Q&A with Jaipreet Virdi
Below is an interview with Jaipreet Virdi, Assistant Professor at the Department of History at the University of Delaware where she teaches courses on disability histories, the history of medicine, and health activism. Jaipreet has a new book coming out September 15, 2020, Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History (University of Chicago Press) that you can pre-order now. Enjoy!
Tell me a little about yourself!
My name is Jaipreet Virdi. I am a South Asian Canadian, the oldest of five children born to Sikh parents in Kuwait. When I was four years old, I became seriously ill from meningitis and was hospitalized for several months; during that period, I lost my hearing and ability to walk. Rehabilitation helped to regain my mobility and a few years later, I received hearing aids. I spent my education primarily in mainstream schools or in special classes for the deaf/hard-of-hearing, where I also received speech therapy to regain my English and improve my stutter. I received my degrees in Ontario, Canada: my Bachelor’s in the philosophy of science from York University, and my Masters and Doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine, from the University of Toronto. I’ve taught history of medicine and disability history at various universities and now I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware. I currently live in Newark, DE, with my partner Geoff—who is also a professor at the same university—and my hearing service dog, Lizzie.
You are a historian of medicine, technology, and disability at the University of Delaware. What led you to become a historian and how has D/deaf and disability studies influenced your scholarship as a historian?
I didn’t plan to be an academic (laughs). Growing up, I wanted to be a novelist, but then as an undergrad, I didn’t really know what to major in. Philosophy of science seemed interesting and I had a professor who was working on animal consciousness – especially dolphins – and I was fascinated by that and thought I was going to pursue further studies on that front, but then when I started my masters I became really fascinated by history of medicine.
When I was writing my course paper on the anatomy and dissection in Victorian Britain, I came across a textbook from the period; it was about deafness and that was the first text I’ve come across that looked at deafness from an anatomical and physiological point of view. It intrigued me, because up to that point, I never really thought about deafness from an academic context; it was just something that happened to me and something I lived with. That textbook inspired me to do my dissertation on nineteenth century quackery and deafness within the field of aural surgery (19th century term for ear specialty), to ask questions about how and why medical practitioners were either battling or working with educators for control over deaf bodies. To understand the medical history, I knew I needed to know more about deaf history and disability studies; reading in these fields helped me to better historicize how deafness came to be medicalized and why it was such a contested issue. I’m now reworking this dissertation for my second book, Medicalizing Deafness: Aural Surgery in Nineteenth Century Britain.
You are the author of a new book, Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History (September 15 2020, University of Chicago Press). Congratulations! What led you to write about deafness cures as your first book?
A historian spends a lot of time in the archives and the process of discovering material can lead to new paths. While working on my dissertation, for example, and searching for nineteenth century advertisements for patent medicines promising quick cures for deafness I would come across advertisements for hearing aids. These hearing aids adverts didn’t have anything to do with my project but were incredibly fascinating, so I would file them away for a later project. Sometimes I shared archival findings on my blog, “From the Hands of Quacks,” which often led to lively discussions with readers – either via email or on Twitter – about the nature of deafness cures.
When I graduated from University of Toronto with my doctorate, I had a lot of time to figure out what I wanted to do next. There aren’t a lot of academic jobs. I was teaching part-time but wasn’t making enough to live on. Nor did I want to spend years hoping to land a coveted tenure-track positions, so I gave myself three years to see what kind of career I could make in academia. The first thing I really wanted to do was write and publish a book – not my dissertation, because after working on it for five years, I was sick of it and needed a break – but a book on all the files of deafness cures I encountered during the course of my research that I never ended up writing about. I thought it the topic was crucial and relevant, because at the time—in 2014—I was seeing an increasing amount of “hearing-for-the-first-time” videos and reports about genetic engineering, and the problems deaf people had with regards to obtaining access. All of these varying issues, for me, kept echoing the messages that I was seeing in the nineteenth century advertisements; I kept going back to the same questions, over and over: What does it mean to be cured? Why this obsession with curing deafness?
What was the process like researching and writing this book? What was it like working with an editor and seeing this book from its original proposal to now in its final form?
Historical research takes a long time; writing, perhaps longer. I began crafting the structure of the book in 2014, then pitched my proposal to several academic presses. While I wanted for reviewers’ reports, I headed to the archives to uncover more examples and stories about deafness cures in medicine and technology. These reports are useful for highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the book; good reports—which I received—provide guidance for how an author can improve on their book. My editor was incredibly supportive for my need to think about different and accessible ways to write this history. I had a manuscript done by 2016 but illness (I was diagnosed with stage-4 endometriosis and hospitalized for weeks) and a move to the U.S. delayed the revisions and edits. It took several months before I was able to get back to working on the manuscript and improve it for publication. It was an interesting experience: there’s a lot of revisions and back-and-forth dialogue with the editor to figure out what aspects of the book work, what doesn’t; what’s readable and interesting; what’s boring and dry. I wanted to write a book that anyone could read and understand without being lost in academic jargon. This required me to also re-learn the craft of writing!
You include your own personal story of how you became deaf and growing up deaf in this book—as a historian, was that a difficult decision? Why was it important for you to situate yourself as a person with lived experience in this book?
One of the reviewers’ reports to my early manuscript commented that while the book is interesting, it lacked my voice. Honestly, I didn’t understand what that meant. The only thing I could think of was to insert my own story alongside that of the deaf people I was writing about, but then I wondered if I was compromising my historical integrity. Would telling my story muddle the objective stance I held as a historian? Would I be overly sympathetic to my research subjects and thus muddle historical facts? Truthfully, this was the hardest part of the book, trying to figure out if I wanted my story told, and then, to find a balance between writing a memoir and lyrical history. Did I want too much of my self revealed in my first book, the book that was going to tell the world who I am?
But then when I wrote the opening passage, as the tears flowed down my cheeks, I felt empowered. I felt like all the internal ableism, all the pain from trying—and failing—to pass as hearing, the speech therapy, the bullying, the awkwardness, all of it, came out of me. Hearing Happiness is my coming out story as a deaf woman. It’s also a way for us to think about and write history.
Cures and treatments for any kind of disability can be fraught—there’s the fear of erasure of cultures and communities and yet they are wanted and expected by many. How do attitudes toward cures express changes in social attitudes toward deafness and D/deaf communities throughout history?
Well, let’s consider the hearing-for-the-first-time videos as an example. Nondisabled people love these videos: the triumph of scientific medicine and advanced technology, the emotional reaction by the people in the videos, and of course, the overcoming of disability. This deaf person can hear now! is the message. They can be normal! What a miracle!
Since cochlear implants (CI) were first invented and approved by the FDA for widespread commercial use—first in adults only, then in children—the optimistic idea was that this technology was not just a prosthesis, but a technological cure that delivers the deaf person sound. It doesn’t. CI don’t replicate the natural sense of sound, but they are tools to help a deaf person navigate their surroundings and discern between different sound sources while learning speech cues. For many deaf persons who are implanted, the “switch-on factor,” as I call it, is not easy: therapy and training is required to adjust to the sounds. There’s also the exorbitant costs and complex medical decisions that go into selecting CI, and some cannot bear to wear them all day. If CI is a cure, as optimistically stated in media, what happens then, if the deaf person turns them off or removes it—are they no longer cured?
And it’s not just CI.
My research has also shown that each time a new “deafness cure” is introduced, it is sensationalized widely and promoted as the new “hope.” What is this hope supposed to be for? Eradicating deafness? Something that most people have adjusted to during their lifetime and managed just fine with the assistance of hearing aids, cochlear implants, lip-reading, or sign-language? There is a rich Deaf culture and community that demonstrates how diversity livens our relationships with each other and deepens our understanding of oppression. A community that, as many scholars and Deaf people have shown, has come a long way from marginalization and demonstrated their unique success. So why this “hope?” Truth be told, this debate is on the meaning of deafness, with the pendulum swinging between diversity and impairment. And this debate is centered on a fundamental demarcation: that one group in society perceives deafness as a disability to be “fixed,” while the other sees it as a culture, but the former group holds a disproportionate amount of power.
Furthermore, deafness is not a life-threatening condition. And as sociologist Laura Mauldin has shown in her book, most deaf children are born to hearing parents who might not be familiar with Deaf culture and are told that their child’s deafness is a medical issue to be corrected. Even my own parents responded the same way; why would they not? It’s only natural for a parent to want to make sure their child is healthy and grows up to be a self-sufficient adult. But if the messages parents are being told is that the deafness is a medical problem that needs to be fixed, of course it seems the only option is to recourse to surgery, implantation, and even genetic engineering.
I get frustrated when these “hope for deaf” stories are circulating because they continue to propagate the notion that deafness is a condition that needs to be “fixed,” even though many deaf people—and disabled people more broadly—do not see themselves as broken or in a need of a fix. Ableism and the cultural emphasis on “normalcy” are the reasons why stories like CRISPR cures for deafness are sensationalized, but in so doing, they blur more complicated issues about the technologies themselves. There is no guarantee that genetic engineering will eradicate hereditary deafness nor any certainty that it will not cause any further complications. Moreover, this is essentially at the core, a form of cultural genocide. Many Deaf people have hereditary deafness and consider themselves as part of a community with a strong identity and language; to argue that this needs to be “avoided” at the level of genetics is an affront to generations of Deaf people who do not perceive themselves to be genetic defects.
There are some zany and fascinating illustrations in your book featuring various devices, technologies, and cures. We can laugh about them now but they were considered cutting-edge developments. What is important for people to keep in mind when looking back at the evolution of treatment and cures?
My research has shown me that people will always seek out cures if they want them. The kinds of cures that are available are not always safe or even necessary, but they at least addressed a need. Whenever cures—even zany ones as “airplane diving”—were promoted through the media, they presented another avenue for trying to treat deafness. We can’t dismiss these choices as mere sensations or ridiculous medicine, but acknowledge that their popularity is reflective of a society’s values—in this specific case, audism and ableism, that prompted many deaf people to try to pass as normal, as hearing.
As you combed through archives and museums for your book, what are some of your most surprising discoveries that people should know about?
Honestly, the most surprising discovery I made was that early hearing aid companies also marketed their own electrotherapy devices! During the early twentieth century, electricity was perceived as a powerful life force that could be applied to the body through vibration or massage to dislodge blockages and treat diseases and illnesses. Hearing aid companies during the 1920s were introducing more powerful electric hearing aids that they advertised as necessary for doing away fraudulent deafness cures. There would be no need for these electrotherapy gizmos then. But these companies knew that their technologies were finicky and problematic and that many of their customers got frustrated with their hearing aids; so they started marketing their own brand of electrotherapy devices, promising to their customers that even if the hearing aid fails, they had another solution handy!
This showed me that the process of technological development isn’t linear: hearing aids didn’t emerge to displace older “quack” electric cures.
Were there any notable objects or treatments created by D/deaf people from your research?
Lots of deaf people devised their own solutions, whether it was a homebrewed herbal remedy, a modification of an electric device, prostheses, or even housing cases for their hearing aids. My favorite story is that of J.C. Chester from Montana, a deaf-mute who learned to speak but could not get rid of the guttural sounds in his speech. Believing that telephones could transcend the barrier between man and machine, in 1897 Chester affixed a telephone to his body in a harness, and attached the receiver to his ear—when speakers talked to him, sound travelled through the wires to the receiver. He was known as the “living telephone,” but in actuality, it’s likely he made use of existing technologies to develop an electric hearing aid.
What are some devices and technologies you use today for your hearing and what do you love and hate about them?
I’ve worn analog hearing aids for twenty-five years. For twenty-five years, I taught myself to identify the location of sounds, improve my speech, and hear on the telephone. Then, analog hearing aids were no longer being produced by companies, and there were no repair shops for fixing them if mine ever broke. I had no choice but to adapt to digital hearing aids. Honestly, I was pretty excited about my first pair—the Phonak Naida—because they were so small! So light! I’ve never owned a hearing aid that didn’t hurt my ears after a long day of wearing them. But with this consciousness came a terrible trade-off: migraines for months as my brain adapted to hearing digitally, losing auditory cues, and not being to hear on the telephone anymore because of frequency incompatibility. This by far, was the worst. I can sort-of still hear on the telephone, but only for a few minutes and it’s a struggle that drains my energy for hours after.
The thing about digital hearing aids is that not only are they expensive—my first pair cost upwards of $6,000 and much of that was covered by the Ontario health insurance plan as well as other programs—but they have a shelf life. They didn’t even last three years before they completely fell apart. When it was time for new ones, I demanded to be matched to a pair that gave me the same auditory range as I did with analog hearing aids; I wear ReSound now. They’re fine. Heavy, migraine-triggering, but fine.
What are aspects of D/deaf history that need more attention and research? What would you like to explore in the future?
One of the most exciting projects on my plate is on the concept of tinkering. I’m researching how deaf people engineered and modified their own hearing aids in a DIY-fashion to troubleshoot technological failures or improve performance; I’m also researching the gendered dimensions of tinkering, from how women made purses or harnesses to attach their body-worn hearing aids to improve their ability to work, and how soldiers refashioned fabrics to protect their hearing aids so they didn’t get damaged on the battlefront. This project will uncover hidden histories of inventors and creators as well as a deaf history that has yet to be told!
Jaipreet Virdi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Delaware whose research specializes on the ways medicine and technology impact the lived experiences of disabled people. She is author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History, co-editor of Disability and the Victorians: Attitudes, Interventions, Legacies, managing editor of the Disability History Association’s blog, All of Us, and creator of Deaf History Series. You can find her on Twitter as @jaivirdi or visit her website.
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