A Unique Experience in Buenos Aires

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In a unique chain of connections, I found myself at El Museo del Audifono, aka The Hearing Aid Museum, in Buenos Aires. Yes, a whole museum dedicated to the advancement of hearing technology. Quite bizarre, but it goes to show you just how far technology has come and how many people are willing to work on enhancing the lives of those in the deaf/hoh community. 

The museum opened its doors in 2000 and is free to attend. (The government helps fund some museums in Argentina.) The museum was founded by Gabriel Becker as part of an initiative started by his father, Don Becker, to transcend and popularize audiology. The elder Becker had only 15 pieces of technology when he first proposed the idea, but the museum now holds over 600 pieces of technology. Gabriel has dedicated his life to collecting artifacts surrounding technology established for hard of hearing.

One of the museum's main sources of income is through the phonologist(s) on site who sees patients daily. Traditionally, we associate a phonologist as someone who studies the speech sounds in language, but here, the phonologist acts as an audiologist as well. She tests the hearing of patients and fits them for hearing aids.

I got to meet Gabriel, his wife who speaks English, and the phonologist on site that day. All three people were incredibly nice, inviting, and enthusiastic. They were so passionate about sharing their stories and wanting to know mine. 

Gabriel gave me a brief rundown of the museum and how things got started. And by that I mean I understood every few words (he only speaks Spanish), but his wife, translated everything. Despite not understanding everything he said, I could see and feel his passion for understanding the evolution of hearing technology, and it was captivating. Beyond just collecting pieces, Gabriel currently works and continues to develop programming that will aid those that are deaf and hard of hearing. He really wants to create programs in schools, but the government won't aid in funding. Kind of interesting how they'll help keep the museum open but not in devising programs that might be more beneficial?

Anyways, Gabriel enthusiastically showed me some of his favorite pieces that he's inherited over the years. One of my personal favorites in his collection of favorites was a solar powered hearing aid. It's easy to see how this never really made it out on the mainstream market, but it's cool to know that companies are trying and using all the resources to see what clicks. I'm not going to lie, it felt a bit eerie holding some pieces from the early 1900s. Part of me was nervous I would drop it and break it. Now, it's important to note that his collection contains all types of technology related to audiology, not just hearing aids. By this I mean he had headphones and machines that help measure hearing loss, microphones and other devices that connect directly to hearing aids, and so on.

Gabriel chatted with some visitors while his wife and the phonologist showed me to the back where the hearing tests and fittings take place. I wanted to learn more about the deaf community in Argentina, but the two women were more interested in learning my story, so unfortunately I don't have much to share in terms of the community in Buenos Aires. But, I can tell you that nearly all the patients seen at this location are over the age of 60 as there are not as many resources available to those under 60 with healthcare policies and such. There are many home births and not all hospitals perform hearing tests, so the number of people diagnosed young is slimmer than other parts of the world. Luckily, there are a few deaf schools in the area that are available to students. Due to location and lack of ease getting there, though, not all are able to attend. 

As I mentioned, the women wanted to hear my story, which I always feel slightly weird sharing since it's definitely still being written. They were so intrigued to hear about what I was doing in my global travels, and the type of implant I have was a completely foreign concept to them. Of course, they wrote down all the details and were eager to look it up later. Though the phonologist did not understand English, I was told, through the 'translator', that I spoke well for someone who is hard of hearing. I found this to be an interesting observation since she was able to deduce this conclusion without speaking and understanding the same language, but since phonology is essentially the study of sounds, I guess she knows what she's talking about. 

We chatted back and forth about how I played soccer, that women playing soccer in Argentina is not super popular, how I was mainstreamed growing up, etc. Then, they had some fun! They begged me to speak in Spanish. Ugh, that was embarrassing, and all I could think of were the basic phrases, "My name is Ashley," "I'm from Los Angeles, CA," "I'm 27 years old," "I play soccer," all super kindergarten level Spanish. They giggled but were appreciative of my efforts to speak their language. 

At this point, it was late afternoon, and the museum would be closing soon, so it was time for me to leave. On my way out, Gabriel asked me what batteries my hearing aid required. I proceeded to, in very white girl Spanish, answer with "trece" which means 13. He smiled and ran off quickly coming back with a small packet of my hearing aids, a gift to me, but he was extra excited to point out what it said on the packet... "Colaboramos con el Colegio Las Lomas Oral donde los ninos sordos aprenden a escuchar y a hablar." This loosely translates to, "We collaborate with the school where deaf children learn to listen and talk." He wanted me to know that in addition to creating the power source for hearing technology, that this battery company works with the deaf/hoh community directly!

We kissed each other goodbye on the cheek (one of my favorite things about Argentinian culture), and I was out the door. The uber ride there and home, thanks to making this venture solo and the Argentinians being social humans, consisted of Spanglish conversations but conversations nonetheless. In between listening or pretending to understand my uber driver (on the way home) talk about how he travels and dances for a living, I couldn't help but think about what a unique experience I'd just had. Gabriel and his team were so inviting, so warm, and so willing to chat with me. There was a mutual respect for each other, and I gained a new perspective on technology and the dedication from hearing folks to make our world easier to navigate. 

I know I get frustrated easily with my 'disability', but I think it took seeing the progression of advancements in this type of technology for me to take a step back and acknowledge that I have a lot to be grateful for, and the best is yet to come, especially in an era that is so technologically driven.