When she was four, Barbara Earth injured herself in the basement of the family home. Imprinted on her memory, along with the hurt, is the understanding that she had to scream really loudly “because my mother wouldn’t hear”. Her mother’s hearing loss took place over many years, and Earth grew up knowing that the same might happen to her. “I saw my mother’s experience,” she says. “So much loss and pain. And I decided: I am not doing that.”
In a sense, Earth, an academic, has prepared all her life for her own possible future deafness. She was 27 when a screening identified hearing loss, but the loss was gradual, so “it’s not easy to define when I stopped being able to hear,” she says. Her work and travels have taken her to 33 countries. In her 50s, she taught at a college in Thailand, but hearing students’ questions had become “impossible”. Life was “an increasing struggle”.
Earth decided that if she were to spare herself the loneliness and pain she had witnessed in her mother, she needed to act. So she moved from Thailand to Hawaii to learn American Sign Language (ASL) and now, with her 60th birthday some way behind her (she does not want to give her exact age to avoid discrimination when looking for work), she has reached “a functional level”.