The ability to read lips is often regarded as a superpower. That was the gist of a post I wrote in December about how officials in Oaxaca, Mexico have started using deaf police officers to read lips over closed-circuit security cameras. And, even if we don't regard lipreading as equal to the ability to fly or turn invisible, we do at least think of it is a near-perfect stand-in for the ability to hear.
But a remarkable essay in Stanford Magazine explains that lipreading is much more fraught than that. Rachel Kolb, who graduated from Stanford last spring, was born deaf and began learning to read lips as a young child. She appreciates the freedom lipreading gives her, but she also tells, movingly, of lipreading’s limitations.
“Even the most skilled lipreaders in English,” Kolb writes, “can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said.” Kolb explains that lipreading is easiest in familiar situations so she tries to keep conversations on patterned ground: How are you doing? How’s the weather? When conversations become freewheeling or esoteric, her lipreading comprehension plummets.
Overall, lipreading is surprisingly fallible. There are broad categories of people whose lips Kolb can’t read at all: “People with thin lips; people who mumble; people who speak from the back of their throats…men with moustaches or beards.” Lipreading also becomes agonizing in low-light situations. At the same time, Kolb explains that complete darkness brings a kind of reprieve: No matter how hard she might try, there’s nothing more she can do to try and communicate.
And that, perhaps, is the biggest difference between being able to hear words and having to read lips: Hearing can be done almost passively, but lipreading takes sustained, concentrated effort. “Each day brings a moment in which I literally cannot do it anymore,” Kolb says of lipreading. “The muscles behind my eyes ache from the strain…Often my corneas go dry; my vision gets blurry. The words on people's lips melt away.”
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.