- Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain: 1830–1930 by Graeme Gooday and Karen Sayer
By Graeme Gooday and Karen Sayer. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pp. 126.
Disability history is a relatively new historical field, but within it, Deaf history (which is capitalized to indicate that the term is being used for a group identified through culture and community rather than their medical status) has emerged as a particularly strong subfield. This is partially thanks to the momentum lent by Gallaudet University Press (part of the private university for deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington, D.C.) and mostly because disability history has engaged with insights from the social model of disability, which conceptualizes disability through the way actors are disabled [End Page 1227] by their environment. Deaf history fits with this model, as many Deaf people do not regard themselves as disabled; moreover, Deafness is a paradigmatic example of a disability caused by the (hearing) majority prioritizing and enforcing speech as the dominant mode of communication.
The social model of disability is implicitly set up in opposition to the medical model, which has meant that disability historians have overlooked the importance of technologies to the lives of disabled people in the past. Recently, scholars including Beth Linker, Bess Williamson, and Julie Anderson have pushed back against this, convincingly arguing that to fully understand the lives of past individuals, we need to explore all aspects of their lives, including how they engaged with medicine and prostheses. Gooday and Sayer take up this challenge by discussing the lives of a group not usually considered―adults with hearing loss. As the authors point out in their introduction, hearing loss "disappears" from the historical record because disability historians prioritize Deaf history as a part of Deaf culture; "conventional" historians assume normalized function and so overlook the importance of tools like hearing aids.
Gooday and Sayer address this gap to reveal a fascinating history of the lived experience of hearing loss, which they explore thoroughly by foregrounding the diverse ways people used, appropriated, rejected, and innovated with a range of tools and techniques to "manage" their experience of hearing loss. Categorizing and investigating the experiences of a group defined through individual members' emotional experience of hearing loss as a loss is a simple yet innovative approach, making this book valuable to the burgeoning field of the history of emotions. Their interdisciplinary study also necessarily engages with material culture; indeed, this book came from the authors' experiences working with the vast collection of hearing aids held by the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, England. However, their primary expertise in science and technology studies means that they combine the material evidence from such museum collections with a rich variety of sources (including Victorian advertisements for deafness cures) to reveal a "pattern of end-user creativity." One notable example is a hearing-horn evidently held close to the user's body in her accompanying handmade bag (p. 76). By including this kind of evidence, Gooday and Sayer highlight the diverse individual experiences of hearing loss. In line with insights from historians of technology, they consider technologies in the widest sense to include tools such as paper, pens, journals, and hearing aids alongside lip-reading, note-writing, and correspondence networks.
As well as investigating such individual-level attempts at "managing" hearing loss, Gooday and Sayer address the macro-level impact of medical institutions dedicated to helping people cope with their hearing loss. In this way, they consider hearing loss as it featured historically, both as a problem situated within the individual body and as a problem created by society. This is the central contribution of this book: it analyzes hearing [End Page 1228] loss aside from Deafness. It is not an addition to the Deaf history canon, although there is considerable material of interest to Deaf historians. The use of the word "managing" encompasses this spectrum of experiences in the same way that historian Alan Kellehear uses the concept of "managing" death to accommodate the multifarious circumstances, experiences, and sensations tied to the way individuals approach end of life.