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Hearing through your feet . . . 

We deaf people become attuned to vibrations: sound filters into our universe through feet and fingers, and through the medium of plastic water bottles. It can be a difficult concept for hearing people to understand, because they don’t notice them so much, so I thought it was worth explaining the mechanics of vibrations.

It’s actually a skill worth developing – and some people literally have it down to a fine art, such as Dame Evelyn Glennie, who is both a percussionist and profoundly deaf. Percussion, from the Latin, means ‘striking’ or ‘beating’: the drums and the xylophone are percussion instruments, as is the piano (hammers strike the strings inside a piano).

Each of those instruments transmits vibrations not only to the players but also to others: you might have felt military drums in the pit of your stomach as the drummers march past. Once, at Durham Cathedral during a procession, I saw a number of deaf people touching the back of the organ to get a sensation of the music being played and I always used to feel organ music through my pew or holding on to the back of the pew in front. It’s possible also to feel vibrations from other instruments too: I was once lucky enough at a museum gala evening to be invited, together with a couple of others, to feel music from a harpsichord by placing my hands on its body and gently placing my fingers on the strings inside to gain an impression of an 18th century song. (Despite its resemblance to a modern piano, the strings are mechanically plucked, not struck by hammers.)

Harpsichord by the famed 17th century maker Andreas Ruckers, remodelled in the 18th century. It is a feast for the eyes and ears, and for the sense of touch. Musée de la Musique, Paris: Gérard Janot, Creative Commons

Harpsichord by the famed 17th century maker Andreas Ruckers, remodelled in the 18th century. It is a feast for the eyes and ears, and for the sense of touch. Musée de la Musique, Paris: Gérard Janot, Creative Commons

Or take tennis, or any other racquet game you might play. You’ll know the difference between the ‘sweet spot’ – which produces minimal vibration and feels different when you hit the ball – and the rest of the racquet strings. Anyone can, then, develop this sense of gathering information through touch. It’s a sophisticated sense and can become a good way of transmitting information. I could always tell the difference between Dad banging on the bathroom door with his hands, which meant “COME OUT RIGHT NOW” (as a child that might mean Helen down the road had come to play, as an adult it was “it’s your boyfriend on a Typetalk call”) and pounding solemnly on the door with the black walking stick that he bought at a craft fair once, for what purpose I do not know because he has had it for 30 years and he’s never used it except ceremonially. It became a family joke: like Black Rod pounding on the door of the House of Commons, he was requesting entry, that is, “Hurry up, it’s other people’s turn now”. It was a difference of quality that could be felt down the door, across the bathroom floor, and in the bath. While in the bath or shower I could tell if either or both of my parents had gone out and where – the bang of the back door against the gentler closure of the front door. I could tell if it was Mum or Dad banging on the door by just by the nature of the vibrations – Mum a sharp, firm, rap, lower down the door, being shorter than Dad.

Though I can hear with my CI, the Bear will revert to attracting my attention through banging or knocking if I’m offline. So feeling vibrations can be a useful method of communicating, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t develop your own family “Morse Code” shorthand signals to convey particular messages or to develop a sensitivity to individual family members’ individual percussive styles . . .

Before my CI my life was filled with vibrations: the change in engine note in the middle of the night on a ferry to Amsterdam woke me up; a rumble on the road alerted me to the roar of a lorry hurtling at high speed; I danced to the beat of the music that I felt through my toes; a brrmm-brrrmm-brmmmmm on my bum might rouse me from the sofa to look at the thunderstorm outside. Although low-pitched sounds make the most vibrations, higher-pitched sounds can also be communicated through contact with or friction against another surface: the sound of a chair being scraped back on a floor, or the squeal of brakes being applied.

The contact is the important part: sound IS vibration. Airborne vibration, that is, sound not transmitted through another medium is difficult to feel. Banging a spoon against a pot to summon me for dinner isn’t going to work when I’m not wearing my CI: it’s not something I’d be able to feel because I’m not in contact with a conduit for the sound. The Bear makes a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010 by knocking on the kitchen ceiling if I’m upstairs in the study, which I can feel under my feet as I type.

Try this experiment: 

Oh – and the plastic bottle? I discovered this by accident when talking with a plastic bottle in my hand . . . here’s a simple and cheap experiment you can try at home. Hold an empty plastic bottle with the lid off at chest height about a couple of inches from your chest and talk or sing. You might have to experiment with the loudness and pitch of your voice and the angle of the bottle, to the point where you can actually feel the vibrations as you speak. It might take a few goes before you get it right.

Basically the mouth of the bottle catches the vibrations of the escaping air from your own mouth; tilting the bottle changes the quality of the vibrations as the sound strikes against the rim or neck. It might also give you some insight into the mechanics of Tadoma, a form of tactile lip- and speechreading used by some deafblind people.

The possibilities of vibrations are endless – they open up the world for deaf people in all sorts of ways, helping us with communication, alerting us to danger, and allowing us to access music. It’s an excellent secondary skill complementing the direct primary skills of language access. The world is in our fingertips and in our feet as well as in the eyes that drink in lips and signs.