The sound of freedom

The stares from strangers, the denial, the strained marriage. Finally, Oren Dvoskin, a hearing impaired life coach, listened to his own self and made the decision that turned his life around.

By DIANA BLETTER
August 28, 2008 17:12
The sound of freedom

deaf bikes 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

After losing his hearing to a congenital disease and after losing his sister to a hit-and-run driver, Oren Dvoskin has won back his life. And the 35-year-old resident of Kibbutz Neot Mordechai now coaches other people to help them, as he says, "transform their lives." Born hearing, Dvoskin said that he started to lose his hearing in high school due to an inherited disease that caused sensory-neural hearing. It deteriorated over time and he became profoundly deaf. In a telephone interview, he related how Helen Keller had explained that "blindness disconnects people from objects, but deafness disconnects people from other people." He said that over the years, as his hearing loss became more acute, he became more and more isolated. He volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces through a computer training program, served as one of the army's first hearing-impaired officers, and went on to lead a software team in the air force. Along the way, however, he had to overcome many obstacles. Dvoskin was kicked out of his first officers' training course a week before completing it. It wasn't due to any mischief, he said, but simply to the fact that was not aware how his hearing loss was impacting his social skills. "There would be a discussion on a certain topic and I'd say something that was completely irrelevant to what was going on," Dvoskin told Metro. He explained that there are communication skills that people with hearing losses don't learn because they are socially disconnected. He wore hearing aids in both his ears, he said, and relied on reading lips, though with great difficulty. He also made use of assistive listening devices to supplement his hearing aids. "But I'd miss a lot, and had to strain to catch up," Dvoskin said. He said he convinced himself that "everything was fine." Looking back, he realized that he wasn't aware of what he needed. "I used hearing aids for 10 years, so I treated myself as if everything was fine," Dvoskin recounted. "Now I realize that I wasn't aware of what I needed." After being dropped from the officers' course, he fought his way back in. Dvoskin took his case all the way up to the head of the IDF's Manpower Division, convincing them to let him try again. He completed the officers' course and served as a career officer for eight years. He found that his experiences in the military helped him assimilate into mainstream Israeli society. "The army serves to help diversified people - such as minorities and [the] physically challenged - be [part of] the mainstream, sometimes for the first time," he said. But then another tragedy struck. His sister, Tamar, in whose memory the annual Israeli women's triathlon is held each spring in Herzliya, was killed by a hit-and-run driver during a training ride on the Ayalon Highway in August 1996. "That stopped me," he said. Her death caused him to change his perspective and sparked a desire to explore possibilities outside serving in the security forces. "It caused me to think about what I wanted to do with my life," he said. He studied computer science at the International Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, where he received aid from the National Health Insurance's fund for students with physical disabilities. At the same time, he volunteered with two organizations for hearing impaired people in Israel, Bekol and Shemah. Dvoskin said he lived a "yuppie" lifestyle, running from video conferences to phone calls to regular conferences in the computer business, until one day when he realized that he wasn't really functioning well because of his deafness. He explained that he had "roughed it out for many years, doing all the adjustments I could." But looking at oneself "takes a lot of courage" and it was hard for him to face - and come to terms with - his daily struggles. In 2005, he took the step of getting a cochlear implant. "My life until then was in a fog and after the operation, the fog lifted," he explained. "Or, to put it another way, it was as if I had chains on my legs and suddenly I was free." A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. The implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin. "Before then, my life with my wife, Adi, was strained," he said. Since he had never learned to read lips well, he found that he couldn't communicate. "We couldn't sit in the living room and have a flowing conversation… Now, I'm able to do the simple things in life, like talking on the phone or talking in the dark," he said. It took him a year to decide to have the implant. "It was a surgical procedure and I had to admit that I was hearing impaired," he said. Before then, he'd say that he was coping fine without the implant. Three years ago, the procedure was relatively new in Israel; there were not many people with implants with whom he could consult. "The testimonials from people who had cochlear implants in the United States sounded too good to be true," he said. "They sounded like a fairy tale; I couldn't believe it would change my life this way." Dvoskin said he was also aware of the public outcry in the deaf community against cochlear implants. The ideological objection is based on the fact that the deaf community uses sign language to communicate. Sign language, like any other language, is cultural. Children who grow up using cochlear implants can learn to communicate orally and therefore sign less. Some deaf activists say it's a slow "extinction" of a culture. Dvoskin says a parallel could be drawn to what happened to the Yiddish language over the years. "Yiddish isn't just a language, it has deep cultural roots. It was abandoned," Dvoskin said. As a result, much of the Yiddish culture was lost. Over the past couple of years, resistance to cochlear implants has waned, and the surgery is now routinely performed on hearing-impaired children. Ironically, several deaf people who participated in the documentary The Sound and the Fury, speaking out against implants, have had the operation. "When people see the device on my head, they think it's some kind of new Bluetooth headset, so they ask about it," he said. "They then receive an obligatory explanation about what a cochlear implant is and how it works." He said he's become accustomed to "the stares." "I'm much more aware of them after returning from trips abroad," he said. "I guess that in Europe they 'stare' much more discreetly than in Israel." Dvoskin's decision to get the implant was the result of his work with a personal coach. Coaching, he explained, "is a new form of positive psychology that assumes that a person is naturally creative, resourceful and whole, unlike in traditional psychotherapy, which assumes that a patient is someone who needs to be fixed." After his operation, Dvoskin began studying at the Coaches Training Institute in Israel, a school that trains coaches to work with people. He left the computer field and now works full time operating his business, Cielago Life and Business Coaching, which specializes in helping the hearing impaired. "Coaching is about setting goals and achieving those goals," he said. "In one-on-one sessions, I work with people in a way that's like doing software development." He said that having overcome both a physical disability and a personal tragedy has made him aware that he can help others achieve their goals. Part of the coaching process, he said, is helping someone learn through doing. "I had one client who is isolated because of her hearing loss and I've encouraged her to attend social meetings with other hearing-impaired people," he said. "It took a lot of work to reach that goal. Dvoskin's wife, Adi, is currently a biotechnology student at Tel-Hai Academic College after a stint working as a professional cook. They have a year-old daughter named Mika Tamar. He currently serves as director of hearing aid sales at Opticana hearing aids and would like to "revolutionize" the hearing aid market in Israel. "No more, 'I'm ashamed,' or 'it's too expensive," he said. I'd like to show people that there's a positive approach to being the center of stares and attention." He gave the personal example of how he reacted in college, when it was difficult to find a place to sit in one of the first rows. "I'd tell people that I need to sit here in order to hear," he said. Rafi Cohen, a software engineer in Kfar Vradim in northern Israel, said that Dvoskin recently worked with him as his personal coach. Cohen, who is blind as well as hearing-impaired, met Dvoskin through an Internet forum on cochlear implants. Cohen was also indecisive about having the implant operation and Dvoskin encouraged him to make the decision to go through with it. He had the operation a few months ago. "Oren helped me to make decisions at a critical time in my life," Cohen said. "And to turn those decisions into action."


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