I was diagnosed with a mild to moderate hearing loss at three years of age and given my first pair of hearing aids when I was 10, as my hearing declined. You can imagine how out of place I felt as a child sitting in an audiology clinic surrounded by images of elderly people. At the same time I was also referred to a special needs teacher. All it took was a couple of sessions for me to get the impression that I would never be as smart as my peers because I couldn’t hear everything. Meanwhile my parents were told I would ‘never be a party girl’, as though they were supposed to be comforted by that idea.
From that moment on I put up a wall; I refused to tell people about my hearing loss and I refused to wear my hearing aids outside the classroom. While my parents always tried to encourage me to wear my hearing aids, they went along with my decision not to discuss my deafness with others, as they saw how distressing and problematic it was for me.
From a young age, our social environment conditions us to hide our weaknesses and our differences. It is often done as a form of self-protection, and due to the fear of rejection and being made to feel inferior. Regardless, we are often left feeling isolated, ashamed and live with the perception that no one will ever quite understand us.
I did this for 16 years. Throughout school and university I spoke very little about my hearing loss and never once wore my hearing aids in a social setting. When I started work as a freelance photographer, I still refused to wear them on a job. The thought of a client seeing me with hearing aids made me squirm with embarrassment as I believed they would somehow think I was less capable.
It was April 2014 when all this changed. I was skimming through a magazine and stumbled upon an article by a 27-year-old photographer, who was also deaf. She mentioned the awkwardness of missing punchlines, the embarrassment of being a teenager and telling boys she was deaf, and the frustration of not always having access to subtitles when watching movies. She then went on to explain that visual imagery had always been a huge part of her life, and that it seemed natural for her to pursue a career as a photographer. Mid-way through the article, I realised there were tears rolling down my face.
While the young woman in the article was profoundly deaf with a cochlear implant, many of the experiences, thoughts and emotions she mentioned, mirrored my own. For the first time in my life I found comfort in the fact that the feelings I had were not mine alone. How had I reached the age of 26 and not once realised there were other people like myself and that deafness was actually worthy of discussion, not something to be ashamed of?
I knew immediately that this article had changed my life irrevocably. Not only had it shifted my perspective, but it made me question something far more significant. If a thousand words in a magazine could have such an impact on me, how could I use photography and storytelling to do the same for so many others?
And so began my five year journey to complete Earshot. A project to take deafness and hearing loss out of the audiology clinic and into the lives of the countless number of people affected by it. To show the faces of the young Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) who our society has neglected to acknowledge. The driving force was to ultimately create a book that would have made me accept my deafness much earlier in life.
Before I started this project I didn’t know anyone else who was Deaf or hard of hearing, and so the process of making Earshot was not only a huge learning experience but it gave me the opportunity to develop my own Deaf identity. As I learnt about Deaf culture and history, debates around oralism and sign language, and the daily experiences of people living with various hearing devices, a whole new world of understanding opened up for me. I listened to people’s deepest fears, heartbreak, joys, and resilience. Sharing these experiences with so many others helped me to grow as an individual, to be proud of my Deaf identity and empowered to advocate for my needs. Earshot is essentially a culmination of the knowledge I learned and the stories I heard, with the goal that any reader will be able to go on that same journey of insight and growth.
The feedback I have received since publishing the book last year has been incredibly humbling and reassuring that I have achieved what I set out to do. Many people have said Earshot is a must have for any household with someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing, as well as audiology clinics, medical centres, speech pathologists, schools and libraries. Most rewarding has been receiving messages from parents, teachers, teenagers and various others, thanking me for creating this resource.
While Earshot is obviously centred around hearing loss and deafness, I believe that many of the ideas and experiences discussed in the book, can be applied to anyone with a type of ‘difference’. Earshot aims to break down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’. To build understanding and compassion. To inspire, empower and to help us understand that there is strength in revealing our vulnerability. To show us that diversity enriches our society and that it is something to be celebrated.
Kate Disher-Quill is a Melbourne based artist, photographer and author
Find out more or purchase your own copy of Earshot here.
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