Graeme Gooday, Karen Sayer. Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830–1930. Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot, 2017. 126 pp. $54.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-40687-3.
Reviewed by Ben Ford (Salem State)
Published on H-Disability (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830-1930 by Graeme Gooday and Karen Sayer is a very concise exploration of the experience of hearing loss in Britain prior to the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. Gooday is a professor of history at the University of Leeds and Sayer is a professor of history at Leeds Trinity University. Managing the Experience originated in response to a request by the Thackray Museum in Leeds for assistance in interpreting their collection of hearing aids, “arguably the largest in the U.K.” (p. ix).
The history of the hard of hearing has received little attention. On the one hand, hearing aids are rejected by the Deaf community, and so Deaf historians have not considered them necessarily within their purview. Non-Deaf historians, on the other hand, tend to assume widespread hearing capacity. Thus, as the authors write, “Hearing loss has a history of vanishing between these two dominant narratives” (p. 5). This point is also made by Paul Breckell in the preface. Breckell is the chief executive of Action on Hearing Loss, originally the National Institute of the Deaf, whose historical activities are discussed in the book. Breckell writes that “hitherto we have only had histories from the viewpoint of either the (fully) hearing or accounts either by or about people who are profoundly deaf” (p. vii). This historiographical invisibility mirrors a purported “cultural/social limbo” in which the partial deaf find themselves identified with neither the hearing nor the deaf (p. 19). (All royalties from the sale of the book are being donated to Action on Hearing Loss and the National Deaf Children’s Society.)
In addition to filling a unique historiographical niche, Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830-1930 is impressive in its breadth for a book of barely more than one hundred pages. It is divided into seven chapters, including the introduction, and an epilogue. Chapter 2 explores the evolution of terminology with which to refer to deaf and hard of hearing people. For instance, historically, the hard of hearing were not conceived of as a separate category from the deaf, compounding the difficulties the historian encounters in recovering their experiences. The chapter looks at how the rise of eugenics contributed to an emphasis on eliminating deafness, whereas the widespread occurrence of hearing loss among veterans, as well as civilians, during World War I led to the rise of a new category of deaf individual, the war-deafened.
Chapter 3 looks at advice offered to those experiencing hearing loss. It includes a discussion of aural surgeon William Wright’s (1773-1860) treatise Plain Advice for all Classes of Deaf People (1826) and John Harrison Curtis’s (1778-1856) Observations on the preservation of hearing and on the choice, use and abuse of hearing-trumpets etc (1834). Wright promoted surgery, among other interventions, as supposed cures for deafness, whereas Curtis promoted the long-term management of hearing loss with hearing trumpets, a pre-electric device designed to funnel sound into the ear. The authors also look at famed hearing-impaired intellectual Harriet Martineau’s (1802-76) “Letter to the Deaf” (1834) in which she implored the hard of hearing to embrace a deaf identity and use a hearing trumpet.
Chapter 4 begins with Helen Keller’s (1880-1968) experience as a deaf and blind person. The authors then discuss the increasingly widespread availability of spectacles in the second half of the nineteenth century, the advent and promotion of lip reading, and the utility of written communication in various forms for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Chapter 5 looks at two companies that provided devices to aid those with hearing impairment, the Rein Company and Thomas Hawksley’s Company, both based in London. Chapter 5 also looks at less reputable providers of devices to the hearing-impaired, and it does so through the work of practitioners of the New Journalism of the age.
Chapter 6 looks at competing approaches to public policy affecting the deaf through the works of eugenicist Percival MacLeod Yearsley (1867-1951) and the otologist James Kerr Love (1858-1942). The chapter notes that the hard of hearing were unable to directly benefit from the explosion of communications technologies such as the telephone and radio in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Or, as the authors put it, such technologies further “problematized” their condition. They note that the difficulties encountered by the British military in recruiting fit soldiers for the Second Boer War (1899-1902) contributed to a fear of degeneration of the country’s “racial stock,” and one expression of this fear was opposition to deaf people intermarrying (p. 88). The authors discuss Yearsley’s fixation in preventing heritable deafness and the supposed savings such prevention would yield given that it cost less to educate the hearing. They discuss James Kerr Love’s friendship with Hellen Keller and his emphasis on a sympathetic depiction of the disadvantages faced by the deaf. And they note that Kerr Love shared the desire to prevent deafness.
Chapter 7 begins by looking at journals published for the deaf and hard of hearing, especially the Deaf and Dumb Times, founded in 1889. It also looks at the creation of what became the National Institute for the Deaf, as well as the German Jewish banker, Leon Bonn (1850-1929), who spearheaded its founding. Finally, it examines the influence that World War I had on the perception and treatment of the deaf and hard of hearing.
Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain provides a valuable service by clearly identifying and treating the experiences of the hard of hearing as worthy of separate investigation by historians. It touches upon a wide breadth of aspects of this history, and it manages to do so in an impressively concise manner. Yet the book does have its shortcomings.
For instance, the authors seem to simply presume the existence of a hostile fully-hearing majority. They claim that there existed a “trope that the supposedly hard of hearing were being lazy, disingenuous or outright fraudulent” (p. 21). However, they not only offer no evidence of this trope, but they claim that a political cartoon that portrayed Postmaster-General Henry Cecil Raikes (1838-91) as being deaf and blind to the complaints of his employees must have “reinforced” it. Elsewhere, the authors point out that when nineteenth-century English intellectual Harriet Martineau, who was hard of hearing, claimed that “I am very deaf” to a stranger, she elicited not skepticism and derision, but accommodation (p. 36).
In another instance, the authors write that “even those who wrote like Harriet Martineau from the standpoint of acquired deafness, there was one widespread normative assumption: those with hearing loss were solely responsible for managing the consequences of this alleged ‘problem’” (p. 32). The defect in this line of reasoning is that offering advice to individuals on how to deal with hearing loss does not preclude simultaneously asking the hearing world to accommodate those with hearing loss. This tension is simply assumed without explanation, and the authors then reason from the false premise that any statement that advises the hard of hearing on how to cope with their condition is evidence of opposition to the hearing world accommodating them. The authors are citing literature that is specifically intended as advice to deaf individuals; the title of the document is “Letter to the Deaf.” The possibility that Martineau believed the hearing world also had responsibilities toward the deaf is suggested by her own claim that letting people know that she is deaf “removes almost all trouble” (p. 36). In other words, she evidently believed it was appropriate to ask hearing individuals to accommodate her. The authors themselves note that Martineau often expected “individuals to speak directly into her [hearing] trumpet,” another suggestion that her offering advice to the hard of hearing did not preclude the possibility that she also believed the hearing world needed to offer accommodations to the hard of hearing (p. 38).
Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss In Britain would have benefited from a more complex portrayal of the relationship of hard-of-hearing people to communications technologies. The authors portray turn-of-the-century communications technology such as telephones and radio as having disempowered, alienated, and excluded the hard of hearing. Of course, an offshoot of these technological advances was the hearing aid, but the capacity of this technology to potentially empower and include is dealt with by the purported irony that the same technology that disempowered, alienated, and excluded the hard of hearing was adopted by the hard of hearing in the form of hearing aids, being briefly noted. Occasionally, the authors seem to suggest that the only conceivable motivation for the use of hearing aids was the desire to conceal a stigmatized condition. Yet the authors report Helen Keller’s description of deafness as worse than blindness because deafness involved loss of the “most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice” (p. 47). This suggests the possibility that at least some hard-of-hearing people adopted the use of hearing aids not simply because they feared stigmatization, but because they valued hearing. However, this subset of the “heterogeneous” hard of hearing community, as the authors frequently describe it, is omitted from the discussion.
The selection of sources from which the authors seek to extrapolate about public attitudes is not systematic. For instance, Thomas Hood’s (1799-1845) “Tale of a Trumpet” (1841) supposedly “capture[s] the hearing world’s anxieties about subversive hearing trumpets” (p. 38). But the claim would be far more persuasive if the authors had, say, identified every depiction of the hearing-impaired over the course of a specific set of time and then categorized those portrayals—sympathetic, unsympathetic; consensual, nonconsensual; et cetera. The instances of portrayals of the deaf highlighted are intriguing and thought-provoking, but without some recourse to quantification, they are presented without contextual data essential to their interpretation.
A theme throughout the book is the contrast between the experiences of the hearing-impaired and the visually impaired, and here quantification would have been helpful. The authors claim that the experience of the blind compared favorably to the experience of the hard of hearing in several ways. For instance, they claim that “myopic individuals were not constantly assailed by newspaper advertisements inducing a sense of guilt if they did not seek to become fully-sighted again” (p. 42). However, such claims are asserted without identification of any advertisement directed at the sight -impaired, or categorization and quantification of such advertisements during a specific time period in specific periodicals. They do cite Asa Briggs’s (1921-2016) Victorian Things (1990) in their discussion of eyewear, and it may be that their assertions flow from Briggs’s analysis.
Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830-1930 offers a concise overview of a neglected dimension of the history of disability. Even although a volume of its modest size inevitably has to be limited in its scope, it highlights an inherently intriguing topic and provides a welcome impetus for further exploration of the experiences of the hard of hearing.
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Ben Ford. Review of Gooday, Graeme; Sayer, Karen, Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830–1930.
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