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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Art of Being Deaf: A Memoir

Donna McDonald


When I choose to turn my hearing aids off and so switch off the world of sounds, I experience delicious relief. It is as if a sigh is breathing into my ears. My shoulders relax from their “pinned to the ears” position of strain. My face relaxes. Everything in me relaxes. I don’t feel on alert to the world; I do not feel on guard. I am at home in my silence, free to fill it up with my own sounds—the sounds of memories, reveries, and hopes.

But I feel this only if the closure of sound is of my choosing: I panic if I am out and about and my hearing aids fail me in some way. I feel unsafe then, as if I have been blinded by a mudslide that I cannot find my way through. When I turn my hearing aids back on, the air momentarily becomes harsh and stinging. In that split second when sound crashes against silence, I must reengage with my world. I have to adapt each time, but once having adapted, I enjoy the return of the loud and the soft, the bellow and the whisper, the variety of sounds in all their musicality and clamor.

I was already feeling the strain of the appointment when the psychologist asked his question, in the form of a statement: “Your hearing loss must have had a big impact on you?”

I hesitated.

He turned it into a refrain. “Your deafness? It must have been difficult?”

Dust motes hung in the arrow of sunshine between us. He sat in a shadowy corner of the timber-paneled room, and I slouched in a low-slung chair beneath a cracked window. The distance between us was as vast as the Nullabor Plain, as arid as the Simpson Desert. The force of the psychologist’s words was muffled by his beard, fluffed up around his mouth and blurring the outlines of his words. Lipreading him from so far across the room was like trying to read fading print. I could make out the vowel sounds, but was that a “p” or a “b”? I stretched and flexed my fingers to release the tension in them, and closed my eyes for a few seconds. I struggled to sit up straight. The psychologist ran his right index finger around the inside of his shirt collar as if it was strangling him. His question hung in the air along with the dust motes. I used my arms to pull myself upright in the chair again and cast around for a way to deflect the psychologist’s question.

I was forty-five years old, but a childish refusal welled up in my chest. I did not want to answer this question. The bluntness of it offended me. It had lunged at me without warning, winding me. I had already answered many questions as precisely as I could about my work, for this was the reason I was there in his office. A social worker friend, Jennifer, had urged me to see him. We had worked together in disability policy on and off for fifteen years, and she had observed my mounting distress about the gap between my achievements in my public service career and my disappointments in romantic relationships.

I said to the psychologist, “Not really.”

Short silence. I tried again. “Perhaps?”

No response. Clearing of my throat. Stalling for more time. “What was the question again?”

“Your deafness. It must surely have had a profound impact on you as you were growing up.”

No rising inflection this time. A declamatory statement infused with a sort of restrained anger. I imagined the thought bubble floating above his head, “Must I repeat everything?” But I had no sympathy for him.

His question didn’t just offend me. It irritated me, felt voyeuristic. I could not see its relevance to my work stress. It was a variation on a theme; I had been asked versions of this question all my life, usually followed by the crude and presumptuous statement that “being deaf must be terrible for you.” Because I fell into that shadow-land category of “oral-deaf ”—I could not hear without my hearing aids, but I did not communicate by signing with my hands; I could speak with my voice—I would also be asked, “What sort of deaf person are you?” After all these years and all these questions, I still found it difficult to summon up an off-the-cuff answer that would satisfy both me and the person doing the asking. If I went against my grain and said, “Yes, being deaf has had a big impact on my life,” the questioner would quiz me with inquisitorial precision, heedless of my feelings about being the object of such scrutiny. If I said no, injecting a note of warning into my voice not to pursue the topic, the questioner would acquire an expression of hauteur and assume he (it was usually a “he”) had the obligation to help me to “face facts” by reciting a list of “what if ” scenarios.

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