Meet David Davis
Up Front on the Back Page with David Davis
The 2014 Convention Chair David Davis talks about the upcoming convention, giving hope, remembering Helen Beebe and living a full live with hearing loss.
Interview by Anna Karkovska McGlew
| David Davis with friends during the
1996 AG Bell Convention in Snowbird, Utah.
The AG Bell convention is my Mecca—it is the place I come to for inspiration, friendship and truth. It is a true honor to serve as the chair of an event that holds great meaning for so many of us.
If this will be your first convention, you are in for a life-changing treat. Don’t be shy. Don’t worry if you’re not able to take it all in. We’ll still be around after the circus leaves town. And when you return home with bags full of brochures, handouts and notes, you may feel overwhelmed and alone again, wondering where to begin. I can tell you where to begin: by calling or writing the new friends you made and picking up where you left off. The convention does not have to end on June 30, 2014; it only begins your journey.
If you are a returning attendee, do me a favor: if you see a new face, get up and introduce yourself. It just might be the parent or professional who, years down the road, will remember the hope you gave them.
1. Tell us about your hearing loss.
I was born with a profound sensorineural hearing loss as a result of maternal rubella, which my mother contracted through her card club. Since my parents were aware that I was a high-risk infant, they spent the first months anxiously banging pots and pans as I slept undisturbed. A trip to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia confirmed a profound hearing loss when I was four months old, and two months later, I was fitted with hearing aids. In 1965, early intervention was certainly not a catchphrase, and I believe the early diagnosis and binaural fitting were key to my later success.
After 40 years of wearing hearing aids, increasing frustration and introspection, and much consultation with listening and spoken language (LSL) professionals and audiologists, I decided to get a cochlear implant to maximize my hearing and underwent the surgery through House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. My audiologist suggested that I go the first month without a hearing aid in my other ear. The day after my initial activation I began auditory rehab with Sylvia Rotfleisch, a disciple of Dan Ling, one of Helen Beebe’s contemporaries and collaborators. Those first weeks were a roller coaster ride as I tapped into the auditory foundation Helen Beebe gave me, and with Sylvia’s expert guidance, began to gain speech understanding I had never had with hearing aids. At the one-month mapping, my audiologist warned me that when I put the hearing aid in the other ear for the first time, I might think there was something wrong with it. As soon I put the hearing aid in my left ear, the first words out of my mouth were: “There’s something wrong with it.” My audiologist shook her head. I nearly burst into tears upon realizing how much I had achieved with so little for so long. Oh, poor David! But look at me now, with speech understanding scores that at one month surpassed the previous 40 years.
I love being more connected to the world around me, but as with everything, there is a downside: I’m more connected to the world around me. I’m now privy to inane one-sided cell phone conversations as airplane passengers whip out their cell phones upon our landing. Yes, we are pulling up to the gate. That’s what happens when planes land. They pull up to the gate.
But that’s a small price to pay for being able to understand so much on listening alone. I can understand pilot announcements and no longer have to wonder what we’re looking out the window at. In restaurants, I pick the salad dressing I want instead of the only one I heard the waitress recite (and I’m not a big fan of bleu cheese dressing, but I have ordered it!) I can talk on the telephone with ease, but how’s this for irony—now everybody prefers to text! But that’s okay; I can roll with that.
I do a lot of research and development work with Advanced Bionics, headquartered a half hour north of my home, and it’s gratifying to be able to do my part in helping this company (one of our most generous supporters, by the way) continue to improve the hardware and software to help children and adults maximize their listening comfort. As I get older, it might take more effort to launch my butt off a chair, but my hearing will only continue to launch itself.
2. You lived in the same town as Helen Beebe as a child. Tell us about your experience growing up with hearing loss and being tutored by Beebe.
When my mother attended elementary school, she walked by Helen Beebe’s small office building every day and had even peered in her picture window, wondering what the sign “speech pathologist” meant. When my hearing loss was diagnosed, our family doctor knew Beebe through church and insisted that we visit her. My mother was skeptical, as Beebe wasn’t another doctor. Little did she and my father know when they walked into her office for the first time that Beebe already knew more than any doctor would.
That stroke of geographic luck, having Beebe just six blocks away, translated into home visits shortly after my diagnosis. Beebe had suggested that we start formal therapy when I turned 12 months, but in the interim would visit our home frequently and instruct my parents on how to babble and vocalize and stimulate my infant hearing. Beebe had already successfully worked with older deaf pupils, but I was by far the youngest baby she had worked with, and the progress we made early on prompted her to revise her philosophy: no intervention could ever be too early, and from that point forward she began work with all her children as soon as possible.
She was an intimidating woman. Six feet tall, Beebe had an air of regality about her. She was not the kind to get on the floor and roll with kids and their toys. She was about sitting up straight and Look away! Listen! and repeating what you heard. It wasn’t until she returned from a research trip to Vienna with her mentor, Dr. Emil Froeschels, and gave me a small teddy bear that it dawned on me how much I meant to her.
The years I spent in Beebe’s office meant visits from parents, families, and other professionals all over the world. Beebe would always ask if it was okay if so-and-so from Australia or New York or Germany could sit in on our lesson and watch, and I of course always consented. As young as I was, I knew Beebe was not just about children and their parents, but also about demonstrating, mentoring, and guiding professionals so that they could in turn teach.
For my mother, the hours she spent in the waiting room with other mothers was as instructive, if not more so, than anything Beebe ever told or taught her. To hear other mothers discuss techniques, tricks, setbacks, and joys prepared my mother and father for the reinforcement I needed to succeed.
Even after I “graduated” from Beebe’s therapy sessions at age 14, I was often called to her clinic to meet with visiting professionals and other families staying at an apartment designed for in-home therapy demonstrations. I’m not sure Beebe even realized it then, but she taught me the value and importance of being an ambassador for listening and spoken language. The hope that I saw in parents’ eyes and the recognition I saw in other deaf children’s faces (I’m just like you!) made it impossible for me to turn down Beebe’s calls. As a child I couldn’t wait to finish my lessons, grab the reward Nilla wafer cookie, and be on my way, but as an older graduate, I was happy to walk back in and meet new people anxious to learn.
I also had the privilege of visiting Beebe at her home many times, sitting in her living room and talking with her. Beebe was a dynamo: she had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to share them with her, but she practiced what she preached and listened when she had to.
3. You attended Harvard University for your college degree. What was it like to attend a prestigious large university like Harvard with hearing loss? What accommodations did you (or didn't) have at the time?
I grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania, and graduated in the top 4% of my high school class, but we were not sophisticated. My guidance counselor actually discouraged me from applying to the Ivy Leagues, using the terrible analogy that while I might be a top relay racer at our high school, I would fall in the middle or in the back at Harvard. I told him I could live with that and applied anyway.
And I did live with that. Harvard was magical and scary. I left the safety and comfort of classmates who knew me and my needs for a large university that did not coddle its young, but it was a good learning experience, though I made some expensive mistakes. My first semester I took Psychology 1, which at the time was taught by the psychology department chair, a prominent expert in child development who was one of the leading forces behind the development of Sesame Street. He also, much to my dismay, was a notorious mumbler. Students in the back row slept through his lectures while my friends and I looked at each other in bewilderment: “What did he say? Something about transference?” He read aloud nonstop from lecture notes printed on dot-matrix continuous paper that draped over his lectern, very cutting edge in 1983. Like Dorothy meeting the wizard, I meekly met with this professor during his lone office hour and explained my situation. He said he couldn’t let me have access to his lecture notes because it would give me an unfair advantage over the other students. I thanked him for his time and walked out of his office.
The professor wasn’t going to tell me how to get to Sesame Street, and I spent the next couple years at Harvard wandering without much focus, but I learned as much outside of the classroom as I did inside the musty walls. I had friends from Kuwait, California, Florida, France, Ohio, and Wisconsin, friends who attended London’s Harrow School, the top prep schools in New York and New England, and public schools. I had friends who went to Gstaad for spring break and friends whose immigrant parents worked menial jobs in Los Angeles. Harvard was an incredibly diverse and stimulating experience. The shame of it is that I didn’t fully appreciate it until after I graduated, anxious to leave the academic claustrophobia for sunny Southern California upon the invitation of a former roommate.
My freshman year I received some notetaking assistance that consisted of a classmate scribbling notes in a carbon copy notebook. It probably didn’t help that my Psychology 1 notetaker had almost as much trouble as I did following the class, and when spring semester rolled around, I didn’t bother pursuing notetakers, instead electing to rely on smaller classes wherever possible. The smaller seminars required an interview with the professor for admission; I was turned away from all except the writing seminars.
If only I had attended Harvard wearing cochlear implants. How much easier it all would have been. I would have heard my friends deciding to go out for ice cream instead of remaining buried in a newspaper, only to look up to an empty room. I would have heard the answers to Socratic questions thrown out during a statistics class that still gives me bluebook anxiety dreams to this day. I would have struck up more conversations along the way, instead of sticking to those Friends Who Know My Hearing Loss. I would have explored more instead of retreating to my room in exhaustion.
Harvard is not for dilettantes. Even its extracurriculars are highly competitive. In fact, many hold what they call “comps”—competitions to get in. A peer counselor in high school, I interviewed for one of two peer counselor positions, only to learn there were 200 applicants. I “comped” for The Crimson, the school newspaper, which required writing seven articles in six days. Unable to conduct telephone interviews, and since this was before the advent of email, I had to traipse all over campus, setting up appointments to interview faculty and administrators. By day six, I had just finished my first article. I was promptly fired by news-king-to-be Jeff Zucker, who went on to become president of NBC Universal and is current president of CNN Worldwide.
I eventually found my community at my residential house, Mather House, the last and least Harvard-like of the river houses. I joined committees, performed in plays, helped out at weekly Friday happy hours hosted by the house masters, and felt very much at home. Jeff Zucker could have his stinkin’ newspaper. I had roommates and friends who had Noni’s Pizza on speed dial.
4. You recently switched careers. Tell us a bit about that and what led to this life event.
In my work in closed captioning, we had to do a fair amount of research verifying information and spellings on a wide variety of subjects. I helped develop our small, but growing library of reference resources, and when the Internet became available, I evaluated online resources for their suitability as reference resources for our caption writers and editors. After 20-plus years, it seemed a natural progression that I wanted to go beyond media access into information access. In library school, I ran into two other former captioners on identical journeys.
5. How was attending school for library science at San Jose State University different than Harvard in terms of accommodations as well as your perspective and experience?
Perhaps the change of getting cochlear implants and improving my hearing motivated me to embark on another change, or maybe it was the excitement and increased confidence that my improved hearing gave me that inspired me, or some combination of the two, but whatever the case, I began my MLIS (Master’s in Library and Information Science) while working full-time, and so convenience was a major factor in my enrolling at San Jose State University, which went fully online my first semester. This asynchronous learning environment allowed me to “attend” pre-recorded lectures in my pajamas with pillow hair (what’s left of it anyway). There were a few classes with required live lectures conducted online with the instructor speaking while we watched PowerPoint slides. My initial apprehension gave way to delight when I realized I had virtually no trouble understanding. The lone exception was an instructor with an Irish brogue who had her lectures captioned. As librarians, we are committed to providing access to information and resources for all, and the school was prepared to provide captioning, but I didn’t need it. My cataloging instructor called on us randomly and I never missed a beat when he called on me, and I never had to explain my hearing loss to him.
As wonderful and liberating as my master’s experience was, I can only imagine what my Harvard experience would have been like if I had this wonderful access to sound. Online, asynchronous learning is not for everyone, and I did miss the face-to-face, but the online group conversations provided a voice-to-voice, which was often better than words on a screen. My ideal educational environment would be a hybrid of the two: online for working at my own pace and timeline and face-to-face for that human connection and spontaneous back-and-forth so crucial to learning.
6. You have deep and long involvement with AG Bell. Share your thoughts and memories on being an AG Bell board member, an AG Bell convention education program committee member (in 2012), a DHHS/ODAS member. How does this involvement inform your life outside of AG Bell?
My fellow deaf friends and their families have all inspired me and continue to do so. The work that we all do, the obstacles we’ve overcome, the failures we’ve experienced, and the successes we’ve enjoyed, both individually and as an organization, have all given me this perspective that while my parents, family, and Beebe have all worked to see that I reach my full potential, I am also just one small part of this vibrant fabric that is our world. As much as I would like it to be, it isn’t all about me. My journey is not only about learning and asking for and accepting help and guidance when I need it, but also about teaching and helping and guiding others along their way.
At the 1992 convention, we deaf adults were on a boat, I think, during some kind of dinner event, and I was talking with Consuelo Gonzalez about some of the challenges I’d encountered as a deaf adult, and she said something that has stayed with me since: that it’s easy for deaf adults to feel like an automatic liability when we encounter new people and new situations. I was speechless: she understood me completely. Of course I come to the conventions to be with “my peeps,” but it was that moment with Consuelo that I knew that she—and the rest of us—knew. There’s a shorthand with us deaf adults that we don’t experience with anyone else, even our hearing partners and family members—and consequently, there’s a bond. It’s like finding your long-lost twin.
The work that we all do, we do to help our children reach their potential, but listening and spoken language should be—and is—about more than just listening and spoken language. It has to be about helping our children with their socialization and negotiation skills so that wherever they venture, they never feel like an automatic liability, but an equal citizen in our world.
I’m not altruistic. I do the work that I do with AG Bell, I make the friends and connections that I make at AG Bell, to help me as much as I’m helping others. And lastly, I do it for Beebe. I don’t have a fraction of Beebe’s grace and generosity, but I won’t ever forget the example she gave me. I stand up when people come into the room and I greet them. As much as she had taught me to talk and to listen, Beebe also taught me that it’s not what you say, but what you do, that people remember, and it’s not what you hear, but what you see, that you remember.
7. Share your memories of past conventions which you have attended. What has changed over the years? What has stayed the same?
In 1982, at Beebe’s suggestion, my parents took me to my first convention. There I met Jane Croft, a student of Louise Crawford, one of Beebe’s contemporaries. We shared the same etiology and quickly became friends and provided each other moral support throughout college. It is life-changing and freeing to discover people who know what it’s like to be the only oral deaf adult in your school, company, or even career. I love my hearing friends and family, but in some ways, only my AG Bell deaf friends understand the real me: the David that’s resourceful, funny, positive, and fiercely proud of his place in the hearing world and the David that is at times uncertain, frustrated, and less resourceful. We celebrate each other when we’re up, and we pick each other up when we’re down.
I no longer remember which convention this was, but during the first-timers’ orientation, a mother came up to me, excited to see me again. I blinked. I didn’t remember her. She went on to explain where we had met. She might have been one of the later Beebe parents-- I don’t remember-- but what I do remember is this: She burst into tears, hugged me, and thanked me for giving her hope. She had been so scared for her daughter when we met years earlier, and now her daughter was exceeding the mother’s expectations, but it began with hope.
That is what the convention is about: providing hope along with the tools our parents and professionals need to make the hope a dream come true. We may never fully know or appreciate the effects our collective efforts have on others. This mother’s emotional outburst reminded me that while I meet many parents and professionals, they haven’t met many David Davises, Jane Crofts, or Consuelo Gonzalezes, to name just a few of us fabulous people, and we must be mindful and remember to stand up and greet them when they come in the room.
What has changed over the years: The landscape of LSL has expanded and gained greater mainstream acceptance as a viable option for deaf and hard of hearing children. Advances in hearing technology such as digital hearing aids and cochlear implants now provide much improved access to hearing and a more efficient gateway to listening and spoken language. The work is still challenging and requires a significant commitment on the family’s part, but we are slowly but surely, LSL educator by LSL educator, making the magic real for more and more families across the globe.
What has stayed the same: Every new parent is still scared and uncertain: it is okay to be scared—we were too when we began this journey—but we are here to help you and your child gain every advantage available. Every deaf teenager and young adult needs that guidance: You are okay to feel and be who you are, and we are here to help and empower you to become the person you are destined to be.
8. Tell us about your current involvement, as chair of next year's 2014 Convention.
As the 2014 convention chair, I oversee the educational, social, and networking components of the convention, and help guide our committees and staff in making the programming decisions that need to be made to ensure that our convention meets and delivers those educational, social, and networking needs of our families, professionals, and deaf and hard of hearing adults. The staff do all of the “heavy lifting” and much credit must go to them; they are the best! The convention is my Mecca: it’s where I come for inspiration, friendship, and truth, so it’s a dream for me to serve as chair of an event that holds great meaning for many of us.
9. What were the major themes and concepts that drove the convention program design and why? What inspired them?
When our convention planning committee first discussed themes and ideas, we had a sense of future, of transformation, of opportunity, and we wanted to tap into the energy and creativity of our constituents. Our organization has a strong volunteer spirit and always has, and it has been our tireless parents, professionals, and deaf and hard of hearing adults that have paved the way for all of us today. In coming up with our theme, “Magic Made Real: Celebrating Our Heritage, Transforming Our Future,” we wanted to acknowledge our pioneers and transformers and continue to pave the way into the future.
10. Why is this going to be the "best" convention yet? For professionals, families/children, and adults?
Our conventions have to have balance. There will always be new parents, professionals, and teenagers and young adults, and we must always make sure our conventions provide a place for these newcomers so that they can learn, get up to speed, and feel welcome into the fold. For our more seasoned members, we will be providing more advanced educational sessions and networking opportunities. AG Bell has always had a big challenge meeting the needs of three distinct populations—parents, professionals, and deaf and hard of hearing adults—while always keeping our eyes on the prize: helping our deaf children develop listening and spoken language. I believe 2014 will be the best convention yet because we have in place a strong team of staff, member volunteers, and board members all committed to providing a place for our families and professionals to develop the resources and connections needed to help our children succeed with listening and spoken language. It will be the best convention yet because we are not just about learning and networking, but also about celebrating and appreciating ourselves and our successes. It will be best the convention yet because we will have conversations about how we can transform our future—and our children’s future. It will be the best convention yet because YOU will be there!
11. Anything else you would like to share.
It is an absolute privilege and dream to serve as 2014 Convention chair. I hope you all can come to the convention, but if you can’t, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. If your state has a chapter, join it and get involved; if it doesn’t have a chapter, we have resources to help you start one. I encourage each and every one of you to get involved and contribute in some way. You all have something to contribute, even if you may not yet know what that might be. I can tell you from firsthand experience that in giving, I have received so much more in return. We are an unusual organization: mission-driven (“Advancing Listening and Spoken Language for Individuals Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing”), but people-driven as well. It is because of our wonderful team of parents, professionals, deaf and hard of hearing children, teenagers, and adults that our mission comes alive in our children’s voices.