Oral history and hearing loss
By Caitlin Tyler-Richards
When perusing the internet for innovations in the oral history discipline, I generally seek out new voices, intuitive platforms and streamless presentations. Embarrassingly, I rarely consider the basics of oral history collection and production, the act of sharing someone’s story with a wider audience. That is one of several reasons I so enjoyed Brad Rakerd’s contribution to Oral History Review issue on Oral History in the Digital Age, “On Making Oral Histories More Accessible to Persons with Hearing Loss.” In his piece, Rakerd discusses the obstacles people with hearing loss or other limitations on speech understanding face when engaging with oral history, and offers several recommendations to allow scholars to make their material more accessible. Mad with the power of the OUPblog post, I contacted Rakerd to prod him for more information.
What is your relationship with Oral History in the Digital Age?
I am one of the developers and editors of the Oral History in the Digital Age website, and have contributed two tutorials on speech audio to its essay collection. I also worked on the IMLS Field Work Survey and, of course, I wrote my article for the Oral History Review as an outgrowth of the OHDA project. I have very high regard for the work that oral historians do and it has been a great pleasure to be able to contribute in these ways.
And how did you become interested in hearing loss?
I am trained as a speech and hearing scientist, and when I conducted my dissertation research and other early career studies of speech perception, I worked exclusively with listeners who had normal hearing. It was only later, after I joined my current department — the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at Michigan State — that I had the opportunity to learn about hearing loss and its consequences. I did so through conversations with my very supportive audiology colleagues, and later, through a series of research collaborations with them as well.
When did you first think about your work in relation to oral history?
I first learned about oral histories when a former student of mine introduced me to the MATRIX folks here at Michigan State. It was our discussions about best practices for digitizing oral history collections and improving the audio quality of future oral history recordings that ultimately led to my participation in the OHDA project. Those discussions also prompted my thinking about ways to make oral histories more accessible to persons who have hearing loss.
Which lead to your article in the current issue of the Oral History Review?
Yes. Something about oral histories that has stood out to me from the start is that they must be listened to at great length and with great care if they are to be fully appreciated. Listening in this way can be a challenge for anyone. But the challenge can become especially great if the listener has a hearing loss or other limitation on speech understanding. Therefore, the purpose of my article is to recommend some steps that oral historians can take to ease some of this added difficulty.
There are recommendations for capturing and delivering oral history recordings in ways that can make the audio more accessible to anyone who has a hearing loss and who may use either hearing aids or cochlear implants. And there are recommendations for using video and other technologies to supplement the audio in ways that should make it easier to understand. One example of the latter is to make a video of an interviewee available for viewing in synchrony with the audio so that a listener can have access to lip reading cues. Another example is to allow the pace of an oral history presentation to be adjustable so that it can match the information processing preference of an individual listener.
Between this conversation and your article, you’ve provided a lot for us to mull over. Anything else you would like people to consider when working with oral histories?
There is one point about speech that I would make to everyone who works with oral histories, one that applies equally to those of us that work with speech in the lab: It is almost guaranteed that you are a poor judge of the degree of challenge that your own speech recordings will present to first-time listeners. This is true because you have heard those recordings many times over and, in the process, have become deeply knowledgeable about their content and about the speaking characteristics of your interviewee(s). As a consequence, the speech will almost certainly sound more intelligible to you than it does to anyone else. You might therefore think about working out a “buddy system” with some fellow oral historians, one where you serve as a fresh listener and critic regarding the challenges posed by their recordings, and they do the same for yours.
While Brad’s article focuses on making oral history more accessible to those with hearing loss or other speech comprehension obstacles, this last response demonstrates how working through seemingly “niche” issues can actually benefit the practice as a whole. Now, who needs a buddy?
Brad Rakerd is a professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at Michigan State University. His speech research focuses on perceptual processing issues, often as they relate to hearing loss. His article “On Making Oral Histories More Accessible to Persons with Hearing Loss” in the latest issue of Oral History Review is available to read for free for a limited time.
Caitlin Tyler-Richards is the editorial/media assistant at the Oral History Review. When not sharing profound witticisms at @OralHistReview, Caitlin pursues a PhD in African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research revolves around the intersection of West African history, literature and identity construction, as well as a fledgling interest in digital humanities.
The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview, like them on Facebook, or follow the latest OUPblog posts to preview, learn, connect, discover, and study oral history.