Getting to the Root of the Problem

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1754, acrylic painting

Q: So when you started school, people recognized that you had some sort of problem, some sort of hearing problem?

ReeL: Not a hearing problem, no one looked at it that way, which was part of the problem: what they saw was a speech problem. They sent me to speech therapists. When I started school I was sent to remedial speech classes in the special ed program.

Q: But didn’t people think the speech thing might be based on a hearing thing?  Isn’t that sort of a common connection to make? 

ReeL: Yes, but. I passed all the tone-based hearing tests, after all, I could always hear something. No one thought to try and analyze what I heard. And typically they only tested the boundary ranges, which I had no trouble with whatsoever. So to their mind, my hearing looked totally normal. Nothing was suspected on that level until I was 15 and a sophomore in high school when a tester randomly took a full spectrum hearing test on one out every 400 pupils and I happened to be that one in four hundred that she tested that way. This triggered a full-spectrum re-test, and then a more thorough round of tests.

But when I was very young. It was obvious I had a problem: I  stammered, I had clear difficulties pronouncing a lot of words, my enunciation was almost incomprehensible to many people. I covered the lack of consonant differentiation by slurring all the consonants together and talking very rapidly.  This partially masked my lack of differentiation, because when you do that the distinct consonants are more difficult to distinguish by the listener, at least consciously, they don’t see a differentiation problem, it just sounds like bad enunciation, which is a common speech problem.

This all happens, by the way, quite unconsciously.  You are highly motivated to get out of special ed, which was quite stigmatized when I was a kid,  to get out of any stigma, to sound normal, so you start masking the problem in any way possible. At first, they sent me to remedial speech sessions every day in the special ed section.   But then I was able to quickly mask my difficulties.

Looking back on it, it seems to me that  I definitely did not want to be in the special ed program.

Q: So no one tried to get to the root of it all, the hearing problem.

ReeL: No one tried, as far as I could tell, to get to the bottom of the problem, to the hearing thing. But you can’t blame them. Stammering, for example, is often interpreted as partly psychological, so they were looking more for evidence of some sort of abuse or something.

Q: Was there?

ReeL:   Unfortunately, Yes. My mother had broken my collar bone when she knocked me off a chair when I was 5. The doctor reported it. There was an abuse investigation; but that is another story. However, it did probably derail any attempt to look for a hearing problem.  The school people probably thought, “well, he’s coming out of an abuse situation, so that’s the root of it all. No need to look for anything further.  Throw him in with the slow kids.”  That’s pretty much how it went in those days.

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