The sound of Stephen Dantzig's world
Stephen Dantzig is full of life. Outgoing and chatty, with a twinkle in his eyes and unflagging energy, you'd never have detected his inability to hear; yet the world he inhabited was virtually silent for close to 60 years. He relied on lip-reading in order to communicate.
Despite his deafness - or perhaps because of it, he says - he became a mental health expert, working for nearly 30 years in the New York State prison system, counseling repeat offenders in institutions like Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and maintaining a private practice.
Four years ago, Mr. Dantzig retired and moved to the Vineyard to share a two-family home with his sister, Jeri, a glass fusion artist who had settled here. And, although he said he considered his life full - he has two grown daughters - one thing was still missing: sound.
This past fall Mr. Dantzig had a surgical procedure to implant a cochlear implant in his skull, a minicomputer that, along with an external minicomputer that he wears around his ear, enables him to hear the world around him for the first time. "I forgot how noisy the world is," he says, shaking his head. "As a normal hearing person, you learn how to filter out loud noises. The sound of a siren is painful to me." However, he can adjust the volume of the implant.
Once considered experimental, cochlear implants now enable nearly 20,000 formerly severely hearing-impaired people to comprehend sound and converse. "It's like choosing to wear eyeglasses," Mr. Dantzig says. "Why would a deaf person want to live in the isolation of a non-hearing world?"
But cochlear implants have created controversy in the deaf community, with some aggressively criticizing those who opt for medical intervention. As a non-hearing person who has now regained partial hearing, Mr. Dantzig straddles two worlds: He remembers only too well the loneliness and ongoing struggle of childhood, and now revels in the exhilaration of hearing his first notes from a saxophone.
Nearly 60 years ago, when Mr. Dantzig was born with scarlet fever contracted in utero, the prescribed method of treatment was to bombard the patient - even an infant - with massive doses of antibiotics. Just 12 years later, medical researchers discovered that the drugs caused progressive deafness. So although he could hear as a very young child, by the time he was seven the hearing loss was so severe that he wore hearing aids in both ears.
"Before the diagnosis I knew I was different than other kids," he says. "So I became the class clown. My teachers loved me but I was clearly a disruption."
Mr. Dantzig was labeled an underachiever. "My parents couldn't understand it," he says. "I was bright but did poorly in the classroom." His language skills deteriorated gradually as his hearing failed. Despite his disability his parents insisted that he be mainstreamed in school, and they refused to allow him to learn sign language. "They didn't want me to live in the isolation of the deaf world," he says.
He began lip-reading classes in fifth grade and continued them through college. With the help of readers and transcribers, he earned an undergraduate degree in political science from the State University of New York, a master's degree in education from Berkeley, and a master's in social work from the University of Nevada.
He returned to New York after spending three years dealing cards in Las Vegas casinos - a perfect job, he points out, since conversation with customers is discouraged - and accepted a position as a substance abuse counselor with the New York State Department of Corrections.
"The prison population accepted me without any issues," Mr. Dantzig says. "I would just ask people to look at me when they spoke so I could read their lips. They would tease me, like my family did, but it was healthy teasing."
He speaks quickly and clearly, sometimes a bit above normal volume, but that could be attributed to the enthusiastic manner in which he engages. Being hearing impaired for so many years, he developed other communication skills to compensate.
With his sharpened eye for body language and other visual cues, Mr. Dantzig is a warm, eager listener, establishing an easy rapport with people around him.
"I'm finding myself a lot more relaxed since the surgery," he says. "Normal hearing people listen passively. It's autonomic. No one has to think to hear. But when you're hearing-impaired, it's exhausting to understand and to communicate - both physically and mentally. I have a lot more energy now."
His right ear, the one that was profoundly deaf since early childhood, now functions at 60 percent. In October, the device will be implanted in his left ear. Mr. Dantzig is unworried. "I hope to achieve at least 60 percent hearing in this ear," he says.
While he came to the Vineyard from New York to retire from a stressful and demanding career as the director of substance abuse services for the state, he now volunteers at the Island Food Pantry and at the Dukes County House of Correction where he again counsels prisoners.
"I went to my first concert recently. I'd always imagined what a saxophone sounded like. Now I know," he says.
Karla Araujo is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Times.