Category Archives: All about Deafness

All about Deafness

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!

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 boy

You might have seen some of my other paintings about Deafness:

– ‘Don’t make me lipread, ok?’
– ‘Not sweet, innocent nor stupid: Just Deaf.’
– ‘It is not my goal to be normal.’
– ‘Deaf is the new black.’
– ‘I don’t ask the world to revolve around me – just to access it.’

This is a linoprint of a Deaf boy, and I haven’t added words yet. I can personalise it for you with the words you choose.

I’ve also got this linoprint of a Deaf girl with a really cool tattoo ready for you to customise too. In fact, I love her tattoo so much I am thinking I will get one just like it one day.

These pieces are no longer available.

Hearing Privilege

Hearing Privilege

In case you can’t read the writing on this painting, it says, ‘Do you have the privilege of being unaware of your Hearing Privilege?’

A friend mentioned that she’d noticed a real sense of ‘hearing privilege’ among her classmates at uni, who treat the the deaf student as though she’s not as intelligent as the rest of them.

‘How do you know they think that?’ I asked.

‘Well, it’s in the subtle things. When we’re discussing ideas for projects, no-one ever asks what she thinks. When we start work, people offer to help her with her work, but never ask her to help them. It adds up.’

My friend just articulated something insidious that I’ve never really been able to put my finger on. That’s how people treat me (until they know me better), and day after day, in situation after situation, I start to find myself feeling like the sweet little pet of those around me, instead of a valuable, interesting contributing member of society.

Being patronised this way is a routine experience for most Deaf people. The problem is not being unable to hear, but the attitude of other people.

The exhibition, Looking Out… Looking In… is up at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne until 28th Sept and at 2.30pm on the 11 Sept we are having a Q&A session where we can discuss topics like this. Come along if you’d like. Event details here:

Please share this post to do your bit to raise awareness about this tricky issue.

Giclee prints of this artwork are available in my shop.

How do you communicate with a deaf person?

How do you communicate with a deaf person_-1

If I tell you I’m deaf, that doesn’t actually tell you anything about me. For instance, it doesn’t tell you how I communicate. Maybe I use Auslan (Australian sign language). Maybe I can’t sign at all. Maybe I lipread well. Maybe lipreading stresses the hell out of me and I’d rather not. Maybe I can talk on the phone and enjoy music. Maybe I can’t or don’t.

So how do you know the best way to communicate with a deaf person?  Follow their cues.

Notice how they communicate with you, and respond in kind. If I speak to you, speak back.
– Face me.
– Open your mouth when you speak, without over-enunciating or going too slowly.
– Don’t shout. If I don’t understand, try rephrasing.
– Add visual clues such as indicating the thing/person you are talking about.
– Watch my facial expression to see if I understand, and if I don’t, find another way to communicate until it works.

If I indicate my deafness by pointing to my ears, and miming that I’d like to write with pen and paper, don’t respond by speaking and expecting me to lipread you. Find a pen and paper and write instead, or use your phone.

While you’re at it, act normal. Don’t tell me about every deaf encounter you’ve ever had, or make me sit through a demonstration of the fingerspelling you learnt at school, or assume that I’m not intelligent. Don’t share your heartbreak that I will never hear the birds twittering nor the patter-patter of rain. And definitely don’t suggest that I undergo surgical intervention.

When referring to someone’s deafness, use the same terms as they use. If they say ‘hard of hearing’, don’t call them ‘deaf’. If you’re not sure, ask. In fact, just about everything can be clarified with a simple question. Before you ask, though, think in terms of basic courtesy that you would extend to anyone. For instance, don’t ask overly probing or personal questions if you are strangers.

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

Just another day battling Deaf discrimination

Hello M,

I was disappointed by your email. Do you know what it’s like for me, as a Deaf person, to repeatedly ask to join courses, retreats, programmes, seminars, conferences, and schools, only to be told, ‘We do not have a programme to suit your particular needs’?

Of course you don’t have a programme to suit my needs! Our society is not encouraged to think about access. Organisations don’t routinely think about how they can ensure their programme will be accessible to everyone. No. It’s up to us to ask. That’s why I emailed you instead of just enrolling and showing up like others have the privilege of doing. Although the law specifies that you are obliged to provide me with access, at your own cost, in reality, that rarely happens. I understand this. So instead of asking you to provide access, I made up some solutions for you.

I suggested that I bring along a friend who would interpret for me (at my own cost, not yours – the only inconvenience to you would be that she’d be standing in the room waving her arms about), and that to ensure the trip was worth her while, I’d miss out on half the sessions being interpreted. For these sessions I asked you for a print-out of the guided meditations. I figured you’d probably already have a script for this so it might not be too hard for you.

Knowing that you have probably never considered how to accomodate a Deaf person before, I made it easy for you. The single thing you needed to do to accomodate me was provide a print-out. Other than that, you would need to tolerate the annoyingness of me and my Deafness.

However, even that was too much for you. You graciously conceded that I might come for ONE NIGHT (you will be kind enough to put up with me for that long), and pay $95 for the privilege of doing so, unlike the rate that my friend Rose pays you when she attends, which she tells me is $35 per night.

I’m glad to hear that you are happy to ‘assist in any way that we can’. How about assisting in the very way that I asked you to? By tolerating the inconvenience of my Deafness (which is somewhat more inconvenient to me than to you, I might point out), and providing a print-out? Oh, and welcoming me for as long as I would like to stay, at the rate others pay?

Yours sincerely,

(Thank you for your blessings of peace, joy and inspiration. Right now I’m not feeling especially blessed, peaceful, joyful nor inspired, as I write yet another email to yet another person who has routinely excluded me because I am Deaf.)