Sarah Katz: The Price of Meaningful Connection

This story appears in the National Cued Speech Association’s forthcoming book, ‘Our Chosen Path.’

When I was six months old, an audiologist informed my parents that I would likely never speak. The auditory brainstem response (ABR) test she had administered—using small electrodes placed on my forehead and ears to read electrical activity in the brain while I was under anesthesia—indicated that I had little to no hearing.

It was the summer of 1989, and they were first-time parents in their early thirties living in a Maryland suburb outside of Washington, DC. I had a twin brother, Sam, who was born hearing. At the time of the ABR test,
the two us had been released not long before from the newborn intensive care unit, where, because we were premature, we spent the first two months of life in an incubator.

My mother says she didn’t know what to think at the time. “Quite frankly, I felt like somebody had punched me in the back,” she says, over the phone. “I took it quite hard. I don’t think I’ve ever been that shocked before. I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’”

To her recollection, the audiologist said, “Go home, love this baby up, and learn how to communicate with her.”

As my parents deliberated on what to do next, my mother reflected on her social work experience in Philadelphia. In the early 1980s, while earning her master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania, my mother had worked with a deaf client who struggled to communicate with other residents at a mental health facility, and suffered from generalized depression, possibly compounded by the social isolation. To aid in her treatment, my mother spent a year taking evening classes in American Sign Language at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, then taught other staff members and clients basic signs and fingerspelling so that they could communicate with her as well. Over two years, her client became more involved in the day to day goings on and her mental health improved.

Based on my mother’s experience working with that deaf client, she believed that she and my father had no other option but to learn sign language. So, she began using sign language with me for about a year and a half, with teachers from the Maryland School for the Deaf coming to the house on a regular basis to educate all of us. However, after finding that I seemed to be more verbal than my hearing brother, and have more hearing than the audiologist believed, my parents learned about Cued Speech at a support group for parents of deaf children. The woman running those meetings, Sue Schwartz, had written a book much like this one called Choices in Deafness: A Parents’ Guide to Communication Options, which detailed five approaches to communication with deaf children, including Auditory-Verbal, ASL-English Bilingual, Cued Speech, Auditory-Oral, and Total Communication. After speaking to other parents about it and reading this book, my mother decided that Cued Speech seemed like another viable option, given that I seemed to struggle to communicate with the limited amount of sign language my mother was able to give me, and was naturally more verbal. Ultimately, “[o]ur concern was that you be able to express yourself—not necessarily that you talk, but that you learn to express yourself emotionally,” she said. “We had learned from a psychologist that the majority of children grow up to have mental illnesses and language disorders from isolation.”

As it happens, my parents’ instincts were right: the ABR test was inaccurate. I was not profoundly deaf as the test had indicated—I had a mild to moderate level of hearing. Over the years, my parents joined the Cued Speech community by regularly attending Cued Speech camps in Virginia and Maryland and attending Cued Speech classes. I later went to school in Montgomery County, Maryland’s public-school system, where I used Cued Speech transliterators in the mainstream classroom and attended school with other deaf and hard of hearing students who used Cued Speech and sign language. Finally, I went to college at the University of Maryland, where I studied English language and literature, then earned a graduate degree in creative writing at American University in Washington, DC, all while using Cued Speech transliterators in classes.

sarah katz standing outside, a white woman with long hair

Now that I’m thirty years old, married, working as a full-time writer and editor, and considering starting a family of my own, I see how much of an advantage Cued Speech has given me. My deafness has become more pronounced over the years, so I’m lucky to already have a visual form of communication that gives me full access to other people, whether I’m with family or at an event with my husband. Being surrounded by family and friends who use Cued Speech has kept me engaged and feeling valued for the whole person that I am.

And—for the record—I’m fully verbal.

I can’t think of anything more important than the gift of being able to fully access other people. Navigating a hearing world puts demands on me that are more or less tiring—when I’m lipreading or listening to a hearing person speak to me without the aid of Cued Speech, I’m tasked with deciphering a code with a more limited set of clues than a hearing person is tasked with. For example, I might not be able to make out what someone is saying if they have a flat affect, if their lips are obscured by facial hair, if their back is turned to me, or, as is often the case, if a word looks or sounds like other words. Communicating with most hearing people requires me to expend mental, physical, and emotional energy combing the possibilities of what someone might be saying based on context, facial expression, and other clues.

Cued Speech takes all the energy out of that process. It takes all the sense of responsibility off my shoulders to be “normal,” or to operate like a hearing person, and instead puts me on equal footing with the person on the other side of the conversation. With Cued Speech, I can share the effort of communication instead of shouldering it on my own. And, because Cued Speech is a finite system that can be learned over the course of a weekend, I never have to worry about whether or not I can meaningfully connect with others—not even if another person speaks a foreign language, since Cued Speech can disambiguate other spoken languages, as well.

How can I put a price on that?

Sarah Katz (@sarahbea89) is a full-time freelance writer and editor based in the Washington, DC metro area. Her reviews, essays, articles, and poems appear in ElementalThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Writer’s GuideThe Writer’s Notebook, and other publications. As an editor, she has worked on the mastheads of The Deaf Poets Society, which she co-founded in 2016, Poet LoreThe Writer’s ChronicleFOLIOThe Writer’s Guide, among others. She holds an MFA in creative writing, with a focus on poetry, from American University. She is currently at work on her first poetry manuscript, which has been a finalist for Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize in Poetry.