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Krista Kennedy RSA Presentation (not for distribution) 1

6/1/18, 11:30 – 12:45, Grand Ballroom B (3rd floor)

“Invisibilized Hearing”:

The Invisibility and Secrecy of Deafness in Hearing Aid Advertisements

I’m going to talk today about a new project that I’ve been working on that focuses on

rhetorics of technology, deafness, and hearing aids. In particular, I’ve gotten fascinated

by the ways that tropes of invisibility and secrecy appear in hearing aid advertisements

across decades and the ways that they circulated a paradoxical legitimation of deafness.

That legitimation was predicated on offering the ability to keep disability a secret

through close collaboration between the wearer and discretely designed technologies. In

other words, they encourage the reader to admit privately, hat they need technological

assistance with their hearing and that wearing a hearing aid would preserve their public

access to literacy and to economic stability. By successfully passing, they would also

preserve their humanity in an ableist world that, {SLIDE} as Brenda Brueggemann has

argued, operates on the syllogism that language is human; speech is language; therefore

deaf people are inhuman, and deafness is a problem (11).

My thinking on this is very fluid at the moment, especially because this project

requires me to actually account for human bodies in a way that my previous project on

human/machine collaboration in the creation of encyclopedias did not. It also involves a

lot of intersecting literatures on things like: deaf studies, cultural disability, disclosure,

passing, and survivance. I’m still working through those, and this has also been a tricky

thing to think about for personal reasons. I’ve been diagnosed as severely and

profoundly deaf since the age of 2. I don’t hear at all on my right side and have worn a

hearing aid in my left for 40 years. So I know some things about deafness, and at the

same time, I know nothing about deafness. My education was entirely in mainstream
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6/1/18, 11:30 – 12:45, Grand Ballroom B (3rd floor)

environments from kindergarten through my doctorate. At times in my life I’ve worked

very hard to pass and I’ve learned how to manipulate a hearing aid and push it right up

to the limits of its technological capabilities. But it’s complicated; at the same time, I do

not consider deafness something to hide. So I want to be really clear that when I discuss

strategic invisibility or management of disclosure, it is within the context of rhetorical

strategy rather than of shame. As my co-panelists have been saying themselves, visibility

is important to gaining basic rights for the disabled, and yet it can be very, very

complicated to negotiate. Visibility has costs, some of which are life-threatening, and

continual visibility is just exhausting emotional labor for the disabled.

And deafness itself has another level of complication in its invisible nature. It carries

some immense body privilege because of its lack of visual markers. The deaf body

appears intact and unblemished, especially with hidden technologies. At the same time,

this invisibility often leads to misunderstandings of the nature of the disability; deaf

people are commonly mistaken for mentally disabled, for example. And visibility also

requires recognition, the ability to be seen. Deafness is a big country, as Owen Wrigley

has noted, and is full of communities and groups who don’t necessarily recognize each

other as really, truly, deaf. So safe spaces can be particularly lacking, and as a result

negotiating visibility is fraught almost anywhere one might turn.

To be clear about where in this big country of deafness we are right now, I’m

focusing on the people who had been variously labeled as {SLIDE} hard-of-hearing,

the older term hearing impaired, or, in the case of adult-onset or geriatric deafness, late-

deafened. {SLIDE} Within deaf studies, this is known as little-d deafness, as opposed

to the capitalized Deafness that connotes cultural deafness, and identification with the

Deaf Community and Deaf Pride.
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6/1/18, 11:30 – 12:45, Grand Ballroom B (3rd floor)

These are the people who potentially have enough body privilege to pass

successfully, and who may most want to. It’s tempting to chalk this tendency up to

simple vanity. And it’s also tempting to attribute this to internalized ableism, which is

certainly a factor. {SLIDE} You can see appeals to this in advertisements like this one,

in which a woman in a midcentury advertisement proclaims, “I forgot I’m deaf!” while

pulling her hair back to reveal an ear with no visible aid in it.

And yet there’s more going on here. As Langdon Winner pointed out decades ago,

artifacts have politics. The design of artifacts is a rhetorical performance of those

politics and the adoption of technologies is a rhetorical response to political and cultural

circumstances. More useful questions for us to ask are: why have deaf individuals found

it necessary to hide their disability? How have the political and rhetorical dimensions of

hearing aids facilitated this?

Hearing aid manufacturers have both acknowledged and played on this need to pass

since the very early days of hearing aid manufacturing. Companies put the assumed

desire for secrecy front and center in their ads, {SLIDE} such as this one that tells the

reader that you can “Keep Your Secret.” This one tries to walk a fine line by saying, in

part, that “Deafness is no disgrace and thousands of people wear the hearing aid

receiver in their ears, proudly. Hearing aids are completely acceptable. Nevertheless,

you need not advertise the fact that you wear an aid if you prefer not to … and there isn’t

the slightest reason why you shouldn’t keep the secret, even from your closest friends.”

And deaf individuals have good cultural reasons for keeping that secret that are

frequently tied to economic concerns and, in particularly bad times, a basic desire to

stay alive. Today, there is a 47% average unemployment rate for the deaf in the United

States. This is due to cultural perceptions of deafness as troublesome at best and less-
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6/1/18, 11:30 – 12:45, Grand Ballroom B (3rd floor)

than-human at worst, as well as issues of access to appropriate accommodations.

Ensuring access to quality education can also be very difficult, thanks to the ways that

theory of mind conceptualizes the deaf. It’s still considered acceptable for deaf students

to graduate high school with a 3rd or 4th grade reading competency level. Lack of access

to literacy is a significant problem for many deaf people, and as Brueggemann has

argued, this presents a considerable barrier for deaf access to central power structures.

Creating a visual and interactive perception of one’s deaf self as hearing has

numerous social benefits, chief among which is avoiding to some extent the negative

cultural constructions of deaf people as less perceptive, less able to persuasively navigate

social and professional situations, and, in many ways, simply less intelligent. As I

mentioned, it is sometimes mistaken for intellectual disability, which is of course always

cast in a negative light, as in this 1946 ad for Western Electric Hearing Aids. It says of

the boy at the school desk who is enthusiastically raising his hand, “They even thought

at first he might be dull!” Other keywords on this ad are Inattentive! Shy! Unhappy!

But even when properly diagnosed, the old phrase “deaf and dumb” implies multiple

levels of connotations that still persist in reference to the deaf. Not the least of which is a

literal lack of intelligence that renders the deaf person unable to successfully navigate

the world and therefore unable to access or absorb basic cultural knowledge. This makes

it easy to consider us uneducable, unemployable, and difficult to include in social

situations. By encouraging parents to make sure that their deaf children are properly

diagnosed and fitted with hearing aids, these advertisements appeal to the idea of

molding model citizens who are prepared to participate not only in their educations but

in adult economic and civic life. And along the way, they’ll surely become the opposite of

those keywords: Focused! Social! Happy!
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6/1/18, 11:30 – 12:45, Grand Ballroom B (3rd floor)

Deaf people of both genders have also had to contend with the perceived “ugliness”

of hearing aids. The social stigma attached to them accounts for their low adoption rate:

{SLIDE} 20% among those with hearing loss in the 35-64 age bracket and 40% in the

65+ age demographic. This proved to be a particular problem for women seeking

marriage in earlier decades.

If you are a woman who is legally prohibited from owning property, from having

your own bank account, or, as recently as the 1970s, from having your own line of credit,

then marriage is a central economic consideration for you. These ads reassured deaf

women of maintaining their access to marriage, to love, to the stability of a

heteronormative home and homemaking. They say, effectively, “Don’t worry, honey,

you can still get married, {SLIDE} as in this photo of a straight bride and groom that

says “If the happiness of hearing is within your reach, will you let your dreams come

true?” They also imply, {SLIDE} “You can still be a charming hostess!” who arranges

flowers while beautifully dressed as her husband looks on. {SLIDE} “You can still meet

beauty standards!” by not wrinkling up your face or scowling as you strain to

understand, as this woman does while being asked “Which woman do you want to be?”

The trick, of course, is to meet all these standards of midcentury heterosexual

womanhood while completely hiding the fact that your body might not meet standards

of perfection. Many manufacturers offered a range of aids that were hidden in jewelry.

{SLIDE} Most prominent were Sonocharms, which were hidden in earrings (as you’ll

see here worn by a woman smiling at a man) or in broches. Other aids were hidden in

necklaces and in hair accessories.

And men faced the same issues in secreting disability that might negate their virility

and the heteronormative role of the husband as provider. The accessories are different
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6/1/18, 11:30 – 12:45, Grand Ballroom B (3rd floor)

and gendered, of course. {SLIDE} Here is a patent application from 1885 that proposes

a hearing device hidden in a walking stick with the head of a dog topping it all off. This is

of course meant to appeal to the jaunty style of the time and functioned as a mobile

assistive device at a time when hearing aids were not yet miniaturized enough to be

worn directly on the body.

{SLIDE}Around the same time as the Sonocharms, which popped up around 1950,

jewelry for men also hid aids. Here’s the Emblem from Sonotone (who, as you may have

guessed, also made the Sonocharms). It’s meant to function as a tie tack attached to a

pocket-sized receiver. Other devices were hidden in rings and in the ever-ubiquitous

cigarette case.

And both men and women were offered hearing aids that were built into the

earpieces of glasses, as you’ll see here in this ad with a smiling gentleman who is

wearing the Radioear Stereoette glasses. Because glasses are more socially acceptable

than hearing aids, there were quite a few models like this made and marketed in the

1960s and 70s. They made for very heavy glasses, though, and were eventually


An implicit claim that is made by advertisements for these designs, particularly

these last several by Sonotone and Radioear, is that one of the most useful things we can

accomplish in technological design is to provide the wearer with more potential for

agency in deciding when and where she will disclose disability, assuming that contextual

and bodily conditions also make this possible. If social conditions mean that disclosing

disability affects safety, authority, and acceptance, the good design offers the potential

for human/machine collaboration that results in careful, rhetorical management of

disability in social situations. Of course, if the conditions are right, disclosure and
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6/1/18, 11:30 – 12:45, Grand Ballroom B (3rd floor)

visibility are themselves important moves; the point is offering design that enables

choice to the extent that it is possible.

And this is why invisibility cuts both ways as a suasive feature and as a suasive

claim. Invisibility can enable secrecy and invite the disabled to work very closely with

technologies in order to own and negotiate disability. That active negotiation can afford

considerable rhetorical agency and participation in economic and educational contexts.

But invisibility also renders deafness invisible to the extent that it is forgotten and

mistaken for eccentricity or other disabilities when unexpected or unmanaged

communicative aspects pop up. It can also render deafness invisible to the point of

seeming inconsequential, which poses another set of problems, especially when

requesting accommodation. It renders the difficulties invisible as well. {STOP?


Listening is cognitive labor for deaf folks, and it’s labor that is shaped immensely

by rhetorical aspects of space. One example of this, frankly, is at academic conferences

and other public lectures or performances. The sound in this room is going up and going

out because it’s a big room. During the Q&A, it’s going to move around the room. I’m

not the only deaf person in this room, and I can tell you right now that we’re all working

very, very hard to manage this kind of long session with multiple speakers – in other

words, the kind of session that is just how conference panels are done. You’re not seeing

that labor; you’re seeing a bunch of competent colleagues who are really accustomed to

doing that work. And because of that invisibility, it’s very easy for organizers to forget

that accommodations are needed. The organizers of this RSA have been fantastic about

individual accommodations; the iPad you see over here contains a live transcription of

everything that’s being said. But is that transcript also being projected on a screen where
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all of you would benefit from it? It is not, and that’s because it would cost some more

money and we’re just not sure that there would also be other deaf people or people who

benefit from visual options at a panel on disability – because deafness is hard to spot

unless it’s disclosed, and disclosure cuts both ways for the person doing the disclosing.

You can’t see this labor that’s being done by deaf colleagues and others in the room,

because this work is invisible.