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Now Hearing This

Courtesy Rachel Kolb

By Rachel Kolb

When I first began to write about lipreading, my eyesight was practically my only way of grasping verbal communication. I had never perceived speech as much more than a garbled mess, and there were plenty of sounds I'd never heard, even with hearing aids. Lipreading was paramount.

In 2010, I got a cochlear implant in my left ear and my experiences began to change. A cochlear implant is a surgically installed device that can provide a sense of hearing to someone with severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss. The device—consisting of an external sound processor, a transmitter and an internal receiver—bypasses the ear canal to directly stimulate the auditory nerve.

My cochlear implant dunked me into a torrent of sound. I started the confusing, exhilarating, often frustrating process of learning to hear—that is, learning how to interpret the tangle of what I heard. The device, for all its powers, has not turned me into a hearing person, nor has it rendered lipreading an irrelevant skill. It never will. Yet that previously unthought-of word—listening—has made communication far easier, and simultaneously more complex, than seeing alone.

I no longer know, sometimes, how much I've seen versus how much I've heard. My still-dominant sight accepts the still-fumbling helping hand of sound, and occasionally when sight falls short, I realize that sound has filled the gap instead. I still lipread but, with sound as an understudy, my eyes no longer work alone. In incorporating sound into its repertoire, my brain has proven itself to be willing and flexible—and in doing so has challenged my sense of the possible.

At the end of a day, I have far more energy. My temples no longer throb from so much watching. Conversation is easier and inherently more enjoyable. Communication has become a hybrid between sight and sound, between lipreading and listening. A pleasure no matter how it occurs.

Comments (1)


  • Ms. Aria Yow

    Thank you for the insightful article by Rachel Kolb '12 ("Seeing at the Speed of Sound", March/April 2013). Like an expert anthropologist, Ms. Kolb effectively communicates the differences between the two disparate worlds she inhabits. Ms. Kolb poignantly describes her experiences as a member of one culture, the lipreading and self-identified "deaf" world, to the lay members of another, the general public, of whom the majority are presumably "hearing person[s]".
    Ms. Kolb is an exceptional translator, both as a lipreader and as a cultural traveler. I've often seen Ms. Kolb's byline on articles in Stanford and wondered about her background and experiences. Now I no longer have to. Thank you very much for sharing this perspective.

    Posted by Ms. Aria Yow on Mar 14, 2013 12:27 PM

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