Even the most skilled lipreaders in English, I have read, can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said. I believe this figure to be true. There are people with whom I catch almost every word—people I know well, or who take care to speak at a reasonable rate, or whose faces are just easier on the eyes (for lack of a better phrase). But there are also people whom I cannot understand at all. On average, 30 percent is a reasonable number.
But 30 percent is also rather unreasonable. How does one have a meaningful conversation at 30 percent? It is like functioning at 30 percent of normal oxygen, or eating 30 percent of recommended calories—possible to subsist, but difficult to feel at your best and all but impossible to excel.
Rachel Kolb explains how she hears people speak: by reading their lips. Kolb is deaf in both ears, but that hasn’t stopped her from earning her bachelor’s in English with a minor in human biology and is working on a master’s degree in English. She is managing editor of the literary magazine Leland Quarterly, active with Christian ministries and as a disability advocate, and president of the Stanford Equestrian Team. In November, she was named a 2013 Rhodes Scholar.