She was lip reading.
Born with bilateral sensorineural (severe-to-profound) hearing loss, Anais “Annie” Keenon identifies herself as a hard-of-hearing individual who can lip read, speak with a slight deaf accent, and—and after taking courses in college—sign in American Sign Language (ASL).
Lip reading, on the other hand, was a skill Keenon acquired naturally. And although it has helped her adapt to her hearing loss, it hasn’t been an easy journey—especially in school.
“To understand where I am now, you must know where I’ve been,” Keenon says. “I wasn’t always accepting of my hearing loss. Before this, I was angry; and before I was angry, I was scared.”
Keenon’s parents, like many parents of deaf or hard-of-hearing children, were not aware of their daughter’s condition until she was more than two years old.
“I didn’t laugh until I was six months old,” Keenon says. “I couldn’t hear anything to laugh at. It wasn’t until I was six months old and my mom was tickling me that I first laughed.”
When Keenon was two years old, her grandmother suggested taking her to a doctor to test her hearing. The first doctor insisted that Keenon was simply a quiet child. Months later, Keenon was still silent.
Her parents returned to the doctor to find that their daughter needed hearing aids.
Keenon’s doctor referred the family to the Tucker-Maxon Oral School in Portland, Oregon, where she could learn to communicate despite her hearing loss. It was through a mutual friend from Tucker-Maxon that Keenon met her lifelong friend Allison Wessells, who started at the school the following year. The friends bonded over shared experiences—both were born with hearing loss.
Wessells’s parents learned of their daughter’s hearing loss when she was nine months old. They conducted an experiment by banging on pots and pans and shouting her name. No response.
Wessells didn’t cry, laugh, or yell amidst the commotion. After consulting several doctors, Wessells’s parents decided to raise their daughter as an oral deaf child instead of teaching her ASL.
“It was the hardest decision my parents had to make,” Wessells says. “There are pros and cons for both ASL and oral education, but either decision would, and did, define the rest of my life.”
At Tucker-Maxon, audiologists engaged Keenon and Wessells in speech therapy programs that emphasized oral education.
However, after a year at the school, Keenon’s parents worried that their daughter’s progress was insufficient.
“It was hard [at Tucker-Maxon] because the students learned English rather than ASL or a language more natural to them,” Keenon explains. “Because it took longer to understand the language, students sometimes seemed behind or unintelligent. It was as though the teachers felt the need to dumb things down for us.”
Despite conflicting advice from doctors, friends, and social workers, Keenon’s parents mainstreamed their daughter into a public preschool. From that point forward, Keenon struggled socially.
“I was different,” Keenon says. “I wore a fanny pack with wires connecting to my ears.”
Keenon endured years of teasing during her time in the public school system. Wessells says that her parents shielded her from a lot of bullying by enrolling her in a Jewish secondary school.
Both students agree that the times they felt singled out in class were the worst part about being hard of hearing in school.
“I hated it when my therapist observed me in class because all the other kids knew she was there for me,” Wessells says.
Throughout her schooling, Keenon succumbed to peer pressure in order to fit in.
“I really wanted to have a normal group of friends,” Keenon says. “The other kids led me to believe that if I climbed a wall, kissed a boy, or did any of their other dares that I’d be part of their clique.”
Carole Hildebrandt, Keenon’s fourth and fifth grade teacher, explains that throughout her schooling Keenon was forced to deal with feelings of isolation and rejection because of her lack of social interaction.
“[Keenon] felt alone, isolated, and outcast much of the time, though she tried hard to hide those feelings from others,” Hildebrandt says. “I worked to coach [Keenon] to be more assertive with classmates, to initiate conversations and relationships with others; to teach others how to communicate most effectively with a hard of hearing person.”
Keenon explains that even today, being a student of such a small minority is a struggle. She had never met another individual with hearing loss at a mainstream school until she came to college.
“College is supposed to be a diverse environment, but there are so few deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals that we spend most of our time trying to blend in,” Keenon says.
Wessells says there were academic challenges as well. Upon leaving Tucker-Maxon, she was asked to repeat first grade so she could adjust to her new cochlear implants.
The difficulties associated with Keenon and Wessells’s hearing loss elicited a myriad of responses over the years.
“I had a lot of anger growing up,” Keenon says. “[Wessells] is much more happy-go-lucky than I am, but even she had bad days.”
And some bad memories last longer than others.
“When I was in high school I was playing in a volleyball game and a referee blew the whistle without me noticing,” Wessells says. “Then he blew it again to signal that I had missed my chance and refused to let me serve again, even though everyone on my team told him I was hard of hearing. I had to vent a lot to get over that game.”
Keenon had similar moments, though she rebelled much earlier in life. She often refused to go to her speech therapy classes and even neglected the advice of her doctors.
To this day, Keenon resents people like the elementary school speech therapist who once pulled her out of class to write a letter to her future fourth grade teacher. Keenon was told that she had to explain her “problem” and ask for her soon-to-be teacher’s understanding.
“I felt like I was being forced to beg for indulgence,” Keenon says. “Halfway through writing the letter I started crying, and after the letter was written, I stood up and yelled at my speech therapist for an hour or so. I felt like she was dumbing me down and holding me back by treating me like something was wrong with me.”
Hildebrandt describes the conflict with Keenon and the speech therapist as a “personality mismatch.” She adds that it was a time in Keenon’s life where she struggled to find her voice.
So again, contrary to the advice of teachers and doctors, Keenon’s parents petitioned to remove her from speech therapy lessons. Keenon entered fourth grade knowing that she would no longer be pulled out of class.
Still, Keenon and Wessells have had to make many adjustments throughout their education.
Keenon recalls being in classes with audio equipment that she begged the teacher to ignore.
“I probably made my life harder,” Keenon says. “But I wanted to be as normal as possible.”
In order to compensate, Keenon reads each page of every textbook for every class she takes. She does this to understand the topic since she misses so much of what is taught in class. Questions from students sitting too far to lip read, films without subtitles, and guest speakers without PowerPoints are just a few of the hassles Keenon must overcome to receive a complete education.
On the first day of every class, Keenon will introduce herself to the teacher and explain that she is hard of hearing. Then she watches her teacher during the class and returns to talk to them after the lecture for a brief evaluation.
“I try to keep the criticism to a minimum,” Keenon says. “Teachers tend to think that when I ask them to not write on the board and talk at the same time, I’m criticizing their teaching. But really it’s just because if I can’t see you, I can’t hear you.”
Sometimes Keenon‘s teachers and peers forget that she needs to lip read. They’ll pace, fidget, or turn their back to her; and suddenly, she’s lost in the conversation.
Johanna Larson, a first-year ASL professor at the University of Oregon, is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) and hard-of-hearing herself. She explains that the biggest problem for a deaf or hard-of-hearing student to overcome is how often people forget.
“So many things that we learn in a day are because we overheard them in a conversation or passing by in the hallway,” Larson says. “If you can’t hear what people are saying, you miss a lot.”
Larson first learned the importance of communication when she was three years old. Her baby brother passed away late one night from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). When her mother ran to her neighbors for help, they all shied away.
“They were afraid of my mother,” Larson says. “All the neighbors were so scared of my deaf mother that they wouldn’t help as her child died.”
When the ambulance arrived it was too late. Emergency medical technicians assessed the situation and pronounced the infant dead. The exchange was cold and formal. The drivers spoke very little to Larson’s deaf parents, assuming they wouldn’t be able to understand what was said.
“I learned on that day that I needed to be able to communicate with the world,” Larson says.
Larson was also mainstreamed in school, where she learned to speak English and sign. She explains that for most deaf or hard-of-hearing students there are always challenges. They must decide whether to slip through the cracks or to “fight like hell to not be thought of as stupid.”
Because only 30 percent of deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals can read lips, many adapt using other methods.
“[People who can hear] can’t comprehend how exhausting it is to get all your information visually,” Larson says, as she can hear more than many other deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals.
“Imagine for a moment not being able to hear the world. You wouldn’t know if someone was speaking to you, yelling for a fire, or laughing at a joke, unless you turned around and looked at them.”
According to Larson, the biggest way to help a deaf or hard-of-hearing student is to practice awareness. Simply being conscious of how difficult it is for them on a day-to-day basis will help make their lives a little easier.
“There’s no simple solution,” Larson says. “Being deaf shouldn’t be considered a disability. It’s a linguistic minority that isn’t filled with broken people, as the term hearing-impaired would suggest. It’s simply a different way of communicating.”