I nod hello to the barista and settle into my usual seat. I’m about to pull out my book when I see two people signing. They are sitting two tables over. I can’t help but really look at them. Their hands are flying up and down, touching cheeks, chins, ears, elbows. They are conversing rapidly; they are exchanging smiles.
I keep my hands under the table; they thrash about like freshly hooked fish. They can’t speak. I dig my nails into my palms to punish them.
The hot hiss of the coffee machine distracts me from myself. It causes shrill shivers to cascade down my arms and legs. I turn my head away. Away from the noise. Away from the people speaking in sign language.
I leave the cafe feeling helpless. I think of the future. I imagine being swaddled in only the memories of sound, unable to communicate. This doesn’t take a lot of effort to imagine. My Dad has started to struggle to follow conversations. His hearing has steadily declined from years of working in construction.
That night I watch him try to decode the family conversation as it travels around the dinner table. Everyone is talking over one another, the neighbour’s dog is barking and the TV is blaring in the background. He leans back in his chair. His heavy browed look of resignation is desperately familiar to me. He bows his head and quietly finishes his meal.
Later I cajole him to get hearing aids, at the same time I feel a fierce sense of jealously. I have recently found out that they will not work for me. I had not realised how much I was banking on them.
It was a matter of consequence that I was diagnosed as deaf in my left ear. I was in year two and struggling to learn how to read. I could rattle off the alphabet with singsong ease. However, tying letters together so that they became a word was beyond me. The page was completely impenetrable. Letters were stern unmoving lines surrounded by silence. I had been picking up words from reading faces and lips, gathering the gist of the conversations with my eyes guiding my ear.
I happened to be attending a school with a small disability unit. Several students were Deaf. I had never spoken to any of them. I could not even recall seeing them in the playground. They only ever appeared at school assemblies, a clutch of them standing silently. Their classroom was in the old section of the school. The base of the old building was buttressed with thick bricking like a castle. It looked sturdier then the new demountable buildings which rocked like boats in a high wind. The windows were set so high not even adults could peek in. It was a separate, faraway place.
I refused to leave my class. I did not know those kids. I did not want anything to change. I sat at the same desk as before, painfully aware of the way my classmate’s pencils swept across their copybook pages. They could string together sentences. They swiftly jotted down answers during spelling bees. I would tightly tuck my pencil into the web of my hand, desperately trying to temper its trembling tip. My nose would hover just above my copybook. The page would stay blank and slowly grow damp from my sweat.
Mum sat with me for hours after school. We would squeeze into an armchair. She would stroke my hair, slowly calming down my fidgety agitation. Then she would hold up flashcards of phonetics. Together we would chant – 'Ch, ch, ch, bah, bah, bah, rah, rah, rah.' I could feel the sounds vibrating through her chest. I would try to mimic her.
‘No, no. Gerr, gerr, gerrrrrr,’ she would say gently tapping the card. I would try again, rolling the air with my tongue.
After a while, I would grow tired and turn feral. Kicking and whining, irritated by the effort. Mum persisted. Night after night we sat together and practiced. I grew to hate the armchair. I would eat my dinner slowly, delaying the start of my reading lesson.
It was the physically of phonetics – the rumbling, sucking, tutting and whistling that gave meaning to letters. Slowly we coupled consonants, words started to emerge. The page started to buzz with motion.
When I could finally trace my finger under a sentence and read without rote, I tumbled headlong into books. Now the whitespace around each word felt like relief – a space clear of the clutter of concern. I could sink into words without monitoring background noise. I didn’t need to untangle the knots of conversations and there was never any chance of misunderstandings. The page became my place.
I did not know I was deaf until I was told. I would not know how to be Deaf for another twenty years. I worked hard to keep it invisible. I had developed elaborate passing strategies. I congratulated myself on my unceasing discretion and for never asking for help. I only ever told people I was deaf if I could not control a situation. If I did tell people, it felt like I was conceding to defeat or not trying hard enough.
I had learned how to deny disability; I have never learned how to be disabled. I didn’t think that it could be a thing that needs to be learnt. That was until I read the blistering essay ‘Becoming Disabled’ by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. She writes: ‘Becoming disabled demands learning how to live effectively as a person with disabilities, not just living as a disabled person trying to become nondisabled.’
Garland-Thomson’s essay radically reconceptualises disability: to be disabled is not asking for concession, rather it is asking for inclusion. Within the span of a few minutes of reading the essay, my sense of self shifted from apologetic to assured. I realised that I had spent years play-acting normality.
I no longer see the word ‘disability’ as a shackling clinical descriptor. It now thrums with hot-blooded humanity. Disability can be a point of pride.
I am still learning to say ‘I am deaf’ without apologising. It takes an immense amount of effort to unstitch ‘sorry’ from the sentence. It has sat there for so long that even as the words escape my mouth it feels like an omission, a panic response is triggered. I try to temper it with logic, but my heart gallops – the muscles have been conditioned to feel fearful.
My other habits typically emerge soon thereafter – I veer between overly cheerful and trying to make the other person feel comfortable. To reassure them that I am not looking for sympathy. I act earnestly. Too earnestly. I catch myself peppering the conversation with weak jokes all at my own expense.
These exchanges leave me feeling drained.
Even on days when my confidence is in full bloom, these interactions are clumsy at these at best. I want it to sound like a declaration but I am too busy asserting that I am able.
People response with varying degrees of directness. Generally people are swift and frank – 'How?', 'Why?', 'Really?' With each question, the need to justify or explain myself is deflating. Or people simply say, 'You don’t seem deaf.' This is a dagger that wears the cloak of a compliment. It slices through me. I feel like I’m being tarred as a fraudster. I find myself avoiding these conversations and shielding myself with silence.
About Fiona Murphy
2017 Write-ability Fellow Fiona Murphy is a writer, poet and broadcaster based in Melbourne. During her Write-ability fellowship, she has been working on a non-fiction manuscript that explores disability, social justice and feminism. Her writing has appeared in 'The Age', 'Kill Your Darlings', 'Meanjin' (online), Writers Bloc, Feminartsy, among others. In 2017, she was short-listed for the Dorothy Porter Award for Poets and long-listed for 'The Lifted Brow' experimental non-fiction prize. In 2018, she will be travelling to Indonesia as a WrICE fellow. Fiona is an audio geek. She co-hosts the podcast 'Literary Canon Ball' and is a weekend newsreader for Vision Australia Radio.
About Write-ability Fellowships
Thanks to the support of the Grace Marion Wilson Trust, Writers Victoria is able to support five writers with disability each year with free mentoring with authors, assessors and industry experts. FOr further information: https://writersvictoria.org.au/node/285