Deaf not Stupid

Capt. Braddock: [to Dave, talking slowly] Was there… a wom-an… pres-ent?
Dave: [to Capt. Braddock, talking slowly] Yes. There was… a wom-an… pres-ent.
Capt. Braddock: Why is he talking like that?
Wally: [to Capt. Braddock, talking slowly] Because he’s deaf… not stup-id.

Scene from – See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)

I thought really long and hard about this post, and whether I wanted to write about it. It’s something pretty personal and close to my heart, and something I haven’t written about before, partly because I’m a pretty reserved person when it comes to personal things like this, and also partly because I felt that writing about it makes it into something which is a big deal.

Not many people know that I have a severe hearing impairment which has affected me my whole life, to the point that as a child I wore hearing aids, and even now I have to make sure I can see a person’s face to lip-read them, that I keep an eye out for visible signs when I can’t hear alarms, and that sometimes, not often, I have to ask a person twice, three times to repeat themselves before I understand what they’re saying. Oh, and I have the subtitles on EVERYTHING I watch (although to be fair, I think I’d have them even if I wasn’t deaf!)

So what made me write about this now?  I read an article recently written by a deaf woman who talked about getting awareness for her disability, and the fact that when she was younger she didn’t like to bring attention to it, and how it took her a long time not to be embarrassed by it. It was something which resonated with me quite strongly – I’m not exactly embarrassed by my deafness, but for a long time I divorced myself from the idea. I’ve been told by a lot of people (most people, in fact) and I don’t ‘look’ deaf. I don’t talk like I am, it doesn’t seem like I miss anything, and in fact, I look ‘normal’.

When I was younger, I would often see other deaf children in my school who were not able to hide their impairment as well as I could – it would show in their speech, or their mannerisms, and often their discomfort in standing out was as obvious as their impairment when you spoke to them. Sometimes it felt to me that their parents, in their well-meaning ways to protect them, had bubble-wrapped them a little too much and made them overly-sensitive to their condition and made them feel a little helpless, so that their disability really did become an impairment for them in some ways.

I learned from an early age that if you don’t make a fuss about something, neither will other people. Because I didn’t make a big deal about my deafness or draw much attention to it, other people didn’t either, and assumed it wasn’t a big thing, nor did they treat me differently. In hindsight, this had its blessings but also its drawbacks too. It meant that I didn’t feel too much of an outsider or felt too different, but it also meant that I wasn’t always able to talk about my disability with some people when I needed to. In one way, I normalised the issue, but in other ways I blended in a little too much, so people couldn’t see that sometimes I had to try harder, or I would struggle to make up for my deafness.

My attitude now is to approach it with as much straightforwardness as possible, without letting myself undermine myself, as I have done in the past, which has sometimes unintentionally made things harder for me. Don’t make a big deal out of it, but don’t downplay it either, because while it’s not what defines me, it’s still pretty important to me. I’m naturally a pretty sarcastic person anyway, and never miss a chance to make a joke out of something (like the rest of my family!), so have always made fun of my disability to show people it’s not a sensitive issue. It’s not something which has hurt me exactly, but it means there are times when I need to face up to it and take it more seriously. As I get older I feel that I should be more careful about the way I treat my impairment –  I have never felt ‘disabled’ but there are times when I feel that I should be more aware of my health and limitations, especially as it will affect me as I get older.

One of the reasons I wrote this post was because I wanted to articulate how important it is for me – as a woman of colour, as a Muslim woman,  as a deaf woman – that these things do not limit us or stop us from being like everyone else, or doing our best. As a child I was very conscious of my disability because I was surrounded by it – fellow deaf students, support teachers who shadowed me, speech therapists, and even the equipments we had to use to aid our hearings, and it made it harder for me to make friends quickly, nor did I have a lot of confidence. But I will also say that this didn’t stop me in my achievements either – I continuously got the highest grades and awards for my years through most of high school, and left with the highest GCSEs and A Levels in my year because I was determined to not be held back.

I was recently asked to write a short presentation of my time at my secondary school by some old teachers, for parents as well as potential students who were deaf, to tell them about my time as a student and whether I found it difficult. I found myself looking back with fondness – yes there were hard times for me in that I didn’t always fit in (for more reasons than my deafness) and yes I didn’t see it at the time how my future could be – but I have come such a long way since then. I wrote about my job, where I help homeless people find homes and even though it can be thankless, it can also be rewarding. I wrote about being married to a wonderful man who has understood me better than anyone. And I wrote about my dreams which I have never given up on – wanted to write, my love for art and photography, and my forever romance with books.

These days I don’t feel like an outsider or a ‘disabled’ person with my family, husband or work colleagues because it feels easy to show what I can do – and I certainly believe this was sparked by the the years of sensitivity and hard work from my teachers as well as my family, who showed me that I can do anything I want to do, and while that being deaf is important, it isn’t a bad thing.

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