By Kate Disher-Quill
I was born with a mild to moderate hearing loss, which is closer to a moderate loss these days. I was diagnosed when I was 3, yet it wasn't until I was 10 and given my first pair of hearing aids, that I really realised I had a "problem". I hated the idea that I had a "disability" and I simply denied it. I was coping fine in school, my marks were good, I had great friends, so I really didn't see the need to address this "problem" of mine. I got through high school and uni, talking very little about it, and rarely wearing the 4 pairs of hearing aids I was given over those 10 years. Rejecting my deafness and refusing to wear my hearing aids, is not something I am particularly proud of, but I have been trying to come to an understanding as to why I bottle it up and denied it for so long.
I had always considered myself to be a confident young person, comfortable in my own skin and without insecurities. That is until I realised there was this part of myself that I had been ignoring. Whenever I happened to tell someone "Oh I have a hearing problem.. Umm yeah actually I have hearing aids.. Oh but no I don't really wear them..." I would tense up, my voice would shake, I would go red. It was clearly a huge insecurity of mine. Yet I would brush it off, forget about it, move on.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago after I finished uni and began my career as a freelance photographer, that I realised that my hearing problem was affecting my professional life. If I didn't hear things in a social situation, it might have been slightly awkward of someone might think I'm rude, however in the professional world, I realised it could mean losing a job or missing out on future opportunities. Despite that I was becoming more aware of my hearing loss, it certainly wasn't a priority to deal with, I still didn't wear my hearing aids, it wasn't even an option for me. The thought of a client seeing them on me made me squirm with embarrassment, as though they would somehow think I was less capable, and I'll admit it, less "cool".
It wasn't until a bit over a year ago that all this changed. I was reading an article in a magazine and it was about a 27 year old woman who was deaf. She mentioned the awkwardness of missing punchlines, the embarrassment of being a teenager and telling boys she couldn't hear, and the satisfaction of watching a DVD with subtitles. She then went on to explain that visual imagery has always been a huge part of her life, and that it seemed too natural for her to pursue her passion as a photographer. I read it and I cried. I felt like I was reading about myself and for the first time in my life I felt an incredible sense of comfort that these insecurities I had were not something to be ashamed of and that ultimately I wasn't alone. For the first time in my life I actually realised that having a hearing loss WAS a part of who I am, part of my identity and that I should be accepting, if not proud about it. I suddenly had this urge to talk to people about it, to share this part of myself that I had now realised was actually kind of fascinating.
For 26 years I had bottled up my experience as a hearing impaired, "partially deaf" person and suddenly thoughts and memories poured out that I didn't even know existed. I began to think about my childhood, how I was apparently calm and quiet, yet I would dress myself ridiculously colourful (always colour co-ordinated) outfits. I thought about how I felt when I first got my hearing aids and when I had to see a "special needs" teacher - that memory is particularly painful as it was when I got the idea in my head that I would never be as smart as my friends because I couldn't hear everything. Despite the fact that I excelled at school, and got higher marks than a lot of my peers, I'm ashamed to admit I could never quite shake that thought, that I was never smart enough, and that my intellect was tied to my hearing loss.
But I've also thought about how my deafness has had a positive impact on my life. I am a patient, observant, resilient and reflective person and I like to think my hearing loss has contributed to that. I have been told that I am a good listener (ironic, I know) because I give people my full attention and always look at them when they speak - a quality I strongly admire in others. And of course to have the skill of lipreading and sleeping through thunderstorms are two things I wouldn't want to live without.
After I started to process these thoughts and memories I became excited to share them with people. I took photos of my hearing aids and I "came out" about my hearing loss. While this was in some way a liberating experience, above all else, I wanted to make others feel the way I now did. And so the idea for my 'Right Hear, Right Now' project was formed - a photography based project which tells the stories and experiences of deafness. From Deaf and hard-of-hearing children, teens and adults, to parents of Deaf children and children of Deaf adults.
'Right Hear, Right Now' is about empowering people to accept and embrace their differences, to raise awareness and to ultimately transform perspectives into ones of inspiration and understanding. Essentially I want to create something that I would have liked to have seen when I was 10, 16, 21 and 26. A project which could have inspired me to accept my hearing loss long before I actually did.
Over the course of a year I met and talked to numerous people who experienced deafness in some way or another. I met adults, young and old, teenagers, children, parents and relatives. People with hearing aids, with cochlear implants, those who sign, and those who are bilingual. But I also met those who choose not to wear hearing aids, not to get a cochlear implant, not to sign or not to speak. I have come to learn that there are so many experiences of deafness, so many different perspectives, attitudes and even debates. There is no right or wrong way, it is simply important just to know that there are many ways.
Despite all the differences, the most beautiful part of this project has been connecting with every single person I've spoken to. Even though there are many things I cannot relate to and I cannot entirely understand; and the fact that sometimes I feel that I'm perhaps not quite deaf enough, there is still always a common ground. Not only has my world opened up and I have learnt far more than I had ever anticipated, but I have also been able to provide others with that same comfort that I experienced when reading that first article. And to me, that's really the core of this project. To educate people on what it means to be capital "D" Deaf, deaf, Hard-of-Hearing, hearing impaired or to have a hearing loss, and to provide people with a community where they know there is someone who understands.
Learn more about Kate Disher-Quill and her incredible work here.
Right Hear, Right Now is currently showing in Canberra until 24th April at PhotoAccess, Manuka Arts Centre. A presentation by Melbourne-based Deaf Photographer Ashton Jean-Pierre and an artist talk by Kate Disher-Quill will be held on 24th April at 2pm.