A History of So-Called ‘Cures’ For Deafness

16:33 minutes

a blue paint circle badge with words in white that say "best of 2020"At four years old, Jaipreet Virdi’s world went quiet. A severe bout of meningitis left her deaf, and shifted how she navigated in the world.

As with many Deaf and hard of hearing people, Jaipreet went through many treatments she was told would “cure” her hearing, including spiritual ceremonies and herbal solutions. Jaipreet’s experiences, plus a love of history, led her to write a new book: “Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History.” 

In it, Jaipreet, who is an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware, chronicles the historical record of deafness cures. These range from special diets and botanicals to a 1920s fad of airplane diving, where Deaf people were taken through a series of loops and dives in an airplane in an effort to regain their hearing.

Jaipreet joins Ira to talk about the extremely personal task of writing Hearing Happiness, and why persistent stigma against deafness keeps dubious treatments alive.

What You Said: Do You Have Experience With So-Called “Cures” For Deafness?

Ann from Forestville, CA
Hi, I have bilateral profound hearing loss and have bilateral cochlear implants. They’ve definitely been a miracle cure for me, and I have no idea what my life would be like if I didn’t have access to this amazing technology.

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Segment Guests

Jaipreet Virdi

Jaipreet Virdi is the author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History, and an assistant professor of History at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. At age four, Jaipreet Virdi’s world went quiet. A severe bout of meningitis left her deaf and shifted how she navigated in the world, as is the experience with many deaf and hard of hearing people. Jaipreet went through all sorts of treatments said to, quote unquote, “cure her hearing.”

Her experience and a love of history led to the writing of a book. She joins us now to talk about it. Her book is called Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. Jaipreet is also an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. Welcome to Science Friday.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Hi Ira. Thank you for having me here. It’s a great pleasure to be on the show. I’m a huge fan of Science Friday.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you very much. I think our listeners would like to know, please. How are you able to hear me if you are deaf?

JAIPREET VIRDI: Well, first thing, I wear hearing aid. And we are currently communicating on a video conferencing platform that provides closed captioning, where it does help me better understand some of the things that you are saying.

IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. This topic of so-called miracle cures for deafness is, as I understand it, it’s very personal for you. I’m hoping to start by you telling us a little bit about your personal experience with them.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Sure. One of the things that listeners should keep in mind is that many deaf children are actually born into hearing families, who might not be familiar with deaf culture or sign language, and it is kind of a learning process. That was the case for me as well.

I was born in Kuwait, and around age four, as you mentioned, I became sick with meningitis and lost my hearing. So nobody in the hospital and none of my doctors were able to advise my parents on how to raise a deaf child. And my parent being devout Sikhs, they turned to religion, they turned to family to figure out what was the best way to help me grow up and be a happy child, and how they could communicate with me.

So they tried everything. They turned to my grandparents for advice on old folk remedies. We went to the temple to receive blessings. My mom even took me to India to get a special blessing at the Golden Temple. And we even tried hearing aids as well, but nothing really worked for me until we left Kuwait and immigrated to Canada, where I got a more powerful hearing aid and was placed into a special school for the deaf and hard of hearing children. That allowed me to learn English again, allowed me to learn how to speak again and communicate in different ways.

IRA FLATOW: What turned you toward researching deafness cures in history?

JAIPREET VIRDI: I was actually initially researching the history of medical anatomy, but became interested in how these anatomists were trying to classify types of hearing loss by looking at the anatomical defects or other kinds of medical problems that were basically in the eardrum or in the Eustachian tube or in the anatomy of the ear. Following this line of research, I just started to realize there was this huge history of people trying this so-called miracle cure, that some of it was actually promised by the same anatomists and the same ear specialists who were trying to figure out the hidden history, so to speak, of hearing.

And I think because I resonated so much with the stories in the archives– people are talking about trying this cure or receiving special blessings or being swindled by a quack fellow– it dawned onto me that the history that I was researching in this archive. And historians, by the way, spend a lot of time in the archive. It also made sense to me, because it felt like it was my own story being reflected back. So that’s kind of what led to the book as well.

IRA FLATOW: So this is a very personal book for you, then.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Indeed, yes. Definitely. And it’s kind of, a very terrifying experience as well, I mean. How much do I reveal myself in this book? I spent almost 25 years of my life trying to, quote unquote, “pass as hearing,” pretending that I wasn’t as deaf as I actually was, trying to assimilate in hearing society, trying to appear as normal as possible. And opening the book by talking about my hearing loss is essentially me revealing to everybody, I am deaf. Here I am, world.

I mean, I kind of talk about Hearing Happiness as my coming out story as a deaf woman and coming to terms with the barriers that are in place for me to address, but also acknowledge the deep history, as well. Why do so many deaf people try to pass as hearing? Why do society expect that from us? And why do we get so excited when we see this whole “Hearing for the First Time” videos or other stories of deaf people succeeding. Like why does that turn us on when we don’t really acknowledge the struggles and unsurmountable barriers that are also in place in society, as well as this huge stigma against deafness.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s true, because I used to research the history of the telephone as evidenced by Alexander Graham Bell, whose whole family tried to teach deaf people sign language. Because, as you say, it was very controversial. Deaf people have to learn how to speak. And it was not accepted that they have their own culture.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Yes, indeed. I mean there seems to be this misconception about deaf history that, on one side, there was this sign language and the deaf, with a capital D, culture. And the other side, there were those who called themselves as hard of hearing and people who wear hearing aids and use speech to communicate. Well, what deaf history actually is, is an audiological spectrum.

There are various types of experiences, technology, communication, et cetera. But speech is always used as this marker of normalcy. It’s the expectation that if a deaf person can manage speech, then they can pass as hearing. No one’s going to really notice them.

I mean, I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, you speak really well for a deaf person. And I have to explain to them, well, that’s ten years of speech therapy. That’s me trying to make sense of auditory cues around me. But that’s also my internalized stigma and was what society expected of me to succeed as a deaf person. Where, I think, if I had also had sign language when I was young, it could have made things a lot easier for me.

But one of the things that come across in my book, is, the emphasis on speech was also part of a broader history of normalcy in which deaf people had to move away from the stigma of deaf dumbness. We still kind of do that as an insult when we say, what are you, deaf? Putting forward this idea that deafs are less than, type of human behavior.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I can understand. As you say, the pressure on people to not be, quote unquote, “deaf,” but to be, quote unquote, “normal.” I can understand, then, as the topic of your book, where all these cures come from, or even the phony ones, because people want to be that way, don’t they? From society’s pressure.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Yeah, exactly. I mean it’s this idea, what do we expect any citizen in society to do to uphold standards of normality? What does the normal citizen look like? In many cases, if someone who is able-bodied, godly, in many cases, self-sufficient, and hearing. Hearing is this marker of normalcy because we believe that anything that deviates from that is abnormal. So if you put this pressure on deaf people that they have to achieve to this higher standard of normalcy– that includes being hearing, even if all you’re doing is pretending to be hearing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So let’s talk about the very interesting and fascinating things you’ve discovered in your research. First, let’s talk about how far back in history have people been looking for cures for deafness and hearing loss? I imagine it goes back hundreds of years.

JAIPREET VIRDI: I would imagine that as long as people had experienced hearing loss, they have devised some kind of ways to alleviate it or deal with them. Maybe even cure it. But I think your question, for a historian, would be better phrased as, how far back does the historical evidence go? Where in the archives can I find these kinds of stories?

I mean, I have found people talking about folk remedies and using botanicals. So using herbs and plants and animal products to devise some kind of treatment. And there is evidence people have used things like berries or garlic. Garlic is another one because garlic is known for its antibacterial and diuretic property. So there’s lots of histories in there as well. So these cures aren’t just about medicine, or surgery, or even technology. They’re really about people making sense of the environment around them, and trying to turn to nature and use botanicals to cure their hearing.

IRA FLATOW: But as you say in your book, there are really no such things as real cures, are there?

JAIPREET VIRDI: Cures can have a very flexible type of meaning. I mean, a surgery that can help someone who has otosclerosis, which is the buildup of calcium in the ear bone. That is a hereditary disease. That can actually be promoted as a cure. A hearing aid can considered the cure.

But if you’re talking about drinking coffee on the belief that it will flush out your system and therefore restore your hearing, if you’re talking about ear candling as the solution, then, no. These aren’t really cures. But the problem is that they’re offering this hope of normal hearing. I think that is also a common thread amongst all these different kinds of cures.

IRA FLATOW: Mm. I want to talk about one so-called cure in your book that just blew me away. There have been cases of people airplane diving as a treatment for deafness. Tell us about that.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Airplane diving is actually probably the most surprising fact that I discovered when researching this book. I mean, I thought it was this one-off story about a man going off on a plane because he heard from somebody else that the loops and [? flyovers ?] and dives that the 1920s planes could do could somehow relieve ear pressure. So when you land, you are miraculously cured.

I thought it was a one-off story. But looking at newspaper archives, it was very popular. Like it was a 1920s fad. People generally believed that if you go up in the air, there’s something magical that happens in there that cannot be replicated down on Earth. And that the air pressure tugs at your Eustachian tube, which is the tube connecting your pharynx and your ear passages, and then releases pressure.

I mean, parents were sending their children as young as one years old. Children screaming and crying and going up on these planes. And even with all these plane crashes, people were still not deterred from trying these experiments.

And again, it tells you something about the huge cultural stigma again deafness. You were willing to put yourself in harm’s way and go up in the air and do this really terrifying stunt diving because you had this promise, when you land, your hearing will be restored. And I think it’s probably the most extreme example of a deafness cure.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC studios. Talking with Jaipreet Virdi about her new book, Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. We heard from a lot of listeners on our Science Friday VoxPop app who use hearing aids or have cochlear implants, and here’s what Anne from Forestville, California said.

ANNE: Hi. I have bilateral profound hearing loss and have bilateral cochlear implants. They’ve definitely been a miracle cure for me and I have no idea what my life would be like if I didn’t have access to this amazing technology.

IRA FLATOW: Do you consider these tech-based solutions miracle cures?

JAIPREET VIRDI: Definitely. I mean, deafness is an auditory spectrum. The way people negotiate with these kinds of cures and treatments– how they, in other words, position their bodies and their ability to make sense of their community– is up to them. The kind of what I refer to as negotiation between the self and the environment in the book, that is a really personal experience. So for some people, cochlear implants give them this most amazing tool to pick up on auditory cues to learn how to speak and learn how to hear on the telephone and things like that.

So for your caller, it is definitely a miracle cure because it gives them something to succeed in society they may not have otherwise had before. And for me, hearing aids do that. Closed captioning do that. Sign language, not so much, because I’m not that fluent in sign language, and there aren’t many people around me who also rely on sign language. But it is really a kind of personal process where deaf people try to find the best tools for themselves to navigate in the hearing world.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that society is going to change, or has it changed a lot in terms of how it understands and accepts deafness?

JAIPREET VIRDI: I really wish I can take an optimistic stance and say yes. But one thing I have been in my research is that the same kind of promotions for deafness cures that we see now, things like, not just digital hearing aids or auditory brain implants, but also genetic engineering, like the whole CRISPR technology. All of them propagate the same rhetoric, that deafness is a problem and needs to be fixed, that I have seen in the 18th and 19th centuries and even the early 20th century. It’s this notion that if you are deaf, you have to fix yourself. You have to resort to one of the many types of cures, whether it’s surgery or technology or other kinds of folk remedies. And then restore yourself back to normal. So that is a huge problem.

But I also see another problem in society in which we don’t acknowledge the fact that there are social barriers in place that prevent deaf people from advocating for themselves and even being able to fully participate in society. I mean, closed captioning is one thing, and I know with this whole lockdown– in the middle of the pandemic, basically– we are living in a society where we are relying so much on communicating through video and audio and things like that. And yet, I see many incidents in which huge powerful firms either post recordings of audio without transcript or post videos without captioning with the assumption that, well, there aren’t that many people who are going to benefit from it.

And that’s exactly the problem. That’s not the point. The point is to make things accessible for everybody. And, as I talked about a lot, is really not that hard to come up with transcripts or provide accessible platforms or put captioning on your videos in the many different apps that allow people to do that. I mean, taking the time to be accessible and not doing that further creates all these barriers and make that a tremendous struggle and challenge for deaf people who need [? ASR ?] to continue advocating for themselves.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I hope we’ve done some advocating on this program today. I’d like to thank you very much, it’s an excellent book. Jaipreet Virdi, author of the new book, Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History. She’s also an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. Thank you for writing the book. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

JAIPREET VIRDI: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. We’ve got something cool for you after the show today if you head over to Science Friday’s Facebook page at 5:00 PM Eastern Time. We’re holding a watch party. We’ll be showing the video version of this segment with closed captioning and ASL interpreters for our deaf and hard of hearing audience. 5:00 PM Eastern today. Facebook.com/scifri.

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