I am 42 years old. Tinnitus runs in my mother’s family. My mother has it; my uncles and aunts on her side have it; my grandmother had it for as long as I could remember. When I was in my mid-twenties, I began to notice my hearing deteriorating. Because this problem was in my family, my doctors monitored my progress. Early tests revealed that this problem wasn’t too severe. I resisted further hearing tests until my mid-thirties, when it became too much of a problem to ignore. At this point, I had a further hearing test and discovered I had lost enough high frequencies to be considered hearing impaired. I now have to wear an ugly National Health Service protuberance from my ear until I earn enough to afford a high tech Danish hearing aid that can sit in my ear (almost) invisibly.
So, am I deaf?
I would argue, no. There could have been a case for my being slightly deaf from my mid-twenties until the time the hearing therapist shoved a plug of plastic in my ear and asked me whether it was comfortable or not. After that, my problem became more manageable. Despite the pain, his was the clearest voice I had heard for ages, and when he plugged the cord into his computer to adjust its settings and rang a small bell, it was unlike anything I had felt or heard for a long while – it was too loud. Until then I had had to rely on staring at my family, students and friends, hoping to “see” their voices as accurately as possible.
The initial answer to my problem then is, I have never felt disabled although I could have been said to have been once. I grew up in a community where I was treated as an able-bodied person. I managed to handle what was felt to be my impairment in my own way, as something to be controlled. In fact, I now overcompensate for it. Like closeted gay men who sleep with women to preserve their “manly” image, I try to become super able, super normal. I wear Levi’s jeans, Burberry socks, and dress for work with Austin Reed suits and Hawes & Curtis shirts; I buy Gucci sunglasses; I earn degree upon degree; I always keep my health, blood pressure, heart rate and waistline in good form; I write as if my life depends on it. I am trying to move away from the life and the deafness that I have seen in others. It was something they fought and hated, and it is something I feel I do not want to be a part of now.
So who does feel deaf or blind, and how do we account for whether a person wants to define him or herself as blind, deaf or having any other impairment?
When attempting to understand the concept of impairment, the background of these issues – and the backgrounds of those who are impaired – are often not taken into account in the social scientific discourse on impairment or disability. In truth, most people classified as impaired still want to be associated with an able-bodied culture, and if they lose physical faculties later in life, they generally want to relate their identities with their previous experiences and cultural and social groups. Indeed, these people want to feel they are the same person they used to be, even sometimes subconsciously, as Merleau-Ponty found in the case of the phantom limb.1 Therefore the experience that they are legally entitled to as impaired individuals2 is an adapted version of their able-bodied experiences, and the language used to describe such people is more often than not the same as that used to describe an “unimpaired” person. The social and cultural references they prefer are those you might ascribe to any other person, because, in their mind, there is no difference.
Those who have had an impairment from a very young age, though, can often be said to inhabit a different culture. They often want to feel that they are of the class, or gender, or ethnicity, or religion they were born into, but the cultural medium they have to refer to this culture will be different as a result of their institutional experiences. This means that certain technologies and objects, such as walking sticks, canes, wheelchairs, dark glasses or hearing aids, which are associated with impairment, may have a greater symbolic meaning to the person with the impairment than the person without it. To use the metaphor of art, for instance: I like the works of Klimt, Bacon, Freud, Gilbert & George, Mozart, Puccini, and Debussy. However, do their pieces mean the same thing to a person who has never seen or heard their works of art as I have? Or do these art works mean nothing to someone who has never heard of these artists?
Moreover, in this process perhaps the most crucial word of all should be emphasised: context. Maybe when Gucci makes a National Health Service hearing aid, just as they make fashionable glasses, many more people will be happy to call themselves deaf. But until institutions and the greater society they say they represent accept that such people want to be considered equal in the culture they were raised in, yet preserve a unique sense of identity and self expression, those with hearing impairments will often continue to keep their deafness as deep inside the closet as their physically and socially painful hearing aids will allow.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. (Smith C., Trans.) (2002) Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge Classics. ↩
- Cameron Rochdale, L., Chadwick, A., Howie-Finn, I. & Roelofs, S., Eds. (1996) The Disability Discrimination Act: A Policy and Practice Guide for Local Government by Disabled People. Leeds: University of Leeds. ↩