Flip the mirror
Nick Doyle. Pip Russell. Alice Brennan. Meg Aumann.
These are the names of people who will forever hold the life-changing moments of my life.
Nick Doyle approached me to mentor hearing-impaired oral teenagers in high school in a volunteer based organization called Hear For You. At first I was skeptical. How could I mentor these kids when I couldn’t even help myself?
Instead, I met people who were like me. Most were hearing-impaired oral adults who do not sign or identify themselves as part of the deaf community. Even they had similar barriers and issues that I had.
While I was meant to be a role model for teenagers, it was the mentors and mentees who instead taught me that I was not alone in my struggles.
I could not stop talking about Hear For You. I could not speak highly enough. It was the only thing I thought about and looked forward to.
I am 23 and I have just moved out of home. I quickly realize how much I rely on my family for social activities and support. I knew this had to change but I didn’t know how. Until Pip invited me to a BBQ.
It was on Australia Day and I had gate crashed. I knew no-one except Pip, and the party was filled of hearing-impaired people at my age.
All could speak and sign and the most amazing thing of all, everyone understood what it was like to be deaf at a party.
Lights were on.
No thumping music.
People repeated when one missed out.
Pip Russell was the first to introduce me to a party that I did not want to leave.
For the first time, my acute social anxiety completely disappeared.
I meet Alice through the Hear For You program. Our friendship is almost instantaneous: mentors are in disbelief that we only just met.
Soon after, Alice and I start to live with a hearing housemate, Kat. While it was the first time Kat lived with deaf people, it was also Alice’s and my first time living with deaf people too!
Now the majority is deaf in the household, so we are also figuring out strategies that work for each other as a deaf person: captions on television, flickering of lights, learning Auslan or waving for attention – all are snippets of numerous strategies that we all had to learn. Gradually, we created a ‘deaf-friendly’ place to live for all of us.
In these conversations, I quickly realized that our experiences of deafness, childhood and education were vastly different: Alice was born with a mild hearing loss, wore hearing aids until the age of 10 and received cochlear implants at 10 and 21 years of age.
Alice also lived next door to a family who had a deaf mother and two deaf children. Her school also had a strong deaf facility with 20 other deaf students and chose Auslan as a Year 11 & 12 subject at school.
On the other hand, I was born profoundly deaf. I did not learn a language until after I received my first cochlear implant. I also attended several mainstream schools with no deaf facility. My educational support consisted of speech therapy and the FM system.
In spite of our different experiences, we learned that our challenges were still similar at the end of the day. The conversations were often around our struggles, the hilarious mishaps, our achievements – which lead to exploring our aspirations for the future and for the deaf community.
By living under the same roof, we unintentionally began to normalize the experiences of being deaf.
I can not thank Alice enough – we grew, learned, explored, and inspired each other, and most importantly – more than I realized at the time – we completely understood each other. I believe it became a turning point in both of our lives in choosing our career pathways that will support the deaf community in Australia.
A part time opportunity comes up to work for Hear For You. It’ll be my first time working for a deaf organization. I have no idea what to expect.
I arrive at the Hear For You office at Vicdeaf. The office is tiny and has no windows. I learn that I have a colleague working beside me: Meg Aumann is in charge of the VIC Auslan Program while I am to lead the VIC Oral Program. The way to communicate is through Auslan: Australian Sign Language.
Thanks to a few friends teaching me a handful of signs and the alphabet, I sign my name to Meg. Slowly, we begin to communicate with each other in Auslan. Well, mostly fingerspelling. However, I could not read fingerspelling to save my life.
Meg fingerspells for me a few times in a row for me to understand. Sometimes, she writes down the few words that I could not grasp in the Auslan alphabet. I am grateful Meg is patient with me, never judging me. Week by week, I learn a few more signs and more about Meg.
I begin to grow with immense respect for Meg and begin to look forward to our chats in the office. I find Meg intelligent and generous in being open about her experiences including her time living overseas for a few years. Unconsciously, I also learn strategies Meg use to navigate in social situations, work, meetings and on the telephone. It is similar to some strategies I had observed in hearing situations.
Our first presentation to the World Federation of the Deaf Conference in Sydney was an eye opener – it was the moment that I fully embraced sign language and deafness as part of my identity.
My life is now ‘Deaf proofed’
Since the day I became fluent in Australian Sign Language, my life irrevocably changed. Auslan helped me find role models that I admired. Auslan helped me find strategies that works. Auslan reduced my anxiety around social situations. In short, Auslan showed me a life that I could live as myself, including my achievements and barriers. It was the first time that my achievements and problems finally felt normal to me. No more of that “I’m special” kind of shit. Fucking knew it.
My imagination of the response from the deaf community when I realised I am not special.
As I delved deeper into the world of Auslan and the deaf community connected with it, I noticed the seemingly minor unimportant changes happening in my life as I began to ‘deaf proof’ my house, friends and my life. The smoke alarm was changed to a deaf friendly model. I began to tell people that I will ring back using the National Relay Service, copying the number to call via the relay service. I began to become good friends with those who know Auslan (or now learning Auslan). Now I no longer felt I was the party pooper. I also discovered that I am not a morning person, and therefore no longer force myself in the mornings to wear my ‘ears’ (aka. cochlear implants)!
Each of these changes were small, but all added up to the bigger picture: I no longer needed to change myself to ‘fit’ in any situation and I had also found my people and my place. Now I knew where I belonged, I was proud of it.
After one short year, I felt more at ease in myself and in my life than I have in the past 23 years. Suddenly, I knew no barriers or limitations. I blossomed. I grew into a better person for myself and for the people close to me.
Unlike the movies, the moment was not like flipping a switch and my life immediately changed. I still spoke, I still listen to music, I still catch up with friends who know nothing about the other half of my world. Rather, it was a slow change to embrace my bilingual identity.
I only began noticing how full life became after a few months. Then I started noticing that I no longer had break downs.
Looking back now, the people I sought help and advice from – they could have never understood what I was going through.
None of them had been deaf.
This whole time, I was seeking help from the wrong group of people.
I am 24 years old.
I finally feel happiness.
I only dream of success.
As a successful deaf person.
I sing along to the music with friends.
Signing along with the lyrics.
I am immersed in watching a thrilling movie.
That I almost forget the captions.
I chat on the phone – anywhere and anytime.
Video calling has changed the endgame.
Parties are just the best fun.
Background music is a must.
I can hear everything going on.
Suddenly, the world is coming to life in sign language.
Friends have me in tears with laughter.
Who knew Auslan would be the best?
I feel free to be myself.
Deaf and proud.