Abstract

Even with the increasing rate of hearing loss in adults, stigmas about hearing loss and old age continue to prevail. Film and television representations have traditionally ignored cases of hearing loss. When representations of hearing loss have appeared, they have presented negative portrayals, reinforcing stigmas about hearing loss. This study examines how CSI: Crime Scene Investigation portrays hearing loss and deafness. Through the main character, Gil Grissom, this program offers multiple understandings of hearing loss and deafness. Findings indicate that CSI presents hearing loss to be isolating and career damaging. Yet, also presented through Grissom's character, deafness is conveyed not always as a functional limitation, but as one characteristic of a rich cultural community.

Introduction

The 2003 National Health Interview Survey indicated that 17 percent of adults or approximately 37.2 million people in the United States experienced some difficulty hearing (Lethbridge-Cejku & Vickerie, 2005). This estimation was a significant increase from 1992, when the NHIS found that 20.3 million people, aged three years or older suffered from hearing trouble (Benson & Marano, 1994). In Americans aged 65 years and older, hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition, after hypertension and arthritis, affecting between 25 and 40 percent of this population (Yueh, Shapiro, et. al, 2003). As the baby boomer population moves into this age range, the prevalence of hearing loss is expected to grow to 40 million within the next 15 years (Kochkin, 2005).

Hearing loss in adults is most often caused by presbycusis (loss due to aging) and/or noise exposure (Turkington & Sussman, 2000). Other causes of hearing loss include infection, injury to the ear, ototoxic drugs, or unknown factors (Turkington & Sussman, 2000). Despite the prevalence of hearing loss, it continues to be stigmatized (Erler & Garstecki, 2002). Research performed by the Better Hearing Institute found that 22 million people have never tried hearing aids, even though they could benefit from them (Kochkin, 2007). A follow-up study reported that 52% of the people surveyed with hearing loss would not try hearing aids because of stigma associated with wearing them1 (Kochkin, 2007). Stigma included feelings about others' perception that the person looked weak and feeble, old, mentally slow or disabled; fearing others would treat the person differently, and personal issues such as embarrassment and pride (Kochkin, 2007). Yet, of those who tried hearing aids, 93% reported an improvement in their quality of life (Kochkin, 2007). This situation begs the question of what perpetuates stigmas about hearing loss, causing people to resist accommodation due to fear or shame.

Representations of hearing loss seldom have appeared in popular culture, outside of advertisements for hearing aids. Although a number of popular television shows of the 1970s and 1980s include main characters that experienced temporary hearing difficulties, their hearing was quickly restored2 (Klobas, 1988). Most portrayals that address hearing difficulties involve characters that are profoundly deaf and have been for quite some time (Klobas, 1988). Rarely do characters experience progressive hearing loss within the actual television program or film. Given the absence of portrayals of progressive hearing loss in popular culture, stigmas about hearing loss, then, have likely primarily developed from negative stereotypes about aging. In American popular culture, senior citizens have been presented as the primary group with hearing difficulties, and have been portrayed as weak, unimportant, and senile (Smythe, 1999). This association is problematic in that people of all age groups can experience hearing loss and deafness (Benson & Marano, 1994). Furthermore, connecting negative portrayals of aging (i.e., frailty, senility) to hearing loss can discourage people with hearing difficulties from seeking help because of fears that they will appear old or weak.

Since so many people experience hearing loss at some point in their lives, the absence of positive portrayals of these experiences are discouraging. Studies have shown that television and film storylines that feature certain health conditions can comfort viewers with the condition and inform them of the medical process for the condition, from diagnosis through treatment (Sharf & Freimuth, 1993; Gauthier, 1999). Positive portrayals of characters with disabilities and disease can also destigmatize these conditions for the general public, increasing acceptance, understanding, and support for people with those conditions (Sharf & Freimuth, 1993; Nelson, 1999). With the potential of popular culture products to educate and comfort people about hearing loss, it is important for positive representations of these experiences to exist.

From 2003 to 2004, the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation became one of the first television programs to feature a main character experiencing hearing loss. At the end of the second season of the show, the lead crime scene investigator, Gil Grissom, was diagnosed with otosclerosis, a condition that causes progressive hearing loss due to calcification of the stapes in the middle ear (de Souza & Glasscock, 2004). Grissom's experience provided a rare opportunity in television history to explore how a character deals with hearing loss and how this condition affects various aspects of the character's life. At the same time, this show also offered insight into how television portrays deafness through the interactions of Grissom with other CSIs and with deaf and hard of hearing characters.

Method

This research examined Grissom's experience with hearing loss, as well as the portrayals of other deaf and hard of hearing characters that have appeared on the show. The following questions guided this research:

  1. How is hearing loss talked about on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation? Specifically, are treatment or accommodation options discussed? How does the main character deal with his hearing loss?
  2. How is treatment for hearing loss presented on this program?
  3. What does it mean to be deaf or have a hearing loss on this show? Is deafness presented as a physical or as a cultural trait?

Perceptions of hearing loss and deafness are not rigidly fixed. Rather, this perception is socially constructed by life experiences, interactions with other people, and by institutions (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). For example, while many people have historically viewed deafness as a disability, others, particularly members of the Deaf community, argue that deafness is not a disability in itself, but becomes an obstacle when people who are deaf or hard of hearing interact with people who do not know the language of Deaf culture (Higgins, 1980; Padden & Humphries, 2005). Higgins explains how it is only because hearing people dominate society and thus, create aspects of society for hearing people, that deafness becomes a disability (1980):

What it means to be hearing does not just involve the ability to hear. It also includes assumptions that hearing people make about themselves and the deaf — advantages which hearing people enjoy… as well as advantages which they create for themselves (to the disadvantage of the deaf); the emphasis on speaking and lipreading; the fears of losing one's hearing and so on. (Higgins, 1980, p.170)

For the current study, it was assumed that media, as a social institution, help to shape and influence social perceptions of hearing loss and deafness by educating people about these issues and reinforcing or counteracting stigmas about disability, hearing loss, and deafness. Specifically, it was assumed that the representations of hearing loss and deafness that appear in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation contribute to viewers' overall perceptions of these issues.

To study the representations apparent in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a textual analysis was used on all episodes to explore how hearing loss and deafness were portrayed in this program. The text and its meanings are not believed to be inherent or fixed in this form of textual analysis. Rather, the meanings in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation are shaped by ideas and values in American culture (Larsen, 1991). Here, the media texts are not considered as closed, independent entities, but, as Peter Larsen explained, "as an indeterminate field of meaning in which intentions and possible effects intersect" (1991, p.122). Therefore, constructions of hearing loss and deafness on CSI are considered part of the larger discourse on hearing loss, deafness, Deaf culture and disability in American society.

The show CSI was selected for several reasons. First, this show features a main character that experiences progressive hearing loss over a number of episodes. Deafness and hearing loss are also addressed with other guest stars on the show. CSI was also chosen because of its popularity and influence. Since it began in 2000, CSI has regularly been among the top three shows in the Nielsen ratings, frequently ranking number one in viewership ("Highest Rated Shows," 2005). Because of the influence of CSI, juries now expect more forensic evidence to support a guilty verdict — a phenomenon labeled the "CSI effect" (Makin, 2004). Politically, the attention given to CSI has influenced funding for criminology. In 2002, CSI's Gil Grissom, William Peterson, testified before the Senate, advocating for increased financial support for crime scene laboratories (Heuett, 2002). Following this testimony, an amended Paul Coverdell National Forensic Sciences Improvement Act was passed, allocating $482 million of federal funding for crime laboratories (Heuett, 2002).

CSI has also influenced education. Because of the popularity of CSI and similar crime dramas, more high schools now integrate forensics into chemistry courses (Hempel, 2003). For example, Gallaudet University hosts a Young Scholars camp each summer in which gifted deaf and hard of hearing high school students study forensics ("Press Release," 2005). In higher education, the interest in criminal justice has significantly increased, prompting four universities to add graduate level forensics programs (Hempel, 2003). Themes of individual episodes of CSI have also influenced society. After a 2003 storyline featured a convention where humans dress as animals (who call themselves "furries"), participation in one annual "furries" convention grew dramatically, from 400 to 1700 participants (Shepherd, 2005).

Findings and Discussion

This study explored constructions of deafness and hearing loss on all episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Out of 165 episodes over seven seasons, 29 episodes addressed hearing loss or deafness. This number includes all 23 episodes of season three, in which Grissom was progressively losing his hearing, which was diagnosed in the last episode of season two and fully restored by the first episode of season four.

1. How is hearing loss talked about on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation? Specifically, are treatment or accommodation options discussed? How does the main character deal with his hearing loss?

Hearing loss is addressed in 25 episodes, beginning with the last episode of the second season, titled "The Hunger Artist," through "Assume Nothing," the first episode of the fourth season. Deafness is also addressed in the episode "Sounds of Silence," of the first season.

The main character, Dr. Gil Grissom, experiences progressive hearing loss from the end of the second season throughout the third season. Grissom, played by William Peterson, is a lead CSI who supervises a team of four Crime Scene Investigators. He has almost superhuman capabilities when it comes to deciphering the mystery from the evidence he has collected. Grissom is a skilled Crime Scene Investigator with a national reputation for his work in forensic entomology. Grissom's life revolves around his devotion to science. At work and in his personal life, he uses scientific reasoning to solve puzzles and explain the world. Through Grissom (the sole case of progressive hearing loss in the program), hearing loss is presented as a lonely, embarrassing experience that hinders all aspects of life and cannot be resolved through his own reasoning skills or scientific experiments.

Until moments before his restorative surgery, Grissom does not disclose his condition to his co-workers, who are also his closest friends. Although he is a private person, Grissom talks about aspects of his personal life at other points in the show. For example, in the second season episode "Cats in the Cradle," Grissom tells CSI Catherine Willows, "One thing about my mother even though she was deaf, she was always the boss." Yet, when Grissom receives his diagnosis of otosclerosis and begins having difficulty hearing, he does not confide in his co-workers, even Catherine Willows.

Throughout season three, Grissom appears to become more and more withdrawn from his co-workers. In seasons 1-2 and 4-7, Grissom regularly discusses cases with the other CSIs and advises his colleagues. During his experience with progressive hearing loss, Grissom is pictured increasingly alone, with little interaction with others. Even when he is in the presence of his co-workers, Grissom says very little. For example, in the episode "Inside the Box," the CSIs share take-out food in the lunchroom. Although Grissom is physically present during the lunch, he does not contribute to the conversation, as the other CSIs joke with each other. Finally, after he is prodded to speak by another CSI, he briefly comments on the case and leaves the room. Grissom's isolation is clearly self-imposed. Yet, because Grissom does not tell others about his hearing loss, Grissom's withdrawal from the hearing world apparently helps him mask his hearing difficulties.

Grissom's physical appearance during season three emphasizes the difficulty of this time for him. Over this season, Grissom gains weight and appears sullen and withdrawn for most episodes. In contrast, following his hearing restoration following surgery, at the beginning of season four, Grissom is thinner and has grown a full, but trimmed beard. The combination of the weight loss, beard, and a new alertness suggests Grissom is no longer emotionally withdrawn, but is ready to rejoin his team. In this way, Grissom's change in appearance works as a visual metaphor for the surgical makeover he has received.

Grissom also likely isolates himself to avoid further embarrassment from his interactions with others. Repeatedly, Grissom misinterprets or misses what others are saying. For example, in "High and Low," CSI Nick Stokes tells Grissom about a crack pipe that he found at the crime scene. As Nick speaks, the audio fades out (simulating Grissom's hearing). Instead of asking Nick to repeat himself, Grissom guesses what Nick was saying and tells him, "Swab it, print it, bag it. See if you can find out who smoked it." Grissom leaves the crime scene and does not contribute to the case in the remainder of the episode. In another episode, Grissom is working on a computer when CSI Willows startles him. She says, "That must be some good evidence." Grissom misunderstands and replies, "You have evidence?" Again, instead of asking Willows to repeat herself, Grissom guesses what she says and misinterprets her statements. In other scenes, Grissom fails to respond to his coworkers. Grissom walks away without answering CSI Nick in "Hunger Artist" and "High and Low" and Detective Jim Brass and CSI Willows in "Inside the Box." Grissom's lack of response or explanation of his actions makes him appear disconnected from both his CSI team and the case that they are collaboratively investigating, although it is not always clear if he did not hear them or chose to avoid others for fear of embarrassment.

Hearing loss is also presented as a liability in personal and professional life. For example, in the episode in which he is diagnosed with otosclerosis, Grissom is nearly hit by a car while crossing the street, apparently, because he did not hear it coming. Several times in the third season, Grissom's fear that his hearing loss will hinder his work arise. Immediately following his diagnosis of otosclerosis, through a voice-over Grissom explains his concerns:

Obviously most of crime scene investigation is about seeing.

But much of it is about hearing as well. Listening. Knowing how to listen.

Not just to what people are saying but how they say it … how their tone of voice matches their facial expressions or body posture. So, even if I read lips and know what they're saying … it's not enough.

Grissom's hearing loss proves to be a liability in a high-profile case involving a movie star. In the episode, "The Accused is Entitled," the defense attorney learns of Grissom's hearing loss and attempts to discredit him because of it. Early in this episode, Grissom abstains from collecting evidence, fearing that his diagnosis will damage the case. This fear is soon supported. Phillip Gerard, who works for the district attorney's office, learns of Grissom's hearing loss and threatens to expose his problem if he proceeds with the case. Gerard tells Grissom, "Your work is dependent upon your five senses. The fact that you're losing one of yours wouldn't bode well for any evidence you introduced," implying that Gerard will reveal Grissom's condition if he indicts his client.

Despite Gerard's warning, they indict the movie star. At the indictment, defense attorney Marjorie Wescott, weakens the case against the movie star by exposing each of the CSI's weaknesses. As each CSI is questioned, Wescott uses his/her past skeletons as a means to throw doubt on the case. Wescott succeeds in getting corroborative evidence disregarded after she brings up Warrick's gambling addiction, Willows's previous occupation as an exotic dancer, and Sara's infatuation with Grissom. When Grissom takes the stand, Gerard tells Wescott, "Speak in a very soft voice, okay?" Wescott whispers her question to Grissom. After she speaks, Grissom does not respond. The judge orders, "Dr. Grissom, please answer the question." Grissom asks Wescott to repeat herself. Again, she speaks softly. Grissom responds, "One more time, please." The camera cuts to the other CSIs, who look puzzled at Grissom's behavior. Wescott states her question a third time. A close-up on Wescott emphasizes her lip movement. On the third attempt, Grissom is able to read her lips and answers her question, which saves the case. This scene implies that had he not been able to compensate for his hearing loss (thereby exposing his weakness to the audience), this flaw, like the discrepancies of the other CSIs, would have hindered his credibility and destroyed the case. Fortunately for the CSIs, Grissom is able to compensate for his functional limitation by lipreading, thus protecting his secret, and the case itself.

2. How is treatment for hearing loss presented on this program?

Throughout Grissom's experience with otosclerosis, it appears that very few, if any options are available to him. Upon his diagnosis, Grissom's doctor makes his condition seem dire and irreparable, stating, "There's no way to know when it's going to show up and there's no way to reverse it once it does." In this initial visit, Grissom's doctor does not mention surgery or hearing aid devices, even after he tells her of the importance of listening in his line of work. It is not until Grissom cannot clearly hear speech that his doctor says, "I think it's time to consider something like (pauses) surgery. Think about it. Let me know."3 Grissom's decision seems to be a difficult one, as he ponders surgery over the next few episodes. We see him researching otosclerosis at the end of "High and Low." Eleven episodes later, in "Play with Fire," he opens his Rolodex to an Ear Nose and Throat doctor (ENT), presumably to schedule surgery. Grissom does not have surgery until the end of the next episode, after Robbins tells him that Grissom's delay may have cost him his hearing.4

This program offers a flawed representation of experiencing otosclerosis. With Grissom's initial diagnosis, his ENT presents him with no options, suggesting that nothing could be done for his condition. In reality, with most cases of otosclerosis, a stapedectomy5 can significantly improve hearing (de Souza & Glasscock, 2004). Those who are not candidates for a stapedectomy or elect not to have the surgery can be helped with hearing aids for their conductive hearing loss (de Souza & Glasscock, 2004). When Grissom's ENT fails to mention hearing aids as an option, this program misses an opportunity to promote the benefits of hearing aids and other accommodations to people who feel limited or impaired by hearing loss.

Overall, the creators of CSI missed an opportunity to portray the experience of hearing loss in a more positive light. For many people, hearing loss can be devastating to careers and personal interactions (Adams & Rohring, 2004). Yet, this show could have featured constructive means of dealing with hearing loss, such as seeking support from colleagues or by Grissom requesting some degree of accommodation; thereby giving viewers a hopeful portrayal of coping with hearing loss. This program also could have had Grissom speak with his deaf mother, who also lost her hearing from otosclerosis — a situation that may have comforted Grissom, and demonstrated that hearing loss does not need to be an isolating and embarrassing experience.

3. What does it mean to be deaf or have a hearing loss on this show?

Through Grissom, hearing loss is presented as a lonely experience that can hinder one's work. On the other hand, multiple perspectives of deafness are presented in the first season episode "Sounds of Silence." In this episode, the coroner, Dr. Robbins, informs the CSIs that a male homicide victim, Brian Clemens, is deaf. A CSI shot illustrates his condition, juxtaposing a "normal" eardrum with Brian's. Robbins provides a voice over during the shots, explaining, "Normally, the malleus is shaped like a hammer — a long, smooth handle connecting to a blunt head — but Brian's malleus is knotted, both of them — birth defect." The coroner's diagnosis, aided by the visuals of Brian's eardrum, identify deafness as physical weakness. CSI Warrick immediately speculates that Brian's deafness led to his death: "So, Brian takes a walk crosses the street, doesn't hear the car, gets creamed." CSI Sara chimes in, "The vehicle — probably a truck or an SUV, based on the width of the tire tread — takes off. Later, along comes a compact — thump — runs over his dead body." This interpretation of Brian's death supports early stereotypes about deafness and disability, perpetuating myths that deaf people are vulnerable and less aware of their surroundings (Klobas, 1988). Dr. Robbins notes blood on the victim's knuckles and disputes Warrick and Sara's assumptions, stating that Brian's death was not an accident, but a homicide.

Brian's mother also initially believes that her son's deafness lead to his death. After learning of Brian's demise, his mother blames herself, stating, "This is my fault… when I was pregnant, I had the German Measles and the virus took away his hearing." Grissom comforts her, informing the woman that Brian's death was a homicide. The reaction of Mrs. Clemens suggests that she believed that her son's deafness limited his awareness, leading to his death.

Some of the CSIs also initially perceive deafness as a communication barrier. In an interview with Dr. Jane Gilbert, the principal of the Gilbert College for the Deaf, CSIs Warrick and Sara assume Gilbert cannot converse with them without the aid of an interpreter. During the interview, Warrick and Sara repeatedly turn to face the interpreter standing behind them, instead of facing Gilbert. Gilbert informs them, "I'm severely deaf, and I can communicate fine. I'd appreciate it if you'd look at me when you speak to me. I wear a hearing aid and I can read lips. You could have asked if I needed an interpreter." At this point that Gilbert signs (even though she had been speaking), "I want them out now." Gilbert's statement, along with her method of delivery (she speaks, then signs) clearly contradict the CSIs' assumptions that she, as a severely deaf woman, cannot communicate.

Unlike others in this episode, Grissom does not perceive deafness as a physical weakness or a communication barrier. After Gilbert forces Warrick and Sara to leave her office, the CSIs complain to Grissom, "They're not cooperating." In response, Grissom asks, "What did you do?" assuming that the CSIs, not Dr. Gilbert behaved unprofessionally. As Sara and Warrick watch, Grissom signs and speaks with Dr. Gilbert, demonstrating that she can communicate, is willing to cooperate, and does not require an interpreter.

Grissom's perceptions of deafness are clarified with a conversation between Grissom and Sara. After the meeting with Gilbert, Sara tells Grissom, "The president of the college is a real whack job." Grissom responds, "Sara, you see deafness as a pathology. For Dr. Gilbert, her deafness is not her handicap, it's her way of life." Sara complains, "You know, I think you might be siding with her." Grissom tells Sara, "As long as you see this as us versus them, you're going to have problems on this case." Grissom's support of Dr. Gilbert and her perspective is reinforced by his lack of collaboration with the other CSIs on the case. He spends most of the episode speaking with Dr. Gilbert about the case or sitting alone in his office.

The end of the episode continues with Grissom's perspective that deafness can be a "way of life," and not just a physical difference. The final scene begins with a shot of Grissom and Dr. Gilbert, as they sit by a fountain at the college for the deaf. Gilbert tells Grissom, "You don't see us as different." He states, "You're not." She then speaks and signs, "Who taught you to sign?" Grissom responds in sign and speech, "My mother." Gilbert asks about his mother. At this point, Grissom and Gilbert only sign, meaning that those who do not know ASL cannot follow the dialogue.6 This moment not only illustrates the equality of ASL as a language, but also conveys what Grissom told Sara earlier in the show — that for Dr. Gilbert, deafness is her "way of life," not a functional limitation, weakness, or communication barrier. By having Grissom, the main character and authority figure on the show, only sign, this scene suggests that Grissom clearly does not view deafness as a weakness, and neither should the viewing audience.

The portrayal of deafness through the character of Dr. Gilbert demonstrates that a severely deaf woman can communicate with hearing and deaf people. Played by Deanne Bray, a deaf actor, Gilbert is an articulate speaker and corrects CSIs Sara and Warrick in their assumption that she needs an interpreter. Gilbert is also a fluid signer. At the end of "Sounds of Silence," as the camera zooms out, Gilbert rapidly and gracefully signs, much more quickly than when she simultaneously spoke. In her abilities to speech read, speak, and sign, Gilbert as a character bridges the hearing and Deaf worlds. Gilbert emphasizes the separation of the Deaf community and her college from the outside world, stating, "The crime didn't happen here. It happened out there," which once again parallels the hearing world with Deaf culture. Later, after Grissom questions a deaf student, Gilbert reinforces this idea, telling Grissom, "If you want to find the killer, look outside the school," again differentiating between her school of deaf and hard of hearing students and the hearing world.

Grissom's interactions with Dr. Gilbert and his distancing from other CSIs in this episode, convey a cultural understanding of deafness. At the same time, Grissom's ability to sign and conversation with Gilbert provide insight into his connection to the Deaf community. Although he is a man of science, Grissom's upbringing by a strong deaf woman mean that he, unlike the other CSIs, understands that deafness is not necessarily a weakness or limitation.

Conclusion

This program's theme is that modern science can solve any problem or mystery, particularly with Dr. Gil Grissom, who has devoted his life to what is "rational." This view of science becomes frustrating for Grissom when he begins to lose his hearing from otosclerosis — believed to be caused by a genetic problem. With his progressive hearing loss, initially, Grissom is betrayed by modern science. According to his doctor, nothing in modern medicine can save Grissom from losing his hearing to otosclerosis. Yet, eventually, the doctor reveals that surgery could help Grissom hear again. Grissom undergoes the surgery and regains his hearing. In this way, the science which appeared to have betrayed him, rescues Grissom from his hearing loss, presented as a source of shame and embarrassment for this character.

Representations of deafness in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation suggest conflicting scientific and cultural perceptions. On one hand, the coroner and most of the CSIs perceive deafness as a physical weakness or an evolutionary flaw. On the other hand, Grissom, who typically views life through a scientific lens, does not perceive deafness (at least before he begins to lose his hearing) as a physical weakness. Grissom emphasizes to his co-workers that deafness is not always understood to be a physical limitation, but is considered by some to be a "way of life" or one characteristic of a cultural community.

Through the character of Grissom in this program, hearing loss and deafness, at times, both conflict and coincide with Grissom's reverence and devotion to science. For Grissom, hearing loss is a frustrating functional limitation that hinders his work and leads to embarrassment. With his surgery, modern science reverses the damage caused by his own genetic weakness. Grissom's experience does not suggest hearing loss to be a "way of life" — at least not one that he wishes to embrace. And yet, it is Grissom who earlier had suggested that deafness is not necessarily a weakness, but can be simply a characteristic that unites a rich community through the use of American Sign Language. Grissom's connections with the Deaf community through his mother, his own experience with hearing loss, and his restored hearing, offer conflicting perspectives of hearing loss and deafness, set within the context of a program that worships scientific reasoning and physical evidence.

This research found conflicting portrayals of what it means to experience hearing loss or to be deaf. On one hand, Grissom's experience with hearing loss appears to be devastating. From his diagnosis until he goes in for surgery, Grissom's hearing loss causes him to act withdrawn, to misinterpret conversations, and it generally threatens his ability to work as a Crime Scene Investigator. He appears to be ashamed and hides his condition from his colleagues. Grissom's doctor does not offer treatment options until many episodes later when his condition significantly worsens. Understandably, Grissom's experience with hearing loss likely mirrors some of the feelings some people have with hearing loss. However, if Grissom had confided in his coworkers or family joined a support group, and/or had gotten some necessary accommodations (like a hearing aid), this construction of hearing loss could have presented positive ways in which a person could work through and accept hearing loss. Furthermore, this program further stigmatizes the use of hearing devices by not suggesting hearing aids as an option.

Besides Grissom's experience, this program offers other portrayals of hearing loss and deafness. The "Sounds of Silence" episode presents deafness in a historically stereotypical way, yet also challenges that stereotype through Grissom's interactions with Dr. Gilbert. Throughout the episode, Grissom repeatedly emphasizes to his CSIs that deafness is not necessary a disability, but can be part of one's identity. Grissom's acceptance and knowledge of Deaf culture is further conveyed by the closing scene, in which he and Dr. Gilbert sign. In this moment, because they converse only in American Sign Language, unless an audience member is versed in this language, s/he is incapable of understanding the dialogue and becomes the person with communication difficulties.

The constructions of hearing loss and deafness in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation provide insight into continuing debates over stigmas about hearing loss and deafness as both physical and cultural traits. If more fictional media depicted these issues, perhaps hearing loss stigmas would diminish and more people would recognize the Deaf community as a social group.

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  • Turkington, C. & Sussman, A. (2000). Otosclerosis. The Encyclopedia of Deafness and Hearing Disorders. 2nd ed. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 162-163.
  • Yueh, B., Shapiro, N., MacLean, C.H., et. al. (2003, April 16). Screening and management of adult hearing loss in primary care. Journal of the American Medical Association. 289(15): 1976-1985.

Endnotes

  1. Other factors that influence a person's decision to use hearing aids include cost, a belief that they do not need them, and lifestyle (Kochkin, 2007).


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  2. Examples of this storyline include the characters Tootie on Facts of Life, who experiences hearing loss due to fluid in her ear and Nurse Ernestine Shoop, of Trapper John, M.D., whose otosclerosis causes hearing loss, which is restored after surgery (Klobas, 1988).


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  3. Stapedectomies are usually performed once a patient experiences a noticeable degree of loss (de Souza & Glasscock, 2004). Even so, one would expect surgery to be presented as a treatment option upon diagnosis.


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  4. A stapedectomy cannot correct sensorneural hearing loss (damage to the inner ear (de Souza & Glasscock, 2004).


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  5. A procedure which replaces the hardened stapes with an artificial one (de Souza & Glasscock, 2004).


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  6. Grissom signs: [My mother] lost her hearing when she was 8. She loves to swim. I asked her what it was like to be deaf. She told me to put my head under water. Gilbert responds, "True." They continue to sign as the camera pans around them and the shot fades to black.


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Copyright (c) 2009 Katherine Foss



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