The following is excerpted from Haben Girma’s new memoir “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.” More information on Haben and her memoir is available here.
“Can you hear me?”
The voice coming through my earbuds sounds scratchy. The earbuds connect to an FM receiver, part of an assistive listening device. Harvard Law School hired American Sign Language interpreters with voice transliteration skills to provide access to audio and visual information in my classes. Celia Michau and Erin Foley sit in the back of the classroom whispering into a microphone, which has a wireless connection with the receiver, so I can sit anywhere in the classroom. I prefer to sit in the back, though, just in case I need to communicate with the interpreters.
“[Mumble, mumble, static crackle.] How about now?” the voice asks.
I shrug, then shake my head no.
“Well, you’re responding, so you can kind of hear us, right?” Somewhere in front of me, the professor lectures us on contracts. Around him, seventy students sit in rows of desks facing forward. Using my voice would disrupt the class.
Turning to the back of the room, I lift my hands, then pause. To communicate through signs, I need to distill my ideas into my limited sign language vocabulary, or otherwise spell out all the words. I sign, “C-O-M-P-L-I-C-A-T-E-D.”
“It’s complicated? So you can hear us but it’s hard to hear us?”
I sign, “Right.”
“Okay. What can we do to help?”
“I don’t know,” I sign.
“The professor just looked at us. I think he was wondering if you raised your hand.”
My face grows hot. I make a mental note to keep my signing as low as possible.
“Do you want us to continue with class?” Nodding, I turn my chair to face the front.
“Okay, back to class. The defendant’s [mumble mumble].”
The lecture continues, and I strain to catch the words. Every way I listen, the words are gobbledygook. It’s not the volume — it’s turned to a high setting. It’s my hearing. My ever-decreasing, diminishing, disappointing hearing.
I’m twenty-two years old, and every year my hearing and vision have dimmed. The changes are gradual, until all of the sudden my old coping strategies no longer work. Since I wore sleep shades during blindness training, adjusting to my ongoing vision loss has been straightforward — I already have all the blindness skills. Adjusting to hearing loss feels more challenging. The inaccessibility of the hearing world constantly threatens to isolate me.
The voice in my ear says, “This is Celia. Maxine has four paws in the air.”
My shoulders shake. My fingers spell, “H-A H-A.” Reaching down for my guide dog, Maxine, I discover her stretched out. I give her a belly rub.
“Okay, the professor is writing on the board. Webb v. McGowin. When we return from our break I want us to [mumble mumble].”
Celia points to the door and fingerspells, “L-E-T-S T-A-L-K O-U-T-S-I-D-E.”
“Okay.” I grab the FM receiver, and the three of us huddle in the quiet hall.
“Can you hear me now?” Erin asks.
I smile. “Yes. It’s easier to hear you when you’re not whispering.”
“I bet. We’ve been trying to keep our voices down so that we don’t distract the other students.”
“I know. I don’t want you to distract them, either.”
We talk about possible causes but can’t come up with solid solutions.
Erin takes the mic. “Before we go back in, I just wanted to let you know that this guy two rows in front of us has been texting under the table. He’s trying to be subtle. It’s hilarious. Every few minutes he looks down at his phone with this gleeful smile.”
“Who?” While I’ve been making a supreme effort to hear, other students have been sprinkling mini visual breaks throughout class. Maybe I should find a way to reduce classroom stress, too.
“I don’t know his name. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.”
The mic changes hands. “This is Celia. Just let us know if there is anything specific you’re curious about. Obviously we’re going to focus on the lecture, but if there are specific visual descriptions you want us to give you, just let us know.”
“I’m interested in social descriptions — the little details that create personality, the little quirks that make people human.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. Shall we go back in?”
We walk back in and take our seats.
I turn on my braille computer and begin reading case notes. The sound of chattering students continues to bombard my ears. There’s laughter. More conversation. Laughter, again. My inner ear hears four devastating little words: you’re being left out.
I pet Maxine.
A hand touches my arm. I turn. Celia slips her right hand under my left. She starts signing.
“Slow down.” My fingers probe her hand shapes as I drag sign language lessons out of the deep recesses of my memory. “L-I-Q-I-N Liqin I-S is … Sorry, I don’t know that sign. A-S-K-I-N-G asking … I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.” My face burns from embarrassment. “W-H-A-T Oh, right! I did know that sign. Sorry, go on. What … is your dog’s name, question mark.”
I look around. Someone is standing to the right of Celia.
Liqin. I address him. “My dog’s name is Maxine.”
Celia starts signing into my hands. Again, I voice as she signs. “How …” My eyebrows shoot up in exhausted confusion. “O-L-D old is M-A-X-I-N-E Maxine, question mark.” I turn to Liqin. “She’s three. I’ve had her since she was two. That’s when she graduated from guide dog school.”
Celia starts signing.
My brain feels fried. I can’t process any more sign language.
I give Celia an apologetic look, then lift my hands off hers. “Liqin, can I show you something?” When he stands by the table, I turn my braille computer so that the QWERTY keyboard faces him. “Type your question.” He says something. I point at the keyboard. “I can’t hear you, but if you type it I can read it.” He starts typing. “When you’re done, pass the computer back to me.”
He hands me the computer. I turn it around so that the braille faces me. My fingers glide over the line of text: how does this work?
“When you hit a key, pins pop up to form braille letters,” I respond aloud. “This is a braille computer called a BrailleNote. It’s basically a computer with a tactile screen instead of a visual screen.” I turn the computer around and push it toward him.
He types, then pushes the computer back to me. The text reads: This computer is very cool. Oh, I think class is starting now, TTYL.
I put my earbuds on. “Okay, class is starting. Who can tell me about [mumble mumble].”
My mind whirs with ideas. If I bring a wireless keyboard to class with me, then I could read as Liqin types, allowing me to respond in real-time. We wouldn’t have to pass the computer back and forth. Maybe, just maybe, other students would talk to me, too.