Category Archives: All about Deafness

All about Deafness

If you define me

I’m Deaf. But being Deaf is not the most remarkable thing about me. People who know me will tell you that far more interesting is my creative drive, the fact that for holiday reading I’ll read a business text book and write my own precis, or that I built my own house when I was 22 and it has a huge food garden, including animals that I raise and kill myself for meat. In fact, there are lots of things more interesting about me than my Deafness.

But it can be really hard for people who meet me to get a handle on this. The Deaf thing leaps out at them. I’ve been knocked back from courses, where I would probably be the hardest working and  most devoted student, because the idea of catering for a Deaf student is just too overwhelming for the teacher, and all they can see is my Deafness (along with, I suspect, a bit of the old assumption that to be Deaf is to be stupid, and therefore it’s probably not even worth teaching me anyway).

My friend Anna recently studied her grad dip to become a teacher, and while all the other students in her course were granted their teaching licenses, she was required to present herself to the board. “Since you’re Deaf,” they said, “We think we should give you a restricted licence – so that you can only teach in schools with Deaf students.”

Knowing Anna as I do, this OUTRAGED me. To think that she was seen as only having value to Deaf students, but not to hearing students. Aside from being a terrific model for diversity, Anna is funny, smart, compassionate and highly entertaining. If I was a hearing student, I would learn bucketloads from having her for a teacher. And one of the main things I’d learn is that Anna’s Deafness is not her main talent. No – it’s her incredible wit and ability to hit the nail on the head, which would make learning fun and easy. But I’d also learn that Deaf people can be more than their label.

So, I’m asking you, next time you meet a person who is Deaf, or a person who uses a wheelchair, or has some other physical condition that seems remarkable, remind yourself that it’s probably not the most remarkable thing about them. And you won’t even know what IS remarkable, until you get to know them.

Please feel free to share this post or hang a print of this painting on your wall to raise awareness about this tricky issue. Giclee prints of this artwork are available in my shop.

Prints and artworks about Deafness

If you’d like some artwork on the wall that is for Deaf people, by a Deaf artist, and reflects Deaf values, you might like one of my prints. I have heaps of different images available and they include Deaf activism, Deaf experience and Deaf pride.

These prints are great for the lounge room wall, and would also suit spaces where services are offered to Deaf people – think Deaf units in schools, Deaf clubs/societies, audiology clinics, interpreting agencies and more.

If you want something striking, or a splash of colour, along with a great message, check out my prints here.

It is not my goal to be normal

it-is-not-my-goal-to-be-normal

When I was a child, my parents watched them patronise me, talking over-loudly with me, they noticed that if they told people I was deaf, they’d have to deal with their heartbreak and sorrow on my behalf. They’d watch them patronise me, talking over-loudly with simplistic language appropriate for a much younger child.

Eventually, they figured out it was better to zip their mouths about my deafness, and let them see, through interacting with me, that I was just like any other child – racing around the house with my siblings, spilling apple juice and playing hospital games with toilet paper for bandages. Later, they’d say, quietly like it was no big deal, “Oh, by the way, she’s a little bit deaf.”

They chose not to use sign language with me, figuring that the more ‘normal’ I seemed, the better I’d fit into the world and the more appropriately people would treat me.

I get why my parents made these choices for me. They did the best they could.

But there’s a flip side. I grew up thinking I was only a ‘little bit deaf’ and that it was my own fault that I didn’t concentrate hard enough to understand people. The entire burden of communication rested on my shoulders, as I struggled to make sense of the world through lipreading, with no accommodation by others. There was a subtle but definite pressure to be as ’normal’ as possible, and not to make waves or ask for help because of my deafness.

As an adult, I’ve discovered that by letting the world see I’m deaf, I can share the burden of communication with others, and I can relax more, instead of always being alert to the possibility of people speaking to me. Using sign language, I can chat in a group and it’s enjoyable and relaxing, unlike trying to lipread, which is basically impossible in a group setting.

Instead of straining to be something I’m not, by ‘passing’ as hearing, I choose to be me as I am – Deaf – and to set up my life to be as Deaf-friendly as possible. That makes my world smaller, more limited, but it also makes it more relaxing and enjoyable, and on the balance, that’s what I prefer and choose.

This piece has been sold.

Deaf dilemma – to laugh or not?

Deaf dilemma

 

 

When I was a kid, I always laughed along. I didn’t even know I did it. I survived by copying faces. Someone was upset, I’d make sympathetic faces while they spoke to me. Someone was excited, I’d let out a little excited yelp too.

I didn’t even realise I did this until I was in my late teens. And when I did, it occurred to myself that I was doing myself a disservice. By copying faces, it gave people the impression that I understood what was being said. If instead, I gave them a quizzical expression, I’d be more likely to get an actual explanation.

I set about trying to break my habit. It’s deeply ingrained. I still do it sometimes, but mostly I try to be more honest about when I have and haven’t understood.

But it’s really difficult when I’m standing in a group, say, of people I don’t know that well, but whom I hope to get to know and want to make a good impression on. They’re all laughing. If I stand there, blank-faced, it feels incredibly rude. But it’s also often not right to interrupt them and demand that they explain, especially if we’ve only just met. And yet, if I laugh along, that gives them the impression I understand, and it doesn’t let them know that if this relationship is going to work, I’m going to need a bit more information.

It’s tricky. I don’t have an answer for how us Deaf people should handle this situation. I just wanted to raise some awareness about it.

But, if you’re with a Deaf person and the group starts laughing, maybe you’ll consider leaning over to explain.

If you’d like to do your bit to help raise awareness, feel free to share this post. Thanks!

I can’t believe you learnt to sign for me

I can't believe you learnt to sign for me

No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to learn to hear the language spoken around me. Communication needs to happen on my terms, for me to be able to access it. It never fails to astound me that there are people out there who will go to the trouble of learning an entire new language, Auslan, just so that they can communicate with me. Over the years there have been many friends who have done this. Some people don’t even know me all that well but they have still made the effort. I am touched beyond belief. And oh so grateful. This painting is a huge thank you to everyone who has made the effort to learn to sign, for me personally, and for other Deaf people. You are much appreciated.

By the way, the painting is part of my exhibition, Looking Out, Looking In, at Cam’s Cafe Gallery at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne until 28th Sept, and it’s available here.

A review of BOY by Phil Cummings

Have you read ‘BOY’ by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries? It’s a picture book targeted at preschoolers. I was recently asked to sign it. But once I’d had a read, I declined. It’s about a young Deaf boy. I have never met Phil Cummings and I don’t know whether he is Deaf or has experience with the Deaf community, but his website doesn’t mention either. I suspect he may not have knowledge nor experience of our community, and yet has written a book about Deafness anyway.

I showed it to a few other Deaf people, without letting them know my thoughts, and asked them to give me their perspective on the book, and they each raised the same concerns that I have.

The key problem we have is that the book describes exclusion, something we Deaf people face in abundance every day, and feel intense frustration about, and yet the character in the book is unbothered by it. He is described as being ‘happy’ despite the villagers not bothering to take the time to understand him, and ‘not needing to know’. But Deaf people DO need to know and we don’t feel happy when we are excluded from communication. The book never once considers his feelings about this situation, and the implication is that it is okay to treat Deaf people like this, when it is not.

It bothered us that the author uses the euphemism ‘dancing hands’ when he means ‘sign language’. This is a bit like describing hearing people as ‘singing’ rather than speaking. Signing ‘thank you’ is not dancing hands – it is a simple gesture. We feel the author is romanticising our language inappropriately instead of recognising it as a tool for communication, just as speech is an equivalent tool. This is the same kind of attitude that we deal with every day when hearing people tell us to stop signing because it bothers them, or doesn’t want an interpreter in the room because it’s too distracting, or talk over us because spoken communication is considered more important that signed communication and so on. Sign language needs to be valued for what it is: language.

The Deaf boy in the book is excluded by the villagers, until he inadvertantly resolves a conflict between the king and the dragon. After that the villagers suddenly know how to sign and make the effort to communicate with him. The message here seems to be that as a small boy, he is not worth communicating with, until he has done some heroic act, and then he is worthy of being given access. Access is a basic human right which should be promoted as essential regardless of what acts a person has performed.

There are some inaccuracies too. A Deaf child who is able to read the fear in his parents’ eyes knows he is living in a dangerous place, a place of war. We find it hard to believe that such a child would obliviously run into a battlefield. The child might not hear the sounds of battle but battles are visual too – this is simply unrealistic.

Also, a child who attempts to communicate with the villagers using drawings would be unlikely to continue to do so if his message is not getting across. Suddenly in the book it becomes clear that he knows English, because he writes in the sand, ‘Why are you fighting?’ Most Deaf signing children of that age do not have sound English skills, unless they have been raised orally (which clearly he hasn’t), and so their English would be incorrect. Supposing he knew how to write English, he would probably write, ‘You fight, why?’ The correct English he uses is highly unrealistic. If he could use English at that level, why does he not use it to communicate with the villagers?! He is presented as stupid, as well as Deaf.

I feel the book does not promote Deaf interests but is actively damaging, by encouraging hearing people to see Deaf people as objects (‘Boy’ does not even have a name!) who lack realistic feelings, and whom it is okay to treat in an exclusionary manner. It teaches inappropriate terms to use about Deaf people and our language.

I hope that by writing about this issue, I can encourage you to be aware and sensitive if you are writing about disability or cultural groups other than your own. Best to get someone who has lived that experience to check over your work before it goes out to the world. This goes for any kind of media, films, presentations, talks and so on.

If you’d like to do your bit to help raise awareness, feel free to share this post. Thanks!

Deaf people often need to work harder

Deaf need to work hard

Deafness is not visible, and some of the difficulties Deaf people face can be invisible to hearing people, who can easily take ‘hearing privilege’ for granted. Here, I wanted to raise some awareness about the extra work that Deaf people often do, in order to achieve the same outcomes as hearing people.

A simple example that many Deaf people will relate to is my university maths class. I couldn’t understand the lecturer, who spoke into the whiteboard as he wrote his notes. At that time, I couldn’t sign well, so an interpreter was not an option for me. Instead, I dutifully copied out all the notes on the blackboard, and took them home to try and figure it out. Figuring it out meant hassling my father, who kindly gave me about an hour a day of his time to go over the material, and studying the text book at length. For me to pass that course, I think I put in twice the amount of time that any other student put in, and even then I only just scraped through. University level maths was hard!

Another example is when I wanted to become a professional circus performer. Joining a professional circus company was not an option for me at that time. There simply wasn’t money available for interpreters, and the companies who were interested in me were not in a position to change their entire working environment in order to accomodate my needs. Fair enough. I decided to go solo.

I created my own acts to perform freelance, and approached the agencies that my circus friends got lots of work through. However, I did not receive a single booking. I think they did not feel comfortable putting my material in front of their clients, as they weren’t confident that I, as a Deaf person, would handle the requirements in a professional manner.

With yet another dead end for my desired career, I decided to make it happen myself. I invested my personal savings to pay someone to ring festivals and tell them about my acts. I then posted them the same promotional material that my agents had. Finally! I got bookings! This was before email was popular. I had to spend a lot of time and money training up my admin assistants to present me in exactly the way I wanted to be presented. But the hard work and cost paid off, and for the next ten years I earned a living as a freelance circus performer.

For those of you with hearing privilege, keep in mind the ‘head wind’ that Deaf people often need to deal with in order to get ordinary, everyday tasks done, and in order to get and hold down a job. Perhaps you’d consider hiring a Deaf person, (most Deaf people work very hard – we are used to that in order to survive), or extend an opportunity that just makes life that bit easier.

It happened for me when Arts Centre Melbourne hired me to tell stories as part of a project they were running, and, without me needing to ask, they also hired my interpreter. They had to pay double, to get my stories, compared to what they paid their other storytellers. I like to think it was worth it for them. But maybe, my stories had to be twice as good….

If you’d like to do your bit to help raise awareness, feel free to share this post. Thanks!