My earliest memory of being deaf was having a tantrum because my parents wouldn’t let me watch Dumbo without wearing my hearing aids. This was in the precarious period of hearing aid training, when the fallout of my diagnosis mainly comprised of Beanie Baby bribery, TV bribery, and – yep, you guessed it, the ultimate six-year-old’s weakness – chocolate bribery. In all fairness, I make it sound like my parents ran a totalitarian regime of hearing aids, sugar and electronic babysitting, but in the post-training-days democracy, I’m fully grateful now for the benefits gained.
I was diagnosed with a moderate to severe hearing impairment at the age of six. Most likely, I’ve been deaf since the age of five weeks old: I contracted Streptococcus as a newborn and in order to save my life, doctors had to administer drugs to me that are known for causing nerve damage. From the very start, my life was going to be shaped by the decisions of those around me – and it all started in 1993 with ‘deaf or dead?’
I was lucky enough to be able to support myself as a small child, and having learned independently how to lip-read, I effectively taught myself to read, write and speak. Up until the age of six, I was just thought to be of limited intelligence and to have bad behavioural problems; rather, it turned out that when I was running off naughtily in supermarkets, it was actually because I couldn’t hear my parents calling after me. But while I’m grateful that I have the ability to adapt to this extent on my own, in many ways it’s a double-edged sword. It’s very easy for people to forget that I am deaf. It’s hard to assert myself sometimes when I can’t hear something, because after so many years of ‘seeming’ like a fully-hearing person, I don’t fit the brackets of what a deaf person is supposed to look like. Though I have previously dabbled in the use of glittery bright purple ear moulds, my hearing aids aren’t that obvious (and I’m not just referring to the obscuring qualities of the ubiquitous Jewfro, also referred to by my audiologist as ‘that great mop’). My speech may be certainly unclear at times, but I don’t have a ‘deaf voice’, and the only word I can say in sign language is clitoris. Which so far, hasn’t been that useful.
The centrality of Judaism and Jewish culture to my identity has strongly overshadowed that of any disabled identity I may have. My deafness figured most at social events, bar nights and Shabbat dinners in which I struggled to hold conversations amidst the background noise, and conferences that drained me from the constant concentration of lip-reading over a prolonged period of time. I’ve had my fair share of struggles at university with lecturers I can’t hear or people who object to the use of subtitles because it detracts from their full enjoyment of a film. I can’t forget those moments of extreme awkwardness when a teacher shouted at us at school, “Do you think I’m deaf or something?”, when we were being noisy. Or when upon not hearing someone, they got offended and retorted, “Are you deaf or just stupid?” as if I had any control over the situation. Part of the problem is, we don’t think of deaf people as being young, but the truth is there are more young deaf people today than ever before, and it’s the society around us that needs to change and accept us for who we are and what we need. At the end of the day, I can buy as many hearing aid equipment systems as I like, but it won’t stop anyone from equating deafness with stupidity, or forgetting about my hearing impairment because I don’t look deaf enough.
Until recently I never properly thought of myself as disabled, and even now, I often feel as if there’s a disconnect between the word ‘disabled’ and myself – I suppose that’s simply proof of how far the stigmas and perceptions of disabled people in our society have gone: they’ve created a hegemony which narrows what disability is and this makes it far harder for people affected to relate to and define their own identity.
But this is what the UJS Disabled Students’ Network is here for. Disability is a part of our community, and it affects the Jewish experiences that we have day in, day out. We live in a world where it’s easier to talk about STIs than it is to talk about mental illness; a world in which we categorise ourselves by our sexualities, gender and colour; a world where it can be easier to painfully suppress our true identities instead of opening up to others about who we are and how we feel. But not anymore. Now it’s time for British Jewish students to start speaking out.