Read between the lines

https://www.michigandaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Reading-between-the-lines-Reese-Martin-.mp3
Text-to-speech recording courtesy of Reese Martin.

Every night at 7:45 p.m. (my involuntary, adult-dictated bedtime), my mom would read my favorite book to coax my 4-year-old brain into sleep. Red and blue fish circled my head and matching letters swirled as she read…

“Have you ever piloted a kite in bed? Have you ever walked with ten cats on your head? Have you ever milked this kind of cow? Well, we can do that. We know how. If you’ve never done it, you should. These things are fun and fun…”

I never let my mother read an entire verse from a Dr. Seuss book without intervening. As she read the words, my little eyes darted back and forth between the lines – searching for words that I knew would eventually rhyme the lines together. Sometimes it looked like she had skipped a word or mispronounced a sentence, and I thought it best to take over so as not to slaughter the great literary work that was “One fish, two fish, fish red, blue fish”.

A decade later, I learned why I could never attend my mother’s story hours. I had trouble listening because of bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, a degenerative condition in which I lose the ability to hear volumes and frequencies over time. The diagnosis manifests differently in each person. Although some do not experience gradual loss with the conditionmine will continue to deteriorate indefinitely.

In 2020, when the pandemic started, my family and I first noticed my irregular hearing. I had trouble hearing others on Zoom calls and couldn’t hear the beep from our home thermometer anymore. Of course, the masks made conversations 10 times harder due to muffled sounds and the inability to read lips, a hidden talent I unknowingly possessed. Although the symptoms probably appeared earlier, the condition was hard to catch because my speech was unaffected, a common way to detect hearing loss in pediatric patients.

I think back to the countless nights spent with my mother reading Dr. Seuss and wonder if she really skipped rhymes. My complaints seemed sincere at the time, but I realize now that they were probably rooted in a deficiency that my young brain couldn’t comprehend.

Although my hearing loss is not absolute, it is severe enough to affect my daily functioning. Without my hearing aids, I find it difficult to keep up with teachers in class and strike up conversations with friends. My brain is tuned into indefinite overload, interpreting visual cues like lip reading and body language while simultaneously navigating everyday obstacles.

Despite the obvious negatives, my disability forced me to admire and understand literature in a way that complimented my experiences with hearing loss. I am drawn to the familiarity of literature because it is the space where I learned how to learn – lecturing me via textbooks and articles when it was hard to listen to my teachers in class. Reading is a beautiful and personal activity for me. I enjoy the raw interaction between the sentences, the page, and my mind – no hearing aids needed. The text is final; it is permanent. Spoken words easily get lost in air, time, memory and (for me) the interpretation of the moment. Writing is a preservation of those thoughts – often clearer than when they were first said.

In everyday conversation, I am at a disadvantage. But books are my safe space – a dimension I belong to and exist like everyone else. Yet, while literature can act as my personal utopia, reading and writing can be as exclusive to others as auditory content is to me.

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My family constantly encourages me to pursue my love of writing. They celebrate my every accomplishment and job along the way, probably sharing this article with friends and posting the printed copy on the fridge. While I am beyond grateful for their involvement, my writing unintentionally excludes one of my favorite people, and many more across the country.

My youngest brother struggled with severe dyslexia throughout his childhood. Dyslexia is a learning disability in which individuals are unable to translate letters and words into speech sounds. Reading and writing are my brother’s greatest challenges and, more often than not, his personal nightmares.

It’s easy for my brother to feel left out at school when other students discuss books and articles that are too difficult for him to interpret. Because of my interests, he may also feel like a stranger in our household. My family likes to read excerpts from my writings before the play is finished. I like to share my ideas and ask their opinion while I’m still in the writing process. Often my brother can feel a disconnect between my family and me because he is unable to contribute to my work in this way. But we strive to include it, despite the challenges. When one of my plays is published, my mother reads the story aloud to her and other members of my family, so that they experience it together for the first time. With a simple act of kindness, my brother and I are able to connect, despite our conflicting disabilities.

As a family, we meet each other’s needs – a feat not so easy to accomplish.

It is essential that all individuals have access to all forms of content that our community has to offer. Literature is an integral part of our society and has always been a force for change. Books like “1984” by George Orwell have the potential to transform the way we view conflict and war, and works like Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” can challenge gender roles and our social composition. Likewise, speeches and movies are auditory aids that serve an irreplaceable purpose for all viewers. Politicians and presidents address nations verbally because there are certain nuances that cannot be reproduced in writing (no matter how hard the writers try). The important voices of history must be heard and understood by all. However, beyond the four walls of my house, a true haven of peace, accessibility is not guaranteed for those facing the challenges of a disability.

Whereas we aim for accessibility, it is extremely difficult for everyone to experience one moment exactly the same as another. Therefore, different mediums have a distinct meaning for each person. Services like text-to-speech functions, subtitling and sign language interpreters can make the biggest differences in quality of life and self-esteem.

Accessibility is a crucial part of our world – a necessity that each of us must strive to recognize and improve every day.

It starts with early education, a decisive moment in the child’s relationship to learning. Elementary schools have the power to assimilate all students in the classroom, regardless of the inherent challenges. For reading and writing lessons, libraries should offer audiobooks in addition to their hard copies. Teachers should implement reading in partnership to help interact with each child. Instructors must use closed captioning services and microphones to reach every student in the class. Although it may seem tedious, these tools offer young minds a meaningful connection to the world through a window of literature and writing – an experience they can experience individually and together.

At first, I was hesitant to write this article because I feared that others would not find my experiences relatable. But despite each of our stories and challenges, I know every reader wants to feel like they belong in this world, and they do! Writing is where I feel most included, so I hope to use this platform to share my experiences and help others feel like they belong too.

Your obstacles can sometimes seem personal and insurmountable. But if you have the courage to connect with others and find a way to make those around you feel included, you’ll find that no one is truly alone in their challenges, and neither are you.

Statement columnist Reese Martin can be reached at [email protected].

Lucas E. Kelly