“I was the first deaf student to graduate with honors.”
On August 5, Anna Walters and I traveled to Menorah Home and Hospital in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. I met Ralph Wolfe, a resident who came to talk with his good friend Jane Rosenthal, the Executive Vice President of the Menorah facility. Ralph’s story shed light on what it was like to grow up deaf in the 30s, and how much has changed since then.
At age seven, Ralph lost his hearing to scarlet fever, the same disease that left Helen Keller and Thomas Edison deaf in childhood. Still, Ralph was determined to stay in public school. He taught himself to read lips and was the first hearing-impaired student to graduate with honors from his grade school in Brooklyn. Although Ralph had learned to speak and succeed on his own in school, his deafness was deemed “disruptive” in high school. Ralph was sent to a trade school to learn typesetting and printing– a profession where his intelligence and sharp eyes could be put to use and his ears wouldn’t be affected by the cacophonous printing room.
Ralph had desperately wanted to be a doctor, but in the 1940s he set his sights on serving his country in World War II. He told us each time he failed the medical entrance exam, he would put his test result on the train tracks until it was ripped to shreds and try again. After multiple attempts at enlisting, Ralph secured a non-combat job with the Navy.
As a child, Ralph feared that relying on sign language would isolate him. His decision to remain in mainstream schools and read lips instead of signing was also rooted in the public perception of deafness at the time. Ralph saw people who signed in public being stared at and ridiculed. Fifty years later, Ralph would find out that he could be an ideal candidate for a cochlear implant, a procedure that could allow him to “hear” with a surgically implanted electronic device. Ralph declined the surgery, electing to continue reading lips and speaking as he had been his whole life.
Ralph’s story stood in stark contrast to another recent StoryCorps interview in Washington, D.C. Taye Akinola, born deaf almost 70 years after Ralph, was also a candidate for a cochlear implant whose parents decided against the surgery. Today, Taye speaks and uses hearing aids but also signs, and is a graduate student at Gallaudet University. Taye is able to study at a university that has become a center for deaf culture, political discourse, and empowerment. From Ralph’s struggle to stay in public high school to Taye’s master’s degree in Deaf Studies, the changes in public understanding and resources are striking.
Today, Ralph keeps pictures of his daughter in her police uniform and his granddaughter in his front pocket, proud proof of the life he built for his family despite a disability that was viewed so differently decades ago.
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