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Monday, July 26, 2021

Exploring Strange New Worlds with a Hearing Loss • by Carol Scheina


I have my hearing loss to blame for my love of science fiction and fantasy.

I became deaf at age 5—the medical term is bilateral profound hearing loss resulting from a hereditary gene. After I was diagnosed, my parents fitted me with rather large behind-the-ear hearing aids that amplified what little hearing I still had. This was a challenging time, as my brain had to learn how to translate these strange new sounds into something recognizable. Television, with its closed captioning, became my greatest ally. I could hear the muffled sound on the television, and the captioning would tell me what I was hearing.

Back in those olden days of my childhood, closed captioning was fed into the TV through a decoder box, which was finicky and wouldn’t always work. Plus, not every show was captioned. But there was one show that consistently displayed words on the screen: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The captions zoomed by fast, so I had to learn to scan words quickly. I also didn’t always understand the language—big words were thrown about like rendezvous, anomaly, and futile—but I kind of picked up the gist of things. What’s more, I could read every glorious sound. At first, the show’s appeal was the novelty of being able to follow along with the dialogue, but little by little, I grew to love the characters, especially chief engineer Geordi La Forge, who wore an electronic visor to see just like I wore electronic aids to hear. (Confession: I totally girl-crushed on LeVar Burton and even fashioned my own visor using a banana hair clip and yarn, looping it around my hearing aids.)

Star Trek wasn’t always on, so I turned to books for additional entertainment. On my parent’s shelf were ancient copies of Alice in Wonderland and The Tin Woodman of Oz that I read over and over. In the library at school, I found endless other stories to take me to strange new worlds and to boldly go where I’d never gone before. Thus began my love with sci-fi and fantasy.

I didn’t try my hand at writing speculative stories until many, many years later, after my son was born and I started wondering what books he would read. Which reminded me that the childhood books I read, while wonderful, also didn’t quite capture my world. I never read about a character needing to change a dead hearing aid battery right when the teacher started giving test instructions. Or a character pulling out of a hug to proclaim her love (because whispering romantically into an ear doesn’t work if you’ve got a hearing loss; facial contact is needed).

I wanted to write a book that young me would’ve loved to have read.

My first attempt was a young adult novel with a deaf protagonist who could read minds, but only when she took her hearing aids out. With this story, I explored the idea of someone being the most powerful when the world considered her the most disabled. The main character was very much young me, right down to the frizzy hair, and to be honest, it wasn’t a well-written book. (Hey, it was my first!) But the story started my journey of letting my imagination run rampant on the page and finding ways to drop in more characters with a hearing loss.

I want to throw in a caveat here that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to hearing loss. Hearing loss can span a wide range, from mild to profound, affecting one or both ears, appearing at birth or any other point in life. There’s the Deaf culture (always capital D), with its beautiful visual language and history and traditions. There are those who lipread and communicate orally, as my parents raised me, though I learned ASL later in life. (For an excellent overview of writing deaf and hard of hearing characters, I highly recommend reading Melanie’s Ashford’s article, How to Write Deaf or Hard of Hearing Characters on the subject.) My dream was to capture as many different shades of hearing loss as I could.

How did hearing loss shape my writing besides wanting to throw more deaf and hard of hearing characters into the speculative world? One way is through my word choice. An early rejection I received noted my prose was rather weak. Not one to take such a defeat, I rolled up my sleeves and began to work on that.

My writing tends to veer toward words in my comfort zone of hearing. For example, take an adjective like “huge.” The softer sounds are harder for me to pick up, and the mouth shapes are more subtle, making it more challenging to lipread. I prefer “big,” with its strong sounds and easy-to-lipread mouth shape. Now, I know other synonyms, but I’d use “big” over and over again. There were so many words I found myself using repetitively, and I needed to train myself to be wild and daring and use “ginormous” instead! It’s something I’m still working on even today.

While vocabulary may have been something I had to think about, visual description could come easier. After all, I spend every day staring at the tiniest details regarding mouth shapes, facial expressions, and any other visual cues to fill in my auditory gaps. Additionally, knowing the context of what’s going on around me helps with conversation, so I try to take in as much detail as I can about the environment. How much harder could it be to take those details and drop them into my stories? (Okay, it wasn’t that easy. I still had to work at it to make sure my descriptions were effective!)

Over the years, it’s been exciting to see more stories featuring deaf and hard of hearing characters, including the Newbery Honor children’s book El Deafo by Cece Bell, which I highly recommend. After my son read it, I confessed that, just like in the book, I had an assistive device that let me hear the teacher in the bathroom—a deaf superpower!

Still, I want to see more stories out there. For deaf and hard of hearing characters to take to the stars, to travel to magical new lands, and to be the hero that a little girl watching Star Trek dreamed about. That’s what sent me on my writing journey in the first place.

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Carol Scheina
is a deaf speculative fiction author whose work has appeared in an array of publications since her first professional-rate story was published in early 2020. That story, Once More With Feeling (Daily Science Fiction), featured a violinist coping with sudden hearing loss. 

Since then, she’s had other short stories and microfiction sales, including: Like Grandma Made (Bards and Sages), The Food Critic (Theme of Absence), The Pieces that Bind (On the Premises), The Midwife (Luna Station Quarterly), The Fruits of Sisterhood (Daily Science Fiction), Death Poems of the Folded Ones (Escape Pod Flash Fiction Contest), I Can Be a Hero Too (Daily Science Fiction), We Wait for a Better Future (The Arcanist), The Sweetest Things (All Worlds Wayfarer), Would You Like Fries With That? (Stupefying Stories), The Family Business (Stupefying Stories), Long-Distance Relationship (Stupefying Stories), and Just Like Before (Stupefying Stories). 

Carol also works as a writer/editor in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. In her career, she has won a Blue Pencil Award from the National Association of Government Communicators and a Silver Inkwell Award from the International Association of Business Communicators and was recognized as an Outstanding Department of Defense Disabled Employee of the Year in 2005. Carol has an amazing husband who is always willing to give her stories a second read and two fantastic kids with the best imaginations ever. She also lives with a tuxedo cat who likes to walk over the computer and mess everything up, but he’s cute so he can get away with it. She grew up in a magical spot in Virginia with a creek and a woods and plenty of scope for the imagination.

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