Jaipreet Virdi, a woman with long dark hair, stands holding an ear trumpet to her right ear.

Ear Trumpets and Archives: An Interview with Jaipreet Virdi about Hearing Happiness

Thank you so much for this book. We’ve both been teaching on Technology & Disability for a few years now, and it’s incredible to see your research in this vein. How do you describe your book, Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History?

Hearing Happiness is both American history and a memoir about what it means to be deaf, both historically and in contemporary society. It pushes forward this idea about understanding what a cure means, in relation to disability, specifically deafness, and why within a societal pushback there is always a kind of resistance that creates tension between medical advancement and identity. So my book looks at these two parallel histories: the medical-technological history of scientific advancement, medical advancement, and progress, and the need for deaf people to assert and claim their identities. These tensions, when you put them together, create a fascinating history about medicalization of deafness, but also our idea of how we accept cure and how we constantly redefine what a cure means.

Nursing Clio’s tagline is “The Personal Is Historical.” I feel like your book is a real embodiment of this idea. How have your views about deafness and technology been shaped by how you did this research? How do you think about yourself as a historian through writing this?

You have to think about what your aim is when you are putting yourself in the story, like, what was the purpose of this? I knew this wasn’t going to be an autobiography. I’m always asking myself the question, am I looking at the story objectivity? Am I empathizing too much? It gets emotional sometimes when I’m in the archives, and I hear the trauma of some of the people I write about, or I read their own description of their struggles, and I can’t help but reflect on my own.

Cover of Hearing Happiness. (©University of Chicago Press)

I also use that as an advantage. It gives me a lens to analyze historical topics and subjects in a way I think other people might not have. I think about when my colleague and I were in Berlin, taking a walk around the Max Planck Institute and talking about material culture. My colleague told me that I should go to the museum and make an arrangement with the curator to test out some of the 19th-century ear trumpets, because not many scholars could write about that. It gives me an understanding of how people in the past might have used the technology. It gives me a really interesting vantage point to think about how these material histories become a crucial part of the overall history of medical treatment. I talk about bugging the curator to let me try them out –

– and he did not want to at first! I love that part of the book, where you describe convincing the curator.

– and I wouldn’t have known how the ear trumpet would work until I tested it out. And what was really fascinating about this particular instrument: you have a 19th-century, very basic tin trumpet, it’s simple, it’s not very complicated. In all the advertisements I have seen for this particular trumpet, you see a woman is often holding the trumpet very close to her body. But then whenever you see photographs of elderly people, they almost use the object in a kind of mockery, where their arms are extended and their whole body leans forward like they are straining to hear. When I was able to test out the trumpet, I realized just how crucial my body became in order to make the trumpet effective. The way I positioned my body, given the position of my ears, helped amplify the trumpet – something I did not know only from textual sources.

How does visibility and conspicuousness continue to play into the user’s experience of these technologies? And of how designers/audiologists imagine users?

Even the earliest commercial ear trumpet that emerged in the 19th century was promoted as having invisible features. Deafness can already be seen as an invisible disability unless it comes out in conversation, whether it’s observing people signing, or being left out of a social group. So 19th-century ear trumpets had all these features to disguise the trumpet on your body or in your clothing or even in your hat.

We see a shift in the 20th century with the emergence of the electric hearing aid. Until the 1930s, many of them were basically boxes, very “technological looking.” Nobody was really thinking about the aesthetic appeal of the hearing aids as much as they were trying to improve sound clarity and amplification. But by the time miniature vacuum tubes were becoming popular in the 1930s, we see a shift where hearing aid designers were thinking more and more about the aesthetics of the device: you see different shapes, different colors, you see things like art deco designs imprinted on them. I have a rose gold one with like a little gold grate; it’s stunning. But all the marketing for these devices show that they were supposed to be hidden: you wore them in body harnesses, you put them away in a purse, you camouflaged them in your hair. So what was the point of making them this beautiful to hide them?

This is when the shift comes in, when you have an identity versus a cultural expectation, in which a deaf user purchased a device because it looked beautiful, because they were told it will help them, because it will be hidden on the person. But social expectations mean that they still have to be invisible. So the Sonotone earrings and necklaces, and hair clips and tie clips were really about hiding certain features of the devices, but the wires were still a dead giveaway that you were wearing a hearing aid.

Do you notice any trends in how deaf and hard-of-hearing people, when they design things, do it differently? (I’m thinking particularly about the teaser in your interview with Alice Wong – talking about future work around tinkering and DIY modification.)

That’s a great question. This new project picks up where I left off in Hearing Happiness. All of these companies were making these products and advertising them, but what were users doing? Part of the reason I started working on this project is because I was learning that people weren’t always upgrading to the new technology, but working to maintain, to have a device as long as possible. They’re not upgrading due to the economic factors, financial consideration, class, etc. But what I find really interesting is that often user-driven design seems to be focused on aesthetics – you take a really boring product and you make it interesting. The equivalent today would be people who bedazzle their hearing aids. So I’m looking at the kind of history to see how users viewed the intimate relationship between the body and the technology that they wore on the body, and how the DIY hacking, so to speak, is always present when we think about disability technology.

Hope is a recurring theme in the sales of deafness cures in history, one that often betrays deaf and disabled people in particular ways. Many of the advertisements and sales pitches of hearing tech (as well as surgical intervention) feature this idea of hope – the hope to be cured, to be normal. I see your book as a historical-personal way of pressing back. What do you see as other work in this vein – that is, shifting public perception, changing rhetoric, being able to just be as we are?

When I was in the archives looking at newspapers announcing new treatments for deafness – whether a surgical treatment, a new fad, a hearing aid – like 70% of the time the word hope was in the title: “New Hope for the Deaf,” over and over again, and it still continues. Looking at cochlear implant advertisements in the 1990s and early 2000s, same thing: new hope for the deaf. And I bet if I look closely at recent CRISPR genetic engineering technology, we’ll see this same rhetoric.

The problem with this rhetoric is that it constantly promotes the idea that deafness is something that needs to be fixed, whether through medicine or technology. In all of these, there lies the idea that you have to fix it, have to be cured, rather than just accepting it. And that becomes problematic. I think this does something to you, and it makes deafness constantly stigmatized. It also makes it difficult for deaf and hard of hearing people to advocate for themselves.

My last question for you, because I am interviewing for you for Nursing Clio, is about the weird relationship between illness and disability. So many people are disabled in the course of being ill, but disability and illness can be different things. How do you think about the relationship, and not just causal here, between ideas about cures for illnesses and ideas about cures for disability, especially in the way things are pursued in the medical establishment and then maybe marketed or put out into the wider media sphere?

It’s something that I struggled with when I was writing the book, as someone trained in disability history and the history of medicine. I think it also depends on how we approach disease history as well. Of course there are some diseases and disorders – cancer, smallpox, measles, COVID – that we would like to be treated, but these are also diseases that create disability. We have to acknowledge that. It makes for more interesting scholarship to address this complexity. I’m working on a collection with scholars right now about whether disease and disability can have a conversation or not. Right now I don’t really have a direct answer to your question, because it is complicated, but we definitely need to explore this tension.

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