Blessings come disguised

Michael and Sheryl Bergdahl share how their son Paul turned what could have been his biggest handicap into his greatest strength


When our son Paul was an infant, we noticed he was inattentive when we tried to communicate with him, especially when we spoke to him from behind. For this reason, we decided to take him to Children’s Hospital, a four-and-a-half hour drive from our home, to have the medical staff evaluate him. We spent an entire day with different specialists who, amongst other tests, performed various tests. The focus of concern centred around Paul’s ability to hear, so the doctors also decided to give Paul an audiometric examination in a massive hearing booth, which was painted to look like a big, yellow school bus, so it wouldn’t frighten the children.

In order for an infant like Paul to receive an audiometric test, I had to sit in the hearing booth with him, and hold him in my lap, while the technicians performed the test.

The way the hearing test works for infants is actually quite ingenious. The technician introduces sounds into the sealed hearing booth at a series of sound frequencies, one at a time, from really low to very high. As each sound frequency is tested, the technician slowly raises the decibel level coming out of speakers located in front of the child in the top right and top left corners of the darkened hearing booth. As the sound is slowly rising from one or the other speaker [never both], the child eventually looks in the direction of the sound, indicating the sound was actually heard. The moment the child indicates hearing the sound, by glancing in the direction of the speaker, the technician flips on a light above that speaker, and a stuffed monkey is revealed, clapping a pair of cymbals in its hands to reward the child for looking in the correct direction. Conditioning of the child is instantaneous as the child now understands and concentrates to hear the sound in order to be rewarded by a monkey clapping its cymbals.

As I think back, I remember sitting there with Paul wishing he would hear any of the sounds so that one of those darn monkeys would clap its cymbals, but nothing happened. At frequency after frequency, the decibel level rose to 100 decibels and beyond. The floor was vibrating under my feet from the intensity of the sound waves, and Paul never reacted to a single sound. It was in that moment that I came to the realisation that Paul was profoundly deaf, and we were devastated.

Sheryl cried for most of the four-and-a-half hour drive back to our home. Miraculously, the next day, she stopped mourning Paul’s hearing loss and immediately started searching for solutions. In the days, weeks and months that followed, Sheryl began her personal quest to become an expert on the issues surrounding deaf education. She identified community resources; she spoke with educators, and she talked with other parents of deaf children. She identified an American Sign Language [ASL] instructor and arranged to have our entire family trained in ASL.

For several years, Sheryl volunteered in a classroom dedicated to the education of the deaf and hard of hearing in order to learn the best techniques for educating Paul. We were determined to do everything possible to help Paul reach his full potential.

Hear no evil

Paul Bergdahl with his parents Michael and Sheryl

Paul was born into a world that is different from yours and mine. In his world, there is no sound. For that reason, from the time he was an infant, he never learned the negative subtleties of our society that are learned by the children of the hearing world.

Amazingly, in his quiet and naive world:

  • He didn’t learn to be afraid of things that there was no need to fear
  • He wasn’t taught to cry by parents, who shrieked when he fell, as he learned to walk
  • He didn’t hear the barrage of “no’s” each of us hears in a society intent on forcing us to conform
  • He wasn’t afraid to play in the basement unaware of the goblins most kids were taught are down there
  • He’s not afraid of being judged by others when he expresses himself creatively
  • He’s both comfortable and confident when left alone to entertain himself
  • He expresses his true feelings even when it may make others uncomfortable
  • He doesn’t worry about wearing the right clothes, and saying the right things
  • He doesn’t judge those around him based on what they wear or how they look
  • He loves to learn and enjoys getting lost in the story of a good book
  • He’s not aware of the latest gossip about who is supposed to be cool and who is not
  • He doesn’t have an “oh woe is me” outlook in life; he has a “can do” attitude
  • He didn’t need to be told to do his homework, and he doesn’t want anyone else’s help
  • He does his chores with little fanfare, because he knows that’s his job
  • He believes in himself and his ability to overcome obstacles
  • He’s an active participant in life, who gets up early, and stays up late, living each day to its fullest
  • He is his own person, unencumbered by the peer pressures to fit in that the rest of us experience
  • He doesn’t care what others think about him, he is comfortable “in his own skin”
  • He’s enabled in a world that views his hearing disability as a handicap
  • He experiences the world in a different way than you and I; he hears no evil.

In many ways, Paul’s disability has worked to his advantage, because he wasn’t conditioned by society the same way as the rest of us. He has a unique perspective on many things based on his own untainted interpretation of the facts. You will never win an argument with him by telling him everybody thinks this way or does things that way. He will stand his ground, and he can only be convinced his way of thinking is wrong if the facts you present are undeniable. He makes those around him better thinkers by challenging their often shallow opinions of the issues and poor command of the facts. Paul is an inspiration to others, because it is clear he has refused to let his hearing impairment define him as a person, and he has refused to let it disable him.

Excerpted with permission from High Expectations are the Key to Everything By Michael and Sheryl Bergdahl, published by Jaico Books

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Michael Bergdahl
Michael Bergdahl is a professional international business speaker, author and turnaround specialist. He received the Senior Professional in Human Resources [SPHR] lifetime certification from SHRM. Bergdahl is a graduate of Penn State University with a degree in Behavioral Science and a minor in Advertising.
Sheryl Bergdahl
Sheryl Bergdahl is the mother of two children, Heather and Paul. She has been a teacher and social worker, and has assisted her husband, Michael, on his professional speaking engagements. She is a self-professed tree hugger who loves the outdoors and all of nature’s creatures!


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