Essay: Rendering Deafness Visible

Feb 19, 2024 | Blog, Publications

James Hutton, Scottish geologist, using an ear trumpet.

Essay “Rendering deafness visible”, The Lancet (13 February 2024): Image credits: Science Museum, London.

In 2023 professor Charles Fernyhough (Durham) organised an Art of Medicine section for The Lancet with essays by colleagues at the Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham. I wrote about my historical research into ear trumpets and the conversations I conducted with CI-wearers today in preparation for the Yo, doc, listen up! exhibition. Many thanks to Charles and Joanna Palmer for their constructive feedback and editing suggestions.

Entanglements in the Medical Humanities

Entanglements in the medical humanities by Charles Fernyhough

Storying self-harm by Veronica Heney

Picture an epidemic: contemporary culture and HIV by Fiona Johnstone

Sounding out the history of homosexuality by Fraser Riddell

and Rendering deafness visible by myself.


Rendering deafness visible

“I’m still reluctant to show my hearing impairment with pins and signs”, 66-year-old Henk van Rees admitted when he took part in one of my project focus groups. As part of this research I had organised online conversations about lived experiences of Deafness and hardness of hearing (DHH), with the support of speech-to-text and sign language interpreters. The participants in this particular group all used cochlear implants, but they recognised the desire to keep their hearing aids hidden from view. “I started using invisible hearing aids because I was ashamed”, Ingrid Cuppen explained. Awkward conversations and misunderstandings due to deafness can trigger feelings of shyness, insecurity, and embarrassment. Hearing loss is often more than a purely somatic condition. Disabling barriers in communication force hard-of-hearing people to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. Despite the support of effective hearing aids, trying to keep up with conversations requires great effort and can be difficult. Some people therefore avoid what can for them be demanding gatherings, but in doing so they may inadvertently deepen feelings of social isolation. “I kept people at a distance and fell into a depression”, Anita van der Weg recounted in the focus group.


Continue reading the essay at The Lancet.