Hello, I’m deaf

For International Day of People With Disability, Fiona Murphy writes about Deaf culture and identify and why accessibility matters.

For the past six months I’ve been considering buying a badge that says: Hello, I’m deaf. Every so often I’ve logged onto Etsy and scrolled through badges, pausing to admire their pleasing colours and fonts. Sometimes I’d pop a badge into my shopping cart, such as a cute badge with a smiling teddy bear that says: Please bear with me, I have hearing loss. But whenever I’ve come close to making the purchase I’ve chickened out.

Despite being born deaf, for most of my life I’ve worked hard to pass as hearing. And while in recent years I’ve become more confident in disclosing my deafness, I continue to be selective about when I reveal my disability. Until 2020, the thought of wearing a badge had never entered my mind. But now, I feel as though I no longer have the choice to hide.

A ‘new normal’ intensifies inequalities

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live in so many countless ways. It has also intensified pre-existing inequalities, including for those of us who having hearing loss. As face masks and social distancing has become part of the ‘new normal’, communication has been difficult.

Thankfully there have been regular news articles and public health campaigns about how to communicate with deaf people. These have included useful tips, such as: face the person you are talking with; speak slowly and clearly; emphasise your message with simple gestures; minimise background noise; try using a pen and paper or voice-to-memo apps. I only wish that it didn’t take a global pandemic for this advice to be so widely disseminated

On Twitter, I look at photographs of people from around the world wearing buttons or lanyards, sometimes both, to identify that they are deaf. A popular badge says: I can’t lip-read through your mask. Perhaps things are changing? Maybe it will be ok to be open and proud about my deafness? I let myself hope. But then, almost daily, I read about instances of audism. My heart clenches and my desire to wear a badge lessens.

Audism is personal and systemic

Audism is the discrimination or prejudice against people who are deaf or hard of hearing. This can occur on at a personal level, such as excluding a deaf person from a conversation. Or by being patronising, for example a remark I’ve often received: ‘You speak well for a deaf person’.

Discrimination can also occur at a systemic level, such as when governments or organisations do not provide public information in accessible formats. If this occurs, it is a breach of Article 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is something that has been consistently occurring during the pandemic.

In April 2020, a group of British deaf people started legal proceedings against the UK government over a lack of sign language interpreters included at its daily COVID-19 updates. And while there have been Auslan interpreters present during many of Australia’s COVID-19 press conferences, during the first few weeks of the pandemic, they were often cropped out of view by major networks. This lack of awareness and audism is potentially life threatening. It also diminishes the value and worth of Deaf culture.

A more robust Deaf identity

Having grown up without seeing deaf people or sign language on TV, I didn’t feel proud of my identity. I learned to keep it a secret. This is not unusual. The Australian Federation of Deaf Societies (AFDS) believe that including interpreters in press conferences not only ensures that deaf people can access information, it’s also an essential step towards promoting Deaf culture. ‘We’d like to see emergency information and other matters of national importance interpreted into Auslan so that Australian society becomes more inclusive of members of its Deaf community.’

In my late twenties, I enrolled in Auslan lessons after seeing Auslan interpreters during the 2016-17 Victorian bushfire season. Without having clear language role models, I’m not sure I would have taken that step. These classes allowed me to develop a more robust Deaf identity.

Since interpreters have been consistently included in Australia’s media coverage of the pandemic, it seems like this argument is proving true. In July 2020, The Canberra Times reported that since the pandemic began ‘there has been a 1000 per cent surge in the number of enrolments to take part in Auslan classes’.

While I continue to go back and forth, unable to decide whether I should wear a badge or not, seeing Deaf culture represented on television has been me feel proud of my identity. I can’t help but imagine what the world would be like if accessibility wasn’t considered as an afterthought.

Fiona Murphy is a Deaf poet and essayist. Her work has appeared in Kill Your DarlingsOverlandGriffith Review, among others. Her memoir, The Shape of Sound, is forthcoming from Text Publishing in March 2021.

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