Rachel Kolb

Rachel Kolb

In the guest post below, Rachel Kolb shares with us her experience of being, “in between worlds or categories”, in regards to her hearing and communication, her positive outlook on the challenges of learning to hear and comprehend with a cochlear implant, and the possibilities that can come from living without labels.

By Rachel Kolb

As someone who was born profoundly deaf but spends virtually all of her time in a mainstream environment, I’ve long had to come to terms with the feeling of being in between worlds or categories. I still use sign language in certain situations, including interpreters in the academic setting, but while I value its visual richness and cultural significance I rarely participate in the larger Deaf community. However, I am clearly not a hearing person, either. My experience, incompatible as it might be with external labels, is fluid: it is entirely my own, free to become whatever I fashion it to be. This lack of self-categorization, while sometimes anxiety-inducing, is something with which I’ve grown comfortable. I resist classifying my own experiences by any labels that do not denote me truly – and I try to keep this perspective in mind when I encounter other people whose outlook on the world might be different from mine.

Since I got an Advanced Bionics cochlear implant three years ago, in the summer of 2010, I’ve plunged into fresh explorations of this in-betweenness. First of all is the way I choose to describe myself. For the first twenty years of my life, the words “deaf” or “profoundly deaf” suited me perfectly well, and in a sense they still do. But, now that the cochlear implant enables me to hear more, how should I describe the situations in which I find myself hearing very soft sounds, or hearing and responding to the words people say around me? My post-cochlear implant self does not function as deaf, exactly, but my hearing friends and acquaintances still must understand that I cannot hear like they do. I prefer not to use the term “hearing impaired,” since, like several other deaf people, I object to describing myself as “impaired” – or, essentially, “disabled” – rather than cherishing the many abilities I do have. The phrase “I have a profound hearing loss” is better, but still problematic. I never lost my hearing to begin with: it was never there, and I instead choose to consider my sensory experience with the cochlear implant as a wonderful gain, which it by all means is.

I also encounter challenges in describing the difference between hearing and understanding. My cochlear implant has immersed me in a dynamic onslaught of sound. Without any preexisting auditory memory to help decipher what I hear, my brain must undergo the painstaking process of learning to understand these new stimuli. I hear voices, but they often sound like nothing more than hazy, rapid streams of speech – though these streams are slowly differentiating themselves into more distinct units as time passes. I continually hear new sounds, from electric appliances to the rustles of nature. Do I know what these sounds are? Do I understand the words people say to me? Not until I have undergone much practice and repetition to bolster my still-nascent auditory memory, and even then not always. When friends glance at me and say, “Did you hear that?” more often than not my answer is, “Yes, but…”

But what is it?

But I didn’t understand.

But I’m still working on crossing that gap between content and meaning.

There is one last form of in-betweenness. I don’t want to call it problematic, because it isn’t really. As my auditory memory does grow, as I gain more exposure to my cochlear implant’s world of synthesized sound, as I find myself trading in more shapelessness for more meaning, I then find myself entering a state of flux. My hearing is not stable, just as I myself am not stable. Every remapping of my cochlear implant introduces me to a subtly (or sometimes sharply) new way of perceiving the world. Every new step forces me to realize that what I have heretofore treated as “normal” was only my particular experience at a particular moment in my life. It would be problematic if I started thinking of myself as stagnant, my views and experiences as fixed and settled. Instead, my cochlear implant continually reminds me, experimentation and novelty aren’t bad companions to have. If nothing else, they push me to reconsider my definition of the possible. Because, after all, when there are no categories and no labels, what else can there be but an enticing, liberating sense of possibility?

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Rachel Kolb holds a BA (with Honors) in English, from Stanford and a minor in Human Biology.  She is an MA Candidate in English from Stanford (2013), and will soon be traveling to Oxford study for an MSc in Contemporary Literature, as an American Rhodes Scholar.  Rachel, has also been a member of the Stanford Equestrian Team,  and been involved with the Leland Quarterly, Stanford Daily and Stanford Power to ACT. Excitingly, Rachel also recently spoke at the Stanford Tedx Conference (videos will be available for viewing on the site in June). You can read about her journey with cochlear implantation on her excellent blog, Perception Unearthed – which offers many more of her well considered thoughts on learning to hear via cochlear implants and more.

We are very grateful to Rachel for sharing her insight and experiences with us and we wish her the very best of luck as she sets off to Oxford.