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The People You Meet at Our Conventions: Liza Sylvestre

Our 2018 SayWhatClub (SWC) convention was held in St. Paul, MN last October and we had a variety of workshops  which our members. One such workshop was led by Liza Sylvestre, an artist who turns her hearing loss into art. She first caught the SayWhatClub’s attention with her video titled: _a_i_i_old you a__ory in a language I _an_ear which we posted to our main Facebook page. She tells a story, on video, sharing about how she hears a conversation with all the high-frequency sounds of speech missing. High-frequency hearing loss is the most common type of hearing loss, which makes all conversations a constant puzzle of filling in the blanks. Liza lives in Minnesota where she has a grant from the Minnesota State Arts board to explore communication in the form of art.

We are thankful to Listen Technologies for sponsoring Liza’s workshop. Listen Tech has been an annual contributor to the SWC conventions since 2012 and continues to support the hearing loss community in a variety of ways, especially in continuing to advocate for quality assistive listening systems in venues. Listen Tech took an interest in Liza’s workshop because she makes communication barriers visual.


In one of her earlier exhibits titled, “Communication,” Liza had two audio/visual components and one real-time audio experience to share. In one part of the exhibit, Liza is on one screen having a conversation with another person on the wall opposite, the other person is blurred, and that half of the conversation is garbled.

At this exhibit, she also made space with a table to communicate with attendees called: the Equalizer Room. They would sit in a room with her — a room similar to a sound-proof booth for hearing tests — and wear headphones. The headphones were rigged to have a ‘hearing loss’ or a ‘normal hearing’ experience with the push of a button putting people on an ‘equal’ level of communication. She took note of reactions from the guests sitting across from her as they were bluffing during conversation or getting angry and upset. Hearing loss is not easy.

The third part of the exhibit was called “The Movement Centric Language”. Liza knows sign language but doesn’t have anyone in her life who uses it, most people in her life are hearing. So she created her own signs, titling some (without the sounds she can’t hear) and leaving others blank for people to think about. “I like this idea of revealing things but then also hiding them at the same time. Which, to me, is akin to what it’s like to be out in the world with a disability.”

What is language?

She takes her experiences and “turns them inside out” so people have a better idea of what hearing loss is like. Her goal is to, “Get people to ask what is language? What’s is the difference between written and spoken language?”

Liza showed us what watching a movie is like without captions for those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Even if we are good at lip-reading, camera angles aren’t always ideal for it. Distance makes a difference, if it’s not full on closeup, we strain to see the lips. Are there mustaches? That too creates a barrier. If we’re lucky, we can catch words here and there with faulty hearing but as Liza shows, we can’t get much of the story. Click here to watch the movie, from the hearing loss side, titled “Captioned.” If you’re hearing, maybe turn the sound way down, if you’re hard of hearing you know exactly what it’s like.

“Standing in a Room Without Sound” is another video giving us a visual of what barriers are involved with hearing loss. Liza is reciting some of her own writing with most of her face blacked out, the only visual we have is a circle which travels around on her face; lips, eyes, nose. Over the years she’s learned that people are uncomfortable when she focuses on lips only so she moves her line of sight around on different parts of their face.

Liza talked about other exhibits she’s created using light, darkness, visual and obstacles in communication. She had people come up to her and tell her, “Let’s get you an ASL interpreter or captioner” which upsets her because that is NOT the point of her art. “The point of the project was to get at how the underlying design of things, which is included in how we communicate, fails so many people who have disabilities,” she explained. However, when people try to fix it, she takes it as a sign that they are uncomfortable and that her art is successful in that regard.

sensory loss

Over their summer, she worked some sensory loss scientists through the Center of Applied and Transitional Sensory Science out of the University of Minnesota. At the time of the SWC convention, they were in the midst of working on the upcoming Sensory Loss and Art Symposium. The people she worked with primarily study the loss of sight and hearing but also a few other sensory losses. They work on technology for us, such as a cochlear implant like device that will work with the brain stem instead of the cochlea. Only a few of these people had a sensory loss themselves so she wanted to build a bridge to help them understand these losses better. She set up a museum tour that included common obstacles to communication and those with other disabilities, then she made sure each group on the tour had someone with sensory loss.

That’s where this post will leave off because another SayWhatClub member was a part of that symposium and will share her experiences soon. We enjoyed Liza’s presentation and appreciate what she’s doing to make hearing loss better understood. Thanks again to Listen Tech for sponsoring this wonderful workshop. Stay tuned for another post.


about the author:

Chelle Wyatt started to lose her hearing at around 14 years old, a little at a time. When she was 18, tinnitus struck and she began wearing hearing aids at 23 years old. Her hearing loss has been progressive, with a few big drops over the years. She found support in the SayWhatClub in the late 90s after one such drop and learned to live better with her hearing loss. Another big drop in hearing sent her back to the SayWhatClub again in 2009. During that time she also found local support in Salt Lake City, UT, and started attending classes through the state Deaf and Hard of Hearing center where she began volunteering which led her to a part-time job at the center and then a full-time job as Hard of Hearing Specialist. She credits her volunteer work with the SayWhatClub in giving her the experience necessary in landing her full-time job with the state.