Read My Lips ~ Part 3

(Posted May 26, 2014)

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

by Jo Otterholt

I remember the trip to Denver… We were awakened and carried to the car while it was still dark with only stars in the sky. I knew we were not going to visit our grandparents as Mom had not pack suitcases.  Standing on the back car seat, Dad pointed for us to look out the back window. All three of us; myself, my twin, and our older brother, watched the rising sun behind us as we drove towards the white-capped mountains in the west. Then there was a bus ride, and sharing a seat with my mom – Daddy, Jerry, and Donny shared a seat across from us. Downtown Denver had tall buildings, reaching all the way to the bright, blue sun. Entering one of these buildings, we had our first ride in an elevator – a floor in a room going up and up. The sliding doors opened into the doctor’s office, where they first took me to a back room.  Jerry stayed in the waiting room with Donny,  playing with the toys. I remember wearing the heavy earphones and seeing my parents sad and frowning faces. No one was happy while we were there, except me and Jerry. Even Donny, nearly three years older than us, looked serious.  Then we sat on a red vinyl couch while the doctor with his funny headband and round thingy with a peek hole, told us that our ears did not work very well. I reached up and tugged at my ear while looking at Donny’s ears. They looked the same to me. The doctor’s jaw and lips continued to move… we needed to wear a box with a wire that could help us hear voices – and he put cold, bubble-gum stuff in our ears that we had to wait for the doctor to pull out – our earmold impression. Before we left Denver, Mom went to the fabric store to buy white flannel and elastic. She sewed each of us body harnesses – with a pocket, in which we wore our body hearing aids, hidden and protected under our clothes.

History-wise, the market for hearing aids made a huge technological jump from mechanized hearing devises such as an ear trumpet that funneled noise directly into the ear canal – but did not increase the decibel of the sound. At the conclusion of World War II, transistors for radios were replacing the old–style, cumbersome tube radio which the first hearing aids were made with, too. Doctors in the U. S. were now able to focus on family medicine and devises for disabilities, instead of treating critically wounded soldiers.  Thus, in the early 1950’s, battery powered hearing aids became much smaller by replacing the tubes with transistors that could actually amplify sounds. Furthermore, the battery compartment was also included in this cigarette packaged- sized body hearing aid, which was concealed under clothing. All that showed was a wire that attached to a ‘button’ snapped into an earmold in our ear. Even though we both had bilateral severe-profound hearing loss – they only aided one ear for each of us. Later, when that ear-mold became too small, then a new mold was made for the other ear. Thus we stimulated the auditory nerve and language centers, on both sides of our brains. Our first hearing aid was a single, Zenith X-50, black case that cost $50 brand new.

zenith hearing part 3 blog

Our parents, of course, were anxious and excited to receive a packaged box from the Denver audiologist – with two hearing aids and an earmold for each of us. During the interim of waiting for our new hearing aids to come in the mail, they had been contacted by Colorado School for the Deaf in Colorado Springs, and offered enrollment in their residential program. Not wanting to send us away to school, and having us separated in the dormitories, they decided to keep us together in a small public school of the town where we were living, Idalia, CO. Lacking kindergarten there, we started 1st grade when we were 4 years old – just prior to our 5th birthday.  Here we were supposed to learn to listen and comprehend speech and language from our teacher and peers. (As a side-note, the Idalia community was so small that all the classrooms were combined, 1st & 2nd grades, 3rd & 4th grades and so on.  Ironically, we had 3 sets of twins in our first grade class! Five sets of twins in the entire school of 1st to 12th grade, about 75 students in all and 10 were twins!)

Every school morning, Mom dressed us in our coordinating twin outfits, she had sewn for us, making sure our hearing aid was working by following the audiologist’s instructions to bounce a kick-ball on the floor. We were to adjust our volume just to the point of hearing the ringing of the ball’s bounce (to this day, I cringe and detest this sound). Our parents were advised also to buy a TV and have us listen to it for an auditory training aid. We were delighted to finally have a TV, our at-home evening entertainment.

zenith tv part 3

1956 Zenith B&W TV

We were seated on the floor, 4-5 feet in front of the speaker that was located under  the screen. In theory, with our hearing aids mounted at chest height, and with no other sound between us and the TV, we would get optimal hearing training. I don’t really remember ever understanding spoken dialogue from the shows, but did learn to recognize the background music and sounds, such as the hoof-beats of Trigger, Roy Roger’s horse; laughter of George Burns talking to his wife, Gracie, on the Ed Sullivan Show; Andy Williams whistling the theme song of his show; and Timmy calling for Lassie.  We spent a lot of time, looking back to Dad and asking for names of the characters as well as ‘what is happening?’ Neither one of could understand any of the Walt Disney cartoons – though Dad and Donny thought those were the best of the TV shows. Probably because Jerry and I were not constantly interrupting for interpreting of what was happening on the show. In fact, I am not even sure we knew they were talking, as up to that point when we saw comic books, the talking was shown in the ‘balloons’ of each frame, which were absent on TV. Besides, you can’t lipread cartoon characters and we may not have known they were talking, as the sound effects were enough to cause auditory overload.

But, before we could watch the TV in the evenings, the kitchen table was cleared and our entire daily lessons were re-taught by our parents.  Nightly, they became our teacher-interpreter-speech pathologist; though neither had a high school diploma. (Dad had only attended school through 8th grade; and Mom chose to marry Dad at the end of her 11th grade.) They worked with us one-on-one, then we were switched to the other parent. They had no formal training for teaching language to deaf children, but intuitively and devotedly taught us as only parents who know their own child would do. We would all be exhausted, when we would finish 1 ½ – 2 hours later.

Jo Otterholt
Wyoming Department of Education
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Outreach Services
Resource Specialist

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