Boy and girl sitting next to a stack of books
Abby Schreck/Daily
https://www.michigandaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Reading-between-the-lines-Reese-Martin-.mp3
Text-to-speech recording courtesy of Reese Martin.

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

“Did you ever fly a kite in bed? Did you ever walk with ten cats on your head? Did you ever milk this kind of cow? Well, we can do it. We know how. If you never did, you should. These things are fun and fun … ”

I never let my mom get through a whole verse of a Dr. Seuss book without interjecting. As she read the words, my little eyes darted back and forth between the lines — scanning for words I knew would eventually connect the verses through rhyme. Sometimes, it sounded like she skipped a word or misspoke a phrase, and I thought it best to take over for the sake of not butchering the great literary work that was “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” 

A decade later, I learned why I could never sit through my mother’s story times. I struggled to listen due to 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. While some may not experience progressive loss with the condition, mine will continue to deteriorate indefinitely. 

In 2020, when the pandemic began, my family and I first noticed my irregular hearing. I struggled to hear others on Zoom calls and could no longer hear the beep from our home thermometer. Of course, masks made conversations 10 times more difficult due to muffled sounds and no longer being able to lip-read, a hidden talent I unknowingly possessed. Though symptoms likely occurred earlier, the condition was difficult 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 mom reading Dr. Seuss and wonder if she really did skip rhymes. My complaints seemed genuine at the time, but I realize now they were likely rooted in an impairment my young brain couldn’t comprehend. 

Although my hearing loss isn’t absolute, it is severe enough to affect my function in everyday life. Without my hearing aids, I struggle to follow professors in class and engage in conversations with friends. My brain is set on indefinite overdrive, interpreting visual cues like lip-reading and body language while simultaneously navigating daily obstacles. 

Despite the obvious negatives, my impairment 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 — teaching myself class lectures via textbooks and articles when it was difficult to listen to my teachers in class. Reading is a beautiful and personal activity for me. I value the raw interaction between the sentences, the page and my mind — no hearing aids necessary. Text is definitive; it’s permanent. Spoken words are easily lost in the air, time, memory and (for me) interpretation of the moment. Writing is a preservation of those thoughts — oftentimes, clearer than when they were first said. 

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

***

My family constantly encourages me to pursue my love of writing. They celebrate my every accomplishment and item of work along the way, likely sharing this very article with friends and posting the print copy on the fridge. While I’m beyond grateful for their involvement, my writing unintentionally excludes one of my favorite people, and many more throughout the nation.  

My youngest brother has struggled with severe dyslexia throughout his childhood. Dyslexia is a learning disorder 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 is easy for my brother to feel left out in school when other students discuss books and articles that are too difficult for him to interpret. Because of my interests, he can also feel like an outsider within our household. My family enjoys reading excerpts of my writing before the piece is finished. I like to share my ideas and ask for their opinions while I’m still in the drafting process. Oftentimes, my brother can feel a disconnect between my family and I  because he is unable to contribute to my work in this way. But we strive to include him, despite the challenges. When one of my pieces is published, my mother reads the narrative to him and my other family members out loud so they experience it for the first time together. With a simple act of kindness, my brother and I are able to connect, despite our contradicting impairments. 

As a family, we cater to each other’s needs — a feat not so easily accomplished. 

It is vital that all individuals have access to every form of content 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 see conflict and war, and works like “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan can challenge gender roles and our social makeup. Likewise, speeches and movies are auditory-based mediums that serve an irreplaceable purpose for all viewers. Politicians and presidents verbally address nations because there are some nuances that cannot be replicated by the written word (no matter how hard the authors may try). Important voices in history must be heard and understood by all. However, beyond the four walls of my home, a veritable safe haven, accessibility is not guaranteed for those facing the challenges of a disability. 

While we strive for accessibility, it is extremely difficult for each person to experience a moment exactly the same way as another. Therefore, different mediums hold distinct significance for each person. Services like text-to-speech functions, closed captions and sign language interpreters can make the biggest differences in quality of life and self-esteem. 

Accessibility is a crucial element of our world — a necessity each of us must work to recognize and improve every day. 

This starts with early education, a defining moment in a child’s relationship with learning. Elementary schools have the power to assimilate all students in the classroom, regardless of inherent challenges. For reading and writing lessons, libraries should offer audiobooks alongside their hard copies. Teachers must implement partnered reading to help engage with every child. Instructors should use closed captioning services and microphones to reach every student across the classroom. While it may seem tedious, these tools offer young minds a meaningful connection to the world through a window of literature and writing — one they can experience individually and together. 

At first, I was hesitant to write this piece because I worried others wouldn’t find my experiences relatable. But despite each of our stories and challenges, I know every reader wants to feel like they have a place in this world, and they do! Writing is the space where I feel most included, hence I hope to use this platform to share my experiences and help others feel like they belong, as well. 

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

Statement Columnist Reese Martin can be reached at rkmartin@umich.edu.