Language and be able to lip-read. George was quick to point out that an excellent lip-reader would, as Rachel Kolb says, be able to read about 30%. What George didn't say was that he was brilliant; not all would be able to be as skilled in "Total Communication" as he and Rachel.

    Ohlone has favored ASL over the oral (lip-reading) approach.As a hearing English teacher of many Deaf students for many years, I was often saddened at the inability of my ASL Deaf students to use and enjoy the English language as I did--but ASL is also a beautiful language, one that allows the Deaf to be fully a part of a vibrant community, within which they can understand 100% of what is being said. My most successful and happiest Deaf students were comfortable with language very early--most either had Deaf parents or hearing parents who learned ASL. Rachel credits her Deaf pre-school experience for her ease with language.

    Karen Rosenbaum

    Posted by Ms. Karen Rosenbaum on Mar 13, 2013 5:55 PM

  • Dr. Suzan Barazani

    I am amazed at the language skills you managed to acquire in spite of being deaf, and to choose English as a major, wow! Keep writing, Rachel.

    Posted by Dr. Suzan Barazani on Mar 14, 2013 12:44 PM

  • Mr. Osmond Crosby

    Rachel, you are so articulate! Congratulations first on your English skills. One of the challenges of being able to function both in the Deaf world and the world of English is that ASL, a beautiful, compact, complete language, is not English. It is a language of its own. Herein, I believe, lies the problem of Total Communication as it  has evolved over the decades. Having raised two children who were born deaf, I have lived the other side of the challenge you have faced. Two languages are required, not just one. There are many strongly held beliefs in the world of Deafness and I'm not here to push any of them. I commend you for communicating the breadth of the chasm that can separate the deaf world from the hearing while closing the gap rather than adding to it.
    Oz Crosby
    MS Chemistry 1971

    Posted by Mr. Osmond Crosby on Mar 14, 2013 12:49 PM

  • Ms. Kathleen Kinnee

    Hi Rachel,

    You have a skill for writing an article like this.  Thus, lipreading is always a challenge, this does not have to be putting the Deaf people in hideous spots for making decision not to lipread.  

    See, lipreading became more clear to me after I have acquired ASL fluently.  My speech is a little better, as well.  I gained confidence in the languages.  Even my grandmother had remarked on this.  I have set myself free from being an Oralist only, and I feel worth as a WHOLE person.  Still I have Deaf speech, and I am not good at lipreading.   You know, 30 percentage accuracy on lipreading, I'd rather spend my time on something else.  

    It is interesting that you are determined to remain as the oralist, even though you miss a lot of words.  I do not think you realize how MUCH you miss out.  It is sad to see those awesome Deaf people go this way and keep up distancing from the Deaf community.  They could benefit from Deaf community one way or another.  

    You know very well that there are a lot of parents, and, yeah, hearing people who would favor your message.  They need to understand that your situation is rare.   There is no cure nor miracle for being an Oralist in a lonely world.  

    I was wondering what I could say to close this.  I have a lot more to say about this, really.   I wish you luck with this.  

    Kathleen Kinnee

    Posted by Ms. Kathleen Kinnee on Apr 18, 2013 1:16 PM

  • Ms. Michele Westfall

    I am Deaf and I speak American Sign Language (ASL). I also have my bachelor's degree in English. I work as a freelance writer. The difference between me and the author: I do not lipread and I feel zero guilt. I believe every Deaf and hard of hearing person has the right to full communication access, and that they should not be satisfied with 30% or less.

    Hearing people grow up with 100% full communication access, and the writer tasted it for only a brief period (at the ages of 2-5)....something's wrong here.

    I find it truly sad that the writer could not be honest with David and simply say, "Lipreading has to be done at a close range." No Deaf person should be afraid of hearing people....tell them like it is. Give them the facts.

    Being ASL speaker myself, I do have to disagree with the writer about our supposed attitude about our language: we do not regard ASL as being superior to English or any other language. We also do not regard English or any language as being superior to ASL. We believe that ASL is equal to English and all other languages. Simple as that.

    Lastly, it's painfully clear to me that the writer has issues with her Deaf identity and is ashamed of being Deaf. How sad.

    Even's clear that the writer has been trained by the hearing society that she owes them problem-free communication, and that it's her responsibility to ensure that they never feel uncomfortable and her task to make sure that they never misunderstand her.  Wrong on all counts. Communication is TWO-WAY PROCESS and does not lie with *one* person. Dump your misguided guilt, Rachel. You owe them nothing.

    Posted by Ms. Michele Westfall on Apr 18, 2013 9:14 AM

  • Ms. Meme Kerr

    Some statements are very belittling to Deaf signers who might have made their choice to not use voice or to do some guesswork with lipreading. It's very disconcerting to see such praises for Kolb's abilities at the same time ignoring the real point of the article. It's very clear that lipreading is quite a taxing task to do, yet Kolb along with commenters have ignored an important fact: Americans are vastly monolinguals and their attitudes toward bilingualism have always been snooty & myopic. The article should serve as a lesson to hearing people who should think twice when it came to communicating with Deaf people. It's a societal problem, not Deaf people's.

    I've met many hearing people who cannot spell well or even write anything. How dare you to use as examples some Deaf signers who happen to struggle with English literacy skills? Of course, it's expected of some as parents are often at fault. Yes, you read it right. It's mostly parents' fault for denying this difference and continuing to pretend that their Deaf child would one day be like a hearing person. Too many have fallen through cracks trying to be one. Parents want to put the blame somewhere else? Feel free to point at professionals or so called experts on deafness who emit false hopes to the tune of moolah. To be continued in next box.

    Posted by Ms. Meme Kerr on Apr 18, 2013 12:26 PM

  • Ms. Meme Kerr

    Now, Kolb's comment about discovering the power after the ice cream shop incident, she's basically taking the power away from the other Deaf kids. I've found their reaction hard to believe because we're so used to hearing people talking to us. Well, if that's really the case, then blame on their teachers or parents for not teaching them to find a way to communicate, rather than to rely on someone else to facilitate the communication.

    Spending time trying to figure what people are saying is a total waste of time. Getting out pen and paper is relatively a simple task. Apparently, many people are either illiterate or lazy. Kolb, you're doing more harm than good, really. You're only perpetuating dysfunctional & paternalistic thinking in hearing people.

    Posted by Ms. Meme Kerr on Apr 18, 2013 12:15 PM

  • Mr. John Pirone

    I am Deaf and ASL is my first language.  While your article clearly shows why lipreading is not effective, you have yet make a clear statement that lipreading should not be considered as a primary means of communication.  You have not gone into the details on how rich ASL is and how it should be the language for all Deaf people as English is for all hearing people.  Some parts in your article are inaccurate.  For instance, "Deaf people - meaning Deaf people who live solely in the Deaf community..." - it is not true.  I know that many of them are bicultural and bilingual and they live in both worlds on a daily basis.  ASL/Deaf culture do not isolate them immediately from the mainstream, it's the people who don't accept/recognize them.  Another misconception - "They believe in the beauty and, dare I say it, the superiority of sign language."  While it is true that ASL is beautiful, it's not something they believe in.  What they believe in is that ASL is a natural language for them in terms of modality and, no, they do not view ASL as "superior" to other languages.  As a matter of fact, many people think that English is actually superior to ASL and that is why many Deaf people are forced to learn how to speak Spoken English or lipreading.   I believe that the statement. "I have never realized the power that I possess.." defeats what you are trying to tell us.  You explain in detail how frustrating you are with the ineffectiveness of lipreading yet now you are grateful for having that "skill" just because you feel the power of using it.

    Posted by Mr. John Pirone on Apr 18, 2013 2:27 PM

  • Mr. John Pirone

    In response to those who rave about the use of lipreading, you need to realize that the article does not change the fact that deaf people can understand only 30 percent of what other people say.  Is it acceptable?  Why do you choose 30 percent over 100 percent?  Is it okay for you to decide how a Deaf person should live and how s/he should communicate when you have no idea what it is like to be Deaf?  Why should we, Deaf people, accommodate your way?  The world in which we live is not yours, it is shared by all of us.  We need to respect each other and appreciate the diversity of who we are and our languages.  

    Posted by Mr. John Pirone on Apr 18, 2013 2:27 PM

  • Ms. Trudy Suggs

    I will post a few thoughts later on, but I wanted to ask where you, Rachel, "heard" Madan say that. If you could provide the reference and/or setting where he said, that'd be superb. Thanks!

    Posted by Ms. Trudy Suggs on Apr 18, 2013 4:35 PM

  • Mr. Gregory Yee

    Rachel, thank you for sharing your story.  Touching, informative... just wonderful.

    Posted by Mr. Gregory Yee on Mar 22, 2013 9:44 AM

  • Mr. Geoffrey Baker

    Argh!  The mirror suggests just what I feared -- I am that over-enunciating mustached/bearded man. Thanks for the patience you've always shown me.  

    And, more importantly, thanks for sharing your experiences.   You've honed your talents well, and the world is (and will be increasingly) better because of them!

    Posted by Mr. Geoffrey Baker on Mar 22, 2013 3:49 PM

  • The Hon. Charles Walter Ray, Jr.

    Ms. Kolb --

    Thank you for your thoughtful, insightful piece.  As a late-deafened person, I was rather relieved to read that a 30% "success" rate for lipreading is considered pretty good.

    I must weigh in on Mr. Sheth's observations which to me seem overly pessimistic about the prospects for your professional achievements.  When I lost my hearing (and for a variety of reasons CI is not for me), I believed that my career as a trial lawyer was over.  To my delight, I found that with use of CART I could function quite well in a courtroom.  Other lawyers were very understanding and of course the ADA is a savior for folks like me.  I also found a niche in the local Deaf community, despite my lack of fluency in ASL after 3 semesters at the local university.  In any event, I recently was appointed to a position as a superior court judge and so far have found the job extremely challenging but certainly "doable."

    The tenor of your article does not even hint that you are other than optimistic about your prospects and my own experience suggests you'll do well "out there" in the hearing world.  You also are a bridge and a role model for the Deaf community.  A fantastic combination.

    Again, thank you.

    Chuck Ray, '75, Human Bio

    Posted by The Hon. Charles Walter Ray, Jr. on Mar 23, 2013 10:10 PM

  • Don Weissman, MD


    Thank you so very much,

    Don Weissman, MD

    Posted by Don Weissman, MD on Apr 1, 2013 11:15 AM

  • Ibrahim Kahveci IX, AIA

    interesting ...

    Posted by Ibrahim Kahveci IX, AIA on Mar 6, 2013 2:28 PM

  • Mrs. Barclay Dunn

    Delightful piece. Thank you for sharing part of your experience.

    Posted by Mrs. Barclay Dunn on Mar 6, 2013 2:37 PM

  • Mr. Francis Reilly

    This is a beautifully written and accurate description of deafness and the misconceptions about lipreading. I saw the video on The Atlantic and followed the link here out of curiosity. As someone who is relatively recently profoundly, but not completely, deaf, this is an accurate and well written description of making it work.

    I began to lose hearing and word recognition due to repeated brain surgeries throughout high school and college. Since this was relatively late and there were more pressing problems (literally: hydrocephalus), I am just now learning some signs and rely on what hearing I have, ever improving hearing aids, and lipreading.

    Lipreading is a useful skill, but as Rachel so articulately describes, it isn't a substitute for actually hearing or signing. I find myself saying "one more time" a lot, but as someone who didn't grow up in any sort of deaf community, I'm glad to know I'm not alone. Thank you.    

    Posted by Mr. Francis Reilly on Jan 1, 2016 8:30 PM

  • Miss Lydia Santos

    Dear Rachel,

    Thank you so much for your beautifully written article. I am currently working as a student teacher in an English class at a middle school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Most of my students did not have the advantage of being exposed to ASL at a young age, and as a result suffer from many difficulties with their language development. They often get frustrated with writing, especially when it comes to using conventions that are only found in English such as articles and other function words. When I showed them your article they couldn't believe that a Deaf person had written it- much less gotten a degree from Stanford University! Thank you for this beautiful piece and for providing your insight into the experiences Deaf people face in the hearing world. You now have 12 new pre-teen admirers here in Boston!

    Thanks again,
    Lydia Santos '12

    Posted by Miss Lydia Santos on Apr 3, 2013 8:05 AM

  • Professor Peter Richardson

    One of my linguistics students sent me this article as a topic for an informal write. We had talked in class about signing, and our book is careful to include ASL as a regular chapter feature. This article, though, says much more about the world of the hearing impaired. What's more, it's beautifully written. Thank you, Rachel Kolb.

    Peter Richardson '64

    Posted by Professor Peter Richardson on May 14, 2015 9:37 AM

  • Mrs. Ay Se

    Oh that lipreading, I rely on it a lot. Though I'm a congenital deaf, I haven't learn any sign language, as I was born and grown where weren't any schools for Deaf and HoH people.
    I lipread Russian language without much efforts(I grown up in the Russian speaking country, but not Russia), I can lipread some my native language, which is different from Russian,  but really struggle with English.
    I can read, somewhat intelligible speak in English, write(not very good), but lipreading is such a failure...
    I was recently implanted with CI, and really hope to finally be able to discriminate English speech. I don't have much issues understanding my audiologist or CI surgeon, they speak so clear, but can't understand mumbling people and people with accents.
    I know I should learn to sign...but  looks like I already run out of resources and unable to motivate myself to learn ASL, which is sad.

    Posted by Mrs. Ay Se on Jul 8, 2015 4:43 PM



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