What can the history of technology tell us about the lived experiences and cultural history of the hearing impaired?
During the nineteenth century, acoustic aids became ubiquitous objects, varying in design, form, and amplification. The “Deafness in Disguise” exhibit at the Bernard Becker Medical Library brilliantly narrates the multitude of aids that were available for increasing hearing amplification, everything from conversation tubes, ear trumpets, walking sticks, and domestic objects. While these devices were helpful for individuals with residual hearing, evaluating these aids tells us how technological into deafness were imagined as an appropriate solution for integrating the deaf into hearing society. Aids that masked deafness and allowed the deaf to hear and speak were highly marketable items, as were those that incorporated the marvels of science and electricity. Even the exclusion of “non-technologies,” or non-acoustic aids for hearing that were banished due to their quackery imprint warrants a broader analytical framework for understanding the range of medical therapeutics available for historical actors. The history of technologies that were never produces can also tell us something about the intentions an motivations guiding how makers and users engaged in larger systems of medico-technological developments for hearing loss.
Looking at the materiality of acoustic aids can provide us with insight into design, patenting, and manufacture, as well as how these aids inscribed particular cultural ideologies of “normalcy,” or wavered between the binary between orthodox and unorthodox medical practice—i.e. defining how these aids incorporated elements of “quackery” and how these elements can be categorized. Equally revealing is how the material culture of acoustic aids can afford us clues into how users employed these devices to navigate social relations. Instead of funneling these perceptions through a hearing worldview, examining technologies for deafness through user interaction allows us to assess how technologies created autonomy for deaf users, or provided agency over their own bodies. As Stuart Blume points out in The Artificial Ear: Cochlear Implants and the Culture of Deafness (Rutgers University Press, 2009), users/patients often make adjustments to the device(s) worn on their bodies, even if under surveillance by a medical practitioner, to bring the technology “into better alignment with their readings of their own bodies, with how they want to live, or with the image they want to project.”
How did technologies of deafness—acoustic aids, assistive devices, communication technologies—construct the daily lives of deaf persons in history? In Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture (New York University Press, 2012), R.A.R. Edwards outlines an 1869 article published in the periodical Deaf Mutes’ Friend that notified readers of an “alarm continuance:” a cord attached to the alarm wheel of a clock to drop a pillow to the sleeping face of a deaf person. The EveryBody virtual exhibit by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History additionally narrates how technology has played a distinctive role in the lives of people with disabilities, either through exclusion from mainstream society (as with the case of the telephone for deaf users), or through inclusion (new communication technologies). Even “lag time between the introduction of a technology, whether movies, telephones, trains, planes, automobiles, or ATMs, and its accessibility created discrimination, exclusion, and new barriers.”
Moving away from the medicalized framework of deafness can also unravel the threads of deaf experience in history. Last month I delivered a guest lecture for Mary Beth Kitzel’s “Deafness and Technology” course at Rochester Institute of Technology. Through an open and engaging conversation with a wonderful group of students, we focused on two primary topics of evaluating the history of deafness technologies: (1) on what counts as “quackery” and how this construction affects our historical understanding of the medio-technological options for amplifying hearing loss, and (2) on user autonomy and agency, particularly how technology can express the “personhood” of deaf individuals. I gave examples of decoration on hearing aids, including color, art, and engraving that drew attention to the aid rather than concealing it, and other historical cases of user adjustments for proper fit. I even pointed out the way users care for their technologies—whether it’s carrying it in a specially crafted pouch or ensuring there was a safe place to place the device on the nightstand—but one student captured the sentiment quite brilliantly, explaining personhood and modification of technology as exemplified on the iPhone. The apps chosen, their layout, the background wallpaper, the ringtone, the case, and so on, are all examples of how we personalize this technology to fit to our own needs and interactions with it. As the student remarked, and I’m paraphrasing here: “if you gave me your iPhone, I might not want it, because it’s not mine, not the way I set it up to be.”
As Mary Beth explained to me, the students in the course were assigned to research historical and modern technology devices used by deaf people to support their daily living. Moving away from medical technologies, the students focused on domestic devices, education technology, personal devices, social media/apps, and telecommunications. Some technologies include: Baby monitors for the deaf and hearing impaired; the teletype telephone; the teletypewriter (TTY); and the SMARTBoard Interactive Whiteboard. There’s plenty of room for this compendium to grow, critically assessing technologies for deafness can provide much insight into the cultural history of deafness and the importance of integrating material culture studies with disability history.
You can check out the Deaf People and Technology Compendium by the students here.
On another, closely related pedagogical project on disability history, check out David Turner’s “Researching and Re-Telling the Past,” a research-focused approach for students to learn about nineteenth-century disability history.
 For instance, see: Nina E. Lerman, “Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology,” Technology and Culture 51.4 (2010): 893-918.