Blindness separates people from things, deafness separates people from people.
— Helen Keller

Lawyer, Inventor, 70's, Early On-Set: Cause Unknown

Tell me about your early life and background.

As a child I was athletic. When you are athletic as a child, doesn’t matter your race, religion, background, and creed, you are in a special category of oh, he plays basketball. I played soccer as a freshman, sophomore, junior in high school. And in junior high school I was on the freshman soccer team.

And I will tell you one anecdote about my “athletic career”, so to say. I was also a little league baseball player, and when I made the little league team, I was maybe eight, nine, ten, I don’t remember specifically. I was originally assigned to the outfield. Outfield. When reality set in, and in games if there was a ball hit by a batter, I couldn’t hear it. I would lose several seconds trying to figure out where it was going from sight alone.

I was originally assigned to the outfield. Outfield. When reality set in, and in games if there was a ball hit by a batter, I couldn’t hear it. I would lose several seconds trying to figure out where it was going from sight alone.
 

I had two astute little league coaches. They said, “Hm”. They put me at first base. First base gave me the opportunity. I didn’t have to hear it. I would be able to see what happened to the pitch, the ball, and the direction. So I played at first base when they figured it out. I became an all-star little league player at first base because of my hitting, and I hit home runs in all-star games and in little league World Series games when I was a kid – all because I had the wisdom of two coaches to recognize my infirmity. And I wasn’t even something I declared! I wasn’t as if I said, “Oh god, I’m hearing-impaired, or I can’t hear.” They figured it out. So that was good.

So your hearing loss was never disclosed or never a problem during any of this?

Oh gosh, my hearing loss. Well, I didn’t get my first set of hearing aids until I moved to California which I think was in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s.

How old were you?

I had gotten out of law school. And, hairstyles for men had changed, and hair came down over the ears. So whatever residual problem I had with wearing hearing aids was helped by the times. I don’t remember specifically when I started going out with them. I ended up managing a women’s boutique and I needed all my faculties or facilities. But you asked an interesting question: let’s go back.

Hairstyles for men had changed, and hair came down over the ears. So whatever residual problem I had with wearing hearing aids was helped by the times.
 

Education was really, really hard. I didn’t have hearing aids during college, so I was basically dead meat in a lecture hall. What did I do?

I was basically dead meat in a lecture hall.
 

I learned what to do when I was in about the third grade. Like every other guy who wanted to be cool, I used to sit in the back of the room. I taught myself how to lip read. But one day I had an extraordinary idea: I said to myself, “I want to be cool, I want to be known for being cool because everyone I sat with was cool. I wonder what would happen if I moved to the front of the room?” So one day I moved to the front of the room and I’m looking at the teacher speak, and “Oh is that what they’re saying?” I ended up learning intuitively, maybe I was smart, I don’t know, by lip reading, facing people, understanding I probably have a problem since my sister was severely impaired.

This is one of the most memorable events of my life: my mother used to take us every weekend to various doctors in New York to see what was wrong with my sister in New York, New Jersey, it’s just, she would not ever give up on my sister. And you know, my sister, it’s my kid sister, I love her. One day, mom took us to a doctor in New York for Ellen, and we came out of the examination room, “Oh, she’s hearing impaired badly, she needs a hearing aid,” which was kind of wild because we were going to a local ENT in our hometown. He probably pushed my mom, my dad, and my sister, “You need to go seek a higher level of expertise.”

I was always tested [for hearing impairment, as well]. Nothing was really discussed with me. So as a child, it was never told to me that I needed a hearing aid – never. I don’t know why. Maybe my parents couldn’t afford for the both of us to be financial burdens, I don’t know. But since I was personable, I could talk, I was warm, I was gifted in many ways, maybe they thought, “Oh he’ll be alright, he’ll be alright,” whatever that meant. So that’s kind of an interesting backstory, at least from my perspective.

But since I was personable, I could talk, I was warm, I was gifted in many ways, maybe they thought, “Oh he’ll be alright, he’ll be alright,” whatever that meant.
 

Until I got to law school and I’d be sitting in class or in lectures and I would be called upon to answer questions: I remember every single time I was called on, I said I wasn’t prepared, which was a lie. I was prepared, but I couldn’t hear what was going on in a lecture. So what I ended up having to do was to work much much much much harder. Focusing, as opposed to the verbal part, the written part by studying sixteen, eighteen hours a day. I got through it. Never once really paying attention to my infirmity. That’s kind of…

I remember every single time I was called on, I said I wasn’t prepared, which was a lie. I was prepared, but I couldn’t hear what was going on in a lecture. 

And then I got brave, less fearful that it would somehow affect my image as a guy, a man. 

Could you expand on that?

Sure, well, I thought I would be less attractive, less, uh… people would – I just was, I didn’t know any kid that wore hearing aids. I didn’t know any teens. I didn’t know anybody younger. All I knew were old people who wore hearing aids, and that was a sign of being old, or not a part of what was going on.

I didn’t know any kid that wore hearing aids. I didn’t know any teens. I didn’t know anybody younger. All I knew were old people who wore hearing aids, and that was a sign of being old, or not a part of what was going on.
 

But I got the all-in-ear in the old days. They were analog. And I wore them! And I must have succeeded in wearing them because, I didn’t – I got over it. It was more important for me to hear, certainly once I met Lorraine [his wife]. I was the manager for a woman’s boutique in Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City in 1969 and 1970. And all that’s coming in is ladies 16 to 35, and I was 26 – I couldn’t be seen wearing hearing aids! 

But I finally got them, and the world did not collapse, the world expanded. It expanded and I met some people, I met Lorraine. She had recently come into the store and she was the most beautiful thing in my life. I still wore the hearing aids. I don’t remember how big they were but they definitely were not BTEs, behind-the-ear. They were all in-the-ear and I was able to hear.

But I finally got them, and the world did not collapse, the world expanded. 
 

The thing that I missed the most in the sixties and fifties when I grew up was missing all the words from the music. And that was the days of message music: the words. I mean, it was The Revolution, especially when I came to California. And I didn’t have it [hearing aids]. 

Did you still listen to it?

Did the best I could, I mean, I heard the melody, but the words were the message. And often I tease myself and others, “If I had been hearing well, who knows, maybe I could have been a big rock star.” I didn’t much mileage out of that, but I said to myself, “God, could you imagine if I were able to hear The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Blood Sweat and Tears” – all the songs that we know, that people knew at the time, was the message.

But what I neglected to say was, I must have heard something, because I came from Washington DC where I had gone to law school – studied law at George Washington, I worked for the United States government in the justice department and did an internship during law school – I came to California to visit, and even though all the career I had planned for me all fell into Washington, they went bye-bye because I moved to San Francisco, waved goodbye to Washington, ended up living in Berkeley.

I lived in Berkeley on Panoramic Way behind the stadium. I worked in the dress shop, I met people, I must have been with the music enough, because somehow, I got it – even though I didn’t know the words. 

Was there a particularly low point?

I don’t think I was ever belittled for not wearing them – I mean, I dressed cool, I was 6’ 1”, I had long hair, I was well spoken which people to this day cannot believe could happen, how is it that you got to be the way you are without wearing a hearing aid.

I have adopted the letters H, I, P, to represent us as a referral group. We know from our experiences in another time, hip was cool. I have adopted that as my demographic for the people that I’m helping now. The other demographic is everybody else. I refer to them as hearing-at-risk-people, HARPs. You’re either HIP or you will be. You are one of my people, I am one of your people, and what we share as a HIP, is a common understanding of a way of life that cannot be discussed, described, you either are HIP and live it, or you aren’t.

You are one of my people, I am one of your people, and what we share as a HIP, is a common understanding of a way of life that cannot be discussed, described, you either are HIP and live it, or you aren’t.
 

It’s like, in a sense, when you meet somebody, for example – I am an old-fashioned Jewish guy. When I meet someone who is of Jewish faith, I understand them and their families and their extended families going back 5,000 year. Or if I’m Asian, or if I’m Black – you understand the horrors and the good of the black person because you are Black.

The same thing applies to being HIP. The people who look at us when we say, “What?” The people who look at us and say, “They’re stupid, they didn’t get it,” instead of you saying, “I didn’t hear you, or I’m hard of hearing, or I’m HIP, could you please speak up? Please face me when you talk to me; please slow down; please turn the music up or down or in-between.” It’s that commonality when you listen to the TV, when you’re walking down the street. I’m HIP, I wear hearing aids, I know what it’s like to have the batteries go bad. Or maybe you have to take them out at a beach or a pool or something and you can’t, you can’t be communicating with the rest of the people. You’re in your own, silent world. You know, as a little girl what it’s like, it’s the same thing my sister went through: “What’s the matter with you? You deaf?” 

It’s that commonality when you listen to the TV, when you’re walking down the street. I’m HIP, I wear hearing aids, I know what it’s like to have the batteries go bad. Or maybe you have to take them out at a beach or a pool or something and you can’t, you can’t be communicating with the rest of the people.
 

I had a young fella, oh gosh, probably two or three, come up to me starts looking in my ear and I said, “Can I tell you what they are?”, and he ran away. He ran away. Because he was too young and he thought I had something growing out of my ear. And I felt bad.

These are the kinds of events that, as a HIP person, you may run into, you may not. It’s just those things that make us different from non-HIP. I’m acutely aware having lived with it, and part of my job is – I, too, am an advocate for hearing impaired people. I, too, am an advocate for change.

I was in the Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, working out, and one day I wanted to take the robe and go into the hot tub. I realized that in order for me to do that, I had to take both hearing aids off for fear of getting them wet. So here I am, I’m taking my hearing aids off, I put them in the locker, I’m walking down the hallway, bathing suit, wanting to go to the hot tub, and people will start to ask me questions. And I’m, “…”, looking at them, and they’re looking at me.

Can you visualize this? 

(Laughs) Yea, I think about that all the time. It’s a problem.

This is grossly embarrassing! What am I gonna say? Innocent people trying to be friendly! And I’m looking at them, and they’re looking at me, and I’m walking to the hot tub. I don’t go there because I’m not willing to put myself through that horror of walking down the hallway and people who don’t know me saying “Hi” and being friendly. 

I don’t go there because I’m not willing to put myself through that horror of walking down the hallway and people who don’t know me saying “Hi” and being friendly. 
 

What do you think having this hearing loss has taught you about life, what does it mean to you?

I was different, and I needed help to get along. The more help I got, the better I get along. In this house, when I take my hearing aids off at night, it’s hard to deal with a hearing-impaired person. I can’t hear. If I can’t hear, I frustrate people.

I was different, and I needed help to get along.
 

Probably to be more kind to people as human beings. Count the blessings that you have. If you have opportunities to increase your chances for blessings, for example, by buying new hearing aids or changing the batteries then do it, so that you can be a productive member of society, so that you can be aware, so that you can learn, so that it is easier for you to deal with people more readily, and know what is going on around you.

...do it, so that you can be a productive member of society, so that you can be aware, so that you can learn, so that it is easier for you to deal with people more readily, and know what is going on around you.
 

But know that you can’t change it. You have to be willing to accept improvement in the environment. And for me, as a thinking person, improvement is actually essential to my existence. Because I know what it’s like to take these things out and not be able to communicate.

I’m more aware of more things than perhaps I would have been if I had normal hearing. I’m more aware of the human condition, going not just for hearing loss, but visual loss, mental instability. It’s different to miss a human sense. It’s one of the five senses. We humans are given five senses, like other living things. If you are missing one of those senses, you’re still a dog, you’re still a human, that doesn’t change, but how you live your life on a long-term basis changes.

I’m more aware of the human condition, going not just for hearing loss, but visual loss, mental instability. It’s different to miss a human sense.
 

The dog that has three legs has to work a little harder to get fed.

Programmer, Father, 40's, early onset: Cause Unknown