My father, Dr. Alfred Toby Lieberman (of blessed memory), was a physician. He was, to be precise, an “otorhinolaryngologist” (a word I learned to pronounce as a very young child)–an “ear, nose and throat” specialist. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati Medical School and went on to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to pursue his residency training, the first Jew admitted to that program in Johns Hopkins’ history.
During the Second World War my father served in the Army Air Corps and was stationed at Wright-Patterson Airfield in Dayton, OH. (Dayton was my father’s hometown and he would regale us with tales of his daily walk past Orville & Wilbur Wright’s bicycle shop when he was a boy.) He was involved in medical research examining the inner-ear problems encountered by pilots flying at high altitudes that sometimes led to loss of consciousness. His work contributed to successful solutions to this vexing problem.
In his private practice my father saw a variety of patients. He was known, admired and loved for his gentle touch and demeanor as a physician. He was a surgeon who frequently performed delicate inner-ear surgery. One of my cherished memories is sitting alongside my father as he performed one such operation. I viewed his actions through an ancillary microscope viewing tube. I was quite in awe of his skill at manipulating surgical instruments in the tiniest of spaces.
One of the ironies of his life was that, as he aged, my father began to suffer a serious loss of hearing. This was, in part, caused by exposure to airplane engine noise during the war. My father used two hearing aids which were far less sensitive than those available today, but which did help him to function. Toward the end of his life, his hearing loss was so great that, to effectively hold a conversation with him, one would need to speak into a microphone that fed the audio signal directly to his hearing aids. I must say that my father dealt with his disability with patience and an admirable lack of self-pity.
I think of my father often but always when I am in a situation where someone present has a hearing disability. I do my best to not only speak loudly and clearly for that person’s benefit but to encourage everyone else present to do so as well. Few of us, I think, can fully appreciate the sense of isolation and disconnection imposed by hearing loss.
I share these memories ands insights because February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. The mission of Jewish Disability Awareness Month is to unite Jewish communities and organizations for the purpose of raising awareness and supporting meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Jewish life.
This can be a time when we deepen our understanding of what it means to live with a disability and how much still remains to be done–in our society, in our communities, in our synagogues–to help ensure that everyone feels maximally included and involved. For a variety of helpful resources, I suggest that you do an Internet search under “Jewish Disability Awareness Month”.
My beloved father died in 1988. Among the many blessings bequeathed me by him is a sensitivity to the challenges of hearing loss and deafness. May each of us find inspiration to increase our ability and commitment to respond to those with disabilities and to advocate for a society that recognizes and meets the needs of all people.