Josh Swiller has been a hospice worker, a Peace Corps volunteer, a forest ranger, a sheepskin craftsman, an internationally recognized advocate, a raw food chef and a Zen monk, among other things. He has also been deaf since the age of four. Currently, he works at Gallaudet University, where he is leading the effort to secure more attention, care and understanding for the tens of thousands of young veterans returning from courageous service in Iraq and Afghanistan with severe hearing loss. He also runs Access International Foundation, which strives to improve the support and visibility of the deaf and disabled throughout the world.
The Unheard, Josh’s memoir of growing up deaf and living for two years in a rural African Village beset with contagious disease, endemic corruption and witchcraft, as well as an appalling lack of toilet paper has been lauded for its compassion, humor, and literary skill. It was a New York Times bestseller and has been optioned for a movie.
In his speeches, Josh shares from his many experiences – anecdotes that range from outright hysterical (being sued in tribal court for virginity theft) to terrifying (being sued in court for virginity theft). He reflects on all his journeys — not just the ones to five continents but also those through varied and unexpected sense worlds (once deaf, he now hears remarkably well through a computer implanted in his skull). He takes a hard look at the plight of the hundreds of millions of deaf and disabled around the world – how they are seen and not-seen in various cultures. He maps strategies for improving their situations, concentrating on day-to-day, here-and-now steps we can take to create a more accepting and compassionate world. All this is done with humor and compassion, which touches on the core of Josh’s message–one rooted in years of monastic spiritual practice.
It is not our disabilities or even our abilities that define us, or our defeats or our victories, but something that goes deeper. The economic tsunami may have cut the legs off our retirement funds, our kids may come home with inexplicable facial piercings and an unshakeable conviction that we have ruined their lives before they even got started, and our spouses may never seem to appreciate all that we do for them – at these moments it may seem that life is a thankless, brutal slog. But it most definitely is not. There are blessings and treasures everywhere, in every single situation.