Kathy Buckley grew up with a severe hearing loss. Misdiagnosed as learning disabled, she spent much of her life fighting to find self-respect. Not only did she suffer repeated sexual abuse by a family friend, she was nearly killed when she was run over by a Jeep. Yet her faith and her ability to find humor in even the most desperate circumstances led her to success as America's first well-known hearing-impaired comedian. Her new book, "If You Could Hear What I See," documents her journey to happiness--and extraordinary success. Her one-woman show can be seen this August on PBS. Here she describes the aftermath of a hearing test she was forced to take as an adult to get a scholarship.

When the test was over I got up from my seat and made a beeline for the front door. Michael [the audiologist] stopped me. He took me back to his office, laid a piece of paper on the desk, and said, "This is your audiogram." Then, for the first time in my life, at thirty-two years old, somebody--anybody--explained to me about my hearing loss.

"This is where it would be hard for you to understand on the telephone."

"You mean I'm not retarded?"

"No. This is where it would be difficult for you to understand music."

"I am not slow?"

"No, you just don't hear normally. See this flat line? This is where it's difficult for you to understand a group of people."

"Michael, look at me. Are you sure there's nothing wrong with my brain?"

Reprinted from If You Could Hear What I See, by Kathy Buckley with Lynette Padwa, by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright c Kathy Buckley, 2001. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. "Kathy, you just don't hear normally. In fact, you're very intelligent. You've managed to maintain in the hearing world solely by lip-reading. You're a great lip-reader."

Intelligent! No one had ever said that to me. And this piece of paper explained exactly what I can and can't hear.

Yet when I returned a week later to pick up my hearing aids, I informed Michael I wouldn't be wearing them. "Hearing aids didn't help me in the past," I told him. They just made everything loud and painful."

"Technology has changed a lot in twenty years, Kathy." In the end, Michael told me that if I didn't wear them for one week, he wouldn't turn in the paperwork for Vocational Rehab. I had no choice. I put the hearing aids on in his office.

"SSSSo, Kathy, what'SSS it SSSSound like?"

I sat straight up and looked at him. I had never heard an S sound and Michael had to explain it to me. A little excited, I left the building wondering what would happen next. The first thing I heard when I walked out to the street was traffic. It was annoying. I got into my Toyota Corona. As I started the engine, I noticed an odd beeping noise. I stormed back into Michael's office, convinced these hearing aids had gone haywire like the last ones. "Maybe the Toyota is too small for the hearing aids, but they keep beeping every time I get into the car." Michael checked the aids again and decided to walk me to the car himself. I opened the door and sat down in the driver's seat. Beep, beep, beep.

"Kathy, that beeping noise is just your car telling you to fasten your seat belt."

"Oh...Like I'm supposed to understand Japanese now? Is there anything else you'd like to translate for the car before I leave?"

Suddenly the neighborhood I had lived in for a decade was both familiar and foreign. For the first time I heard my keys jingle as I unlocked the door to my apartment. The door squeaked as it opened. I heard the clock ticking, the refrigerator humming. Heaven only knows how long the toilet had been running!

That night was the first time I had played the Hollywood Comedy Room, and I was determined not to be late. It wasn't easy. For once, I could barely tear myself away from my apartment. Thirty-two years old, I had never known that paper made noise. I grabbed every kind of paper I could find, laid them all out on the living room floor, then sat in the middle of the floor crumpling up the papers just to hear them crunch. Newspaper, wax paper, tin foil--Kleenex--one by one I'd pick them up and crinkle them next to my ear, saying, "Yes! Yes!" They all had their own sound until I got to the Kleenex. I crunched it, tore it, waved it by my ear--"Talk to me, baby, talk to me!" Nothing.

I made it to the club with a half hour to spare, keeping a personal vow I had made never to be late for a gig. As usual, I walked onstage with a big plastic hand attached behind my ear in the "Eh? What?" position. Deafness is sometimes known as the invisible disability, and I wanted to make it visible. The plastic hand on my ear made it easier for me to explain my hearing loss and speech impediment right away. My opening line:

"You would think with today's technology they could come out with a hearing aid that is just a little less obvious than this."


The sound hit my ears with the force of a cannon blast. What was that? I backed away from the microphone toward the rear of the stage and stared at the faces below me, but they looked normal. Somehow I was able to deliver my next line.

"Yes, I am hearing impaired. No, I am not deaf, I just don't listen."

"Haraughhhh! Ehhhhh! Hehehehehehenck!"

Laughter! It was the sound of the audience laughing. I stood there in shock and they sat smiling up at me, not knowing why I had frozen. In every performance before this one, I had heard only a muffled rumble when they had laughed. I'd wear flat shoes so I could feel the audience's laughter vibrate through the floorboards of the stage. To get the timing, I'd play off the faces I could see, and if I saw a face I didn't like I'd move on to the next one. But I had no idea that laughter could sound like this. Now here it was, coming at me like the big ball in Indiana Jones, with hundreds of separate voices chuckling and cackling away.

"I feel like I'm being attacked right now," I blurted out, and the faces shifted from happy to confused. I forgot my rehearsed lines as the tears started welling up. I might as well confess, I figured, or they'll think I'm not just hearing impaired but deranged, too.

"I've just received a new set of hearing aids today. For the first time, I'm hearing laughter without having to feel it. I'm hearing it, feeling it, and seeing it all at once, and it is totally overwhelming! That is your laughter, isn't it? Or are you yelling at me? Because I'm not too sure what's going on up here, but I'm loving it."

When they applauded, I tried to adjust myself to the thick, surreal noise. For the next ten minutes I rushed through the material, standing closer and closer to the edge of the stage, forcing myself to tell the jokes while I stared first at one face, then another, matching the laughs to the people and bracing myself for the bowling ball of noise that rolled at me every time a line connected. I was so awestruck by the fullness of the sound, I wanted to sit in the audience and laugh alongside them.

To add to the confusion, I was hearing my own voice in a way I never had before, amplified through the microphone. Damn, I do have a speech impediment!

Finally the set was over and I ran to the ladies' room. I locked myself in a stall and let the tears pour out. I didn't know why I was crying--it was a combination of emotions I had never experienced, as if a light went on in a part of my heart I had never seen. A few minutes later the club's manager found me in there.

"Kathy! What's wrong? You killed tonight!"

"Did you hear that?" I asked her. "Because I did! I could hear their laughter!"

It wasn't just the laughter, it was what it meant. It was the joy of acceptance. I had been doing comedy for about a year, and this was the first time I had felt the full impact of an audience cheering and applauding. It was a whole new world of communication opening up for me. The audience had been giving me this gift all along, but I had never known about it until now.

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