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Disability Vision & Hearing Loss

Falling Back In Love With Music After Deafness

40 years after sudden hearing loss seemingly ended my career as a pop music sensation, I finally learned to embrace my deafness, and become a musician again.

For years, I didn’t want to admit to being hard of hearing, let alone identify as being deaf. Music, as the experts now tell us, is essential to brain health. We’ve always known it filled the soul and senses, transporting us through all the years of our life, good years and bad.

But what if, after a life of composing, singing and playing music, you can no longer hear it or hear it clearly as you once did? What happens to the brain, to your heart and soul—and to you—without it?

At age 29 in my left ear, and then again at 31 in my right, I became deaf-with a small “d.” That little “d” also means “hard of hearing,” “hearing impaired,” “hearing challenged,” “adult onset deafened,” “adult late deafened,” and other sobriquets. I wear a hearing aid in one ear and have no hearing in the other.

Losing my hearing when I did was a stroke of unbelievable bad luck. It came in the middle of a highly successful and lucrative music career…

Losing my hearing when I did was a stroke of unbelievable bad luck. It came in the middle of a highly successful and lucrative music career that ended when deafness arrived. Starting in 1973 as a 24-year old, I recorded an album for a small record label (Evolution), watched as two songs made it to the Top 100 on the American pop charts, while unbeknownst to me at that time, another song became a #1 hit in Brazil. I was signed to CBS/Epic Records in 1976, and spent the next few years writing and singing national advertising jingles – including a parade theme for Disney called “I’m Walking Right Down the Middle of Main Street USA” which remains today, a Disney staple.

All that and what might have been came crashing down in 1981. Not only could I suddenly not hear as loudly as I once did, but what hearing I had left came with tonal distortion and the constant drone of low and high-pitched tinnitus.

Hello deafness, my new friend. So, what do I do now? I pondered. More importantly, who am I now? My whole identity–that of a socially gregarious man and a successful composer, singer, musician and recording artist—was wrapped up in my ability to hear, and now my hearing had been compromised. I had no idea what to do, no guides to assist me. But I knew I would have to try to adapt myself to this new life without music, and the identity music had given me.

Sudden deafness is tragic and soul-crushing. The inability to communicate “normally” changed my life from one of confident engagement to a life in the shadows. Deafness hindered my simplest interactions and made day-to-day life a maze of compounding difficulties. And it hampered my desire to communicate with others, especially when they were impatient or indifferent to what I was going through.

For years, I didn’t want to admit to being hard of hearing, let alone identify as being deaf.

For years, I didn’t want to admit to being hard of hearing, let alone identify as being deaf.  Often called the “invisible disability.” I was happy to keep it that way for as long as I could. I would only admit to being deaf when there was is a “failure to communicate” (often on my part) and I could keep it hidden no longer. I took pains to avoid being grouped with the really, really Deaf, with a capital “D.”   Surely, I was not one of them, and anyway, I didn’t need a support group.

But deafness changed who I was. More than just the hearing aid I wore, it changed the way I lived my life. I avoided loud places, turned down lots of invitations to do fun things, and isolated myself by avoiding people who didn’t know of my “affliction.” And when I did get together with people, I became loud and argumentative, talking over others because that way I didn’t have to listen.

As for music? I rarely ever listened to it anymore. I would sometimes sing, but I knew there was no connection between my singing and the correct pitch of a note or phrase. I was resigned to never being a musician again.

I was resigned to never being a musician again.

Yes, I had jobs, relationships, even married. Yet even within those circumstances my discomfort and awkwardness never really left me. Those feelings only really went away when I hid from others, or went on the road for my job, but being alone much of the time eventually brought me to isolation and despair.

Things did not really change until I decided to take a shot-in-the-dark stab at reclaiming my musical life.

It was a conspiracy of different events that inspired me to return to music. In 2008, a writer from the Midwest contacted me after finding my album in a remainders bin in a music store and asked me why I never did another. Intrigued, he did an interview with me and wrote a story for his music blog. That story unearthed fans of 30+ years from around the world that I never knew existed. I vowed then to at very least put my first album onto a CD, but I never believed that making music again was in the cards.

But in 2009, I got my first digital hearing aid which allowed me to hear a much broader range of tones and I realized that I might be able to hear what I needed to hear to get back to music making. In 2010, a fan of many years visited me with a wonderful story as to how he had grown up with my music as a lad in South Africa where his Dad ran radio stations. His encouragement played a significant part in moving me forward. Around the same time, my wife passed away at a young age and her death impressed upon me the need to pursue my passion without delay if I ever hoped to give music a try again.

Things did not really change until I decided to take a shot-in-the-dark stab at reclaiming my musical life.

Lots had changed since I had first become deaf. An auditory trainer brought me up to date on new brain research that indicated that even the small amount of residual hearing I had left might give me enough of a thread to improve my speech comprehension. That would not only help me with my isolation by allowing me to spend more time with others… it had the tantalizing possibility of improving my musical hearing through listening exercises.

Meanwhile, I discovered that hearing aid technology had expanded beyond speech, and now allowed me to hear musical tones I hadn’t heard for years. Galvanized, I worked with a vocal coach to recover my voice, and work breathing techniques and vocal stamina. Phonak, my hearing aid company, not only helped me to launch a Kickstarter campaign to return to music, but also enlisted me to write articles for their blog, Hearing Like Me, about my life with hearing loss. Over the next three years, I wrote more than 35 blog articles and responded to questions and comments not only about music and hearing loss, but also about how to negotiate a life with serious hearing challenges.

This was the “Aha” moment that I believe ultimately saved my life.  For most of my adult life, my hearing loss seemed like a meaningless personal tragedy. I was never able to compensate for it professionally, or to find peace with my new identity as a deaf person. But now that I was connecting to others about my experience through writing, I suddenly found myself coming to peace with who I now was, and the strength to start rebuilding my life in earnest. I now had an international audience of people like me who had endured many of the same things that I had and with whom I could communicate and perhaps even inspire. After years of trying to avoid fellow deaf people, I had finally managed to connect to them… and in so doing, found my place in the world again.

Eventually, I attended my first ever hearing loss community meeting and joined the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL). I was mortified to learn what I had been missing all these years: peers and new friends who coaxed me out of the shadows, and helped me see that there was more to life after hearing loss.

After years of trying to avoid fellow deaf people, I had finally managed to connect to them… and in so doing, found my place in the world again.

Moving beyond my own deafness reinforced my desire to return to music. While my audiogram has not changed in more than 40 years, I now see that it reveals more than just the defects in my hearing; it also allows me to see what hearing still remains, and target it with new compositions. After two years of training and endless practice, I have returned to performing live. These performances aren’t perfect, of course, but I simply call them “works in progress.” I have even gone back into the studio to record new music, and I’m now planning a busy year including a trip to Brazil to perform for fans who made one of my original compositions a #1 song there in 1974.

Stu Nunnery today, performing in St. Louis.

I could never have imagined that my hearing loss and the tragic narrative that grew out of it would become my redemption; that in rebuilding my connections to music and to my community of peers, I would rediscover joy and my sense of self. I may never regain my hearing, but by finally embracing my abilities in whatever forms they might take, I have finally found peace.

Beethoven is reputed to have said that “playing a wrong note is nothing – but playing without passion is unforgivable.” And famed trumpeter Miles Davis once said that “if you play a wrong note, continue – It’s the next note that counts.”

Whatever your challenges, find the notes to your own song and sing them with passion. They’re perfect just the way you make them.

Disability

Yoga For The Deaf

Yoga is meant to be inclusive, but far too many practices take hearing for granted. That's something this deaf yoga instructor is trying to change.

I’ve always had very high expectations of myself,” admits Darcy White, a 36-year-old yoga instructor who resides in Washington, D.C., “which I think stems, at least in part, from the need to prove myself to people because I’m deaf. It was making me miserable,” she explains. “Yoga helped me let go of that.”

Darcy has always been an athlete. As a child, she was a gymnast. As a high-school student, she ran cross-country. And in college, she practiced ballet, tap, and jazz. It wasn’t until the age of 26 when Darcy first experimented with yoga. “I went to classes off and on for about six months, but didn’t stick with it,” she says. “I liked the physical workout I got from the Bikram class, but I didn’t stick with them, and looking back I realize that a big reason for that is that I didn’t feel a sense of community.”

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Darcy White teaches yoga classes for the deaf.

For Darcy, a sense of community is key to keep her coming back for more. “A vinyasa flow studio opened up a few blocks from my old place when I was 29 and I became hooked,” she says. “I had just finished grad school and didn’t have anything to do except go to yoga and apply for jobs.”

Whether people turn to yoga for spiritual guidance, exercise, or as a way to unwind after work, it’s safe to say that yoga classes, workshops, and retreats have swept the nation in popularity and availability. Few yoga classes, however, are inclusive for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

Few yoga classes are inclusive for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

“I’m used to being the only deaf person in the room,” Darcy says. “99 percent of the classes I take are not ASL inclusive because there are so few teachers that teach in sign.”

It can be intimidating and frustrating,” she explains. “I usually let the instructor know that I’m deaf so that they can be sure to face me when speaking to me or providing hands-on assists. Most teachers are sweet and respectful about it. I’m always grateful at the little things that teachers will do without me asking them, such as writing down their dharma talks so I can follow along.”

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She’s pretty good at cartwheels too.

Darcy, who has been deaf since birth, experiences first hand how lonely daily life can be when spaces are not inclusive. 

“I felt isolated in many activities and sports in school when it came to communication barriers,” she explains. “For instance, cross country doesn’t require verbal communication between runners to successfully compete in the sport. But during practice runs, my running mates would chat, laugh, and gossip with each other, and I couldn’t partake in that because I couldn’t run and listen at the same time, and my team didn’t know sign language.

These experiences only motivated Darcy to begin teaching her own yoga classes as a way of serving her community.

Darcy teaches yoga classes and workshops in ASL that are inclusive for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. As a teacher, Darcy is passionate about respecting people’s identities and intersectional issues that may impact her students. “I’ve developed chair yoga classes in ASL for people who use wheelchairs,” she says as an example.

For Darcy, teaching yoga is all about empowering her students and helping them feel more confident and connected to their bodies. “I love it when deaf and hard-of-hearing students tell me that what a difference it’s made to take a class where they have 100 percent communication access,” she explains. “Several students have mentioned that poses and transitions they observed or tried in non-signing classes suddenly clicked after taking my class. I love that I can help them make that connection. It gives my teaching a sense of purpose.”

Yoga typically provides both a physical and mental workout. For Darcy, who now prioritizes mindfulness on a daily basis, the spiritual aspect of yoga has been surprisingly enriching. “I anticipated the spiritual aspect of it, and didn’t think I’d get into that part of it,” she admits, “but I did and am a better person for it.”

Originally from Iowa, Darcy has lived in D.C. for over a decade, and is happy to find the District’s yoga community to be open-minded and diverse. “I don’t recall anyone ever making me feel uncomfortable in a yoga class because I’m deaf,” she explains.

I don’t recall anyone ever making me feel uncomfortable in a yoga class because I’m deaf,

But while yoga classes are generally friendly, it does not guarantee that they are inclusive. “The typical yoga class is tailored to the general population,” she says, “and is not taught with the intent of meeting specific needs, such as communication access, for the deaf community.”

Incorporating inclusive practices into the classroom is important, but often takes time to develop and perfect. While some teachers feel overwhelmed and even discouraged while working towards inclusivity, Darcy promises that it’s all about progress, not perfection.

“I would never expect a teacher to be able to meet the needs of every student in class–I certainly can’t–but I think the least that teachers can do is ask questions on how they can help make the class more welcoming and accessible, keep an open mind, and be flexible with accommodations.”

While society is constantly moving towards a more progressive and inclusive world, many people are still misinformed or uneducated about issues for the deaf community, including how to interact with people who may be deaf or hard-of-hearing.

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Posing near some inspiring graffiti.

“A good rule of thumb,” Darcy explains, “is to talk to people the way you’d want them to talk to you, at a normal pace and volume. Most deaf and hard-of-hearing people can’t lip-read, and cochlear implants don’t cure hearing loss.” And while Darcy teaches her classes in ASL, she notes that it is important to remember that sign language is not universal, and typically varies by country.

More than happy to pave her own way and lead on her own, Darcy is still grateful for the deaf community in D.C. “We’re small enough that we all know each other or have a mutual friend,” she explains. She recognizes, too, that many people lack community and support, and may feel gauche or out of place attending a new class or workshop.

“I completely understand why a deaf or hard-of-hearing person would not feel comfortable attending a class that’s not accessible to them,” she explains, “so I would never push them to participate. Unfortunately, a non-signing class is often the only option, so if that’s the case, I’d encourage them to find another deaf or hard-of-hearing person to go with them for support.”

Ultimately, Darcy encourages everyone who is interested in yoga to give it a try, even if they do not see themselves as an athlete, or even flexible. “People seem to think you need to be flexible to do yoga,” she jokes. “You don’t! Yoga will make you flexible.”

Yoga will make you flexible.

But for Darcy, the benefits of yoga go beyond flexibility and grace. “Yoga has helped me become more self-aware of when I start to go back down that path of needing to be better and more successful,” she explains. “Yoga helps me to tune into how I’m feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally, which helps me to take better care of myself and to have self-compassion.”