I AM SITTING in my office during a summer internship. Absorbed by my computer screen, I do not notice when my manager enters the room, much less when he starts talking. Only when a sudden hand taps my shoulder do I jump. He is gazing expectantly at me.
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in," I say.
"Oh, right." His expression changes: to surprise, and then to caution. He proceeds to say something that looks like, "Would you graawl blub blub vhoom mwarr hreet twizzolt, please?" I haven't the faintest idea what he said. I have no excuse, for I was looking straight at him. But despite my attention, something went wrong. He spoke too fast; my eyes lost focus.
"Um, could you repeat that, please?" I ask.
His eyebrows raise, but he nods and says it again. I sit up straighter, attempt to concentrate, but again it reaches my eyes as a garbled mess.
"It's fine," he answers. "I'll send you an email."
Well, at least I understood that part, I think as he walks out.
Lipreading, on which I rely for most social interaction, is an inherently tenuous mode of communication. It's essentially a skill of trying to grasp with one sense the information that was intended for another. When I watch people's lips, I am trying to learn something about sound when the eyes were not meant to hear.
Spoken words occur in my blind spot, a vacancy of my perception. But if I watch a certain way, I can bring them into enough focus to guess what they are. The brain, crafty as it is, fills in the missing information from my store of knowledge.
Want an example?
---- the ---- before --------- when ------------- the house
not --- cre --------------------- even ---- m------
Do you recognize the opening of "The Night Before Christmas"? Perhaps so, because in American culture the poem is familiar enough for one to fill in the blanks through memory. Filling in the blanks is the essence of lipreading, but the ability to decipher often depends on factors outside of my control.
IT IS MY FIRST WEEK as a freshman at Stanford, and I feel lost. Instead of coasting through routine interactions with people familiar to me, I have thrown myself into a place where almost nothing is predictable. I sit down at a table of strangers. One of them, I realize, is the guy from the room next to mine. "What's your name?" I ask him.
He answers, but I frown.
"Could you say that again?" I say.
He does, but I still do not understand. The name starts with a B, and ends with a Y, but it is not a name I have seen before. Bobby, Barry, Buddy—none of them match what I saw on his face.
My neighbor, sensing my struggle, mumbles, "Just call me Ben."
Later that day I find out his name is Benamy.
EVEN THE MOST skilled lipreaders in English, I have read, can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said. I believe this figure to be true. There are people with whom I catch almost every word—people I know well, or who take care to speak at a reasonable rate, or whose faces are just easier on the eyes (for lack of a better phrase). But there are also people whom I cannot understand at all. On average, 30 percent is a reasonable number.
But 30 percent is also rather unreasonable. How does one have a meaningful conversation at 30 percent? It is like functioning at 30 percent of normal oxygen, or eating 30 percent of recommended calories—possible to subsist, but difficult to feel at your best and all but impossible to excel. Often I stick with contained discussion topics because they maximize the number of words I will understand. They make the conversation feel safe. "How are you?" "How's school?" "Did you have a nice night?" Because I can anticipate that the other person will say "Fine, how are you?" or "Good," I am at lower risk for communication failure.
My companions could be discussing any topic in the universe: the particulate nature of matter, the child who keeps wetting the bed, the villa in Nice that they visited last summer. And, because the human mind is naturally erratic in conversation, ever distractible, ever spontaneous, this is just what will end up happening. How am I to predict the unpredictable? The infinity of the universe, and of man's mind, strikes me as immensely beautiful—but also very frightening.
I don't like superficial remarks and predictable rejoinders, but staying in shallow waters is better than sinking. So long as I preserve my footing, I keep up the appearance of being able to converse—to other people and, more important, to myself.
"YOU KNOW, you could be a spy," David, who lives in my dorm, tells me as we are sitting at brunch.
"Why do you say that?" I ask.
"Because"—he leans in excitedly—"because you could look through binoculars and lipread and understand everything people are saying!"
"Oh." I smile and cross my arms.
"Could you understand those people over there?" David points to a couple at another table. "Maybe," I say, without trying. I dare not explain that they're too far away.
THE TERM "LIPREADING" implies that the skill is, in a sense, exactly like reading—in which the words on the page are clear and perfectly legible. "Can you read my lips?" strangers ask when they meet me. (Never mind that the question is inherently illogical: If I couldn't lipread, how on earth could I answer?) As they ask it, I can see the other, unspoken questions reeling in their heads—What if she can't? What will I do then? Mime?
When I answer that, yes, I can lipread, they relax. Then they prattle on as if all preconditions are off. Because I can "read" their lips, I must therefore be able to "read" everything they say. After all, it would be absurd for me to protest that I can sometimes read the words in a book, but sometimes not. Either you can read, or you can't. (Likewise, either you can hear perfectly—meaning hear and understand everything—or you can't hear at all. Forget hearing aids and microphones and other assistive devices.)
"How did you learn to lipread?" is another common query. I do not have a satisfactory answer. The truth is, I can't explain it. No more than I could explain how I learned to walk, or than anyone else could explain how she learned to hear and understand language. "Practice," I usually answer. Since I entered a mainstreamed public school in first grade, there have been no other deaf people occupying center stage in my life. My world is primarily a hearing one, and I learned to deal with this reality at a very young age. There was no reason to sign with anyone besides close friends and family, no reason to expect anyone to communicate on my terms. Surrounded by hearing people all the time, my only option has been to adapt, and lipreading is the skill that I have practiced most.
But this answer is too simple. The foundation for my success with communication was laid in my earliest years, at a deaf preschool. That was perhaps the only time in my life when I experienced full communication access each day. Everyone—students, teachers, speech therapists, parents, siblings—signed. From ages 2 to 5, I lived, breathed and conversed with people like me—at least, as alike as a young child understands. There was no reason for me to doubt myself or my abilities, so I grew fluent and confident with language. I learned its nuances, its facial and emotional expressions. I learned that it was not inaccessible, as it would sometimes later seem.