I don’t talk much about my hearing aid. Recently, though, I’ve felt the need to write memoirs on behalf of the little black box on the side of my head. You see, my hearing aid is nearing the end of its life. I’ve had countless hearing aids over the years, but this model is one that has been consistent in service, until now.
One thing I like to tout about myself is that I’m very different, I can tick all the boxes on a diversity questionnaire and still fill in the open text box at the end. It means that when I work toward equality and inclusion, I can do it with understanding and conviction.
At my project site where I focus on inclusive education for differently-abled children, I become an example of how things could be.
I’ve been deaf since I was young, in the right ear since birth, then gradually losing ability in the left ear from the age of six. A fraction remains in this ear, enough for hearing aids to amplify sound to a reasonable level and quality. At thirteen I had my current companion installed in a two-stage operation, and he’s been a faithful aid ever since.
Unfortunately it has suffered in India. It’s frequently inundated with sand and people all over – staff, friends, and strangers – have a habit of knocking it out as they embrace or hit me. Every time it clatters to the floor I face ten seconds of panic that this time was the last, only for me to sigh with relief when I realize it’s still functioning – just.
However, it’s working with kids – particularly the kids here at our school for special needs – which poses the biggest problem. Working here means that the hearing aid is privy to some pretty intense abuse of the kind usually reserved for inmates at Guantanamo Bay – it’s been chewed, trodden, thrown and used as a weapon – and it’s for this reason that my hearing aid is hobbling along in a second-hand fashion (not unlike the rest of electronic equipment here on campus). Of the two input settings, one works completely fine – 10% of the time. The other setting is more reliable, but the volume has a maximum setting of 1 (on a scale of 0 to 3); if the volume is set higher then sound resonates around the hearing aid, much like listening to a highly digitized and poorly played guitar chord pounding from a subwoofer with a ridiculous amount of bass – in a cavern. With each knock there is another subtle change in quality, usually for the worse.
There’s something bittersweet about the prospect of going a few months without hearing. It’s a huge vulnerability for me, but it’s also an opportunity to face a challenge – being deaf in a foreign country. Sure, I would never voluntarily pick this option, but if I had to face it anywhere, I’d rather do so here – for so many reasons.
For all the talk of equality in the west, for equal access to services and for non-discrimination laws, being deaf there would cripple me (in every sense of the word). My employer would likely be caught in an embarrassing situation, unable to provide a decent work environment for me because the solution would usually be for me to get a hearing aid (let’s suppose a replacement is not an option). They probably wouldn’t be able to sack me though. I’d find it difficult to socialize; I don’t speak sign language and neither do my friends.
Watching TV would be impossible, as would so many things I take for granted; I don’t think I need to list them. If I thought about going back to university (as I am doing now) I’d first have to figure out how on earth I’d follow lectures, and that’s before I worried about making new friends, or the prospect of finding a job afterwards.
Here in India it’s far more simple. I’ll be honest, I don’t really talk much as it is. Everything is in Hindi and my Hindi is far from perfect, my attempts to learn it are blurred by a damaged hearing aid. In my work supporting the community and the school I lead by example, and a lot of communication is done through nuanced sign language that I’ve developed – thumbs up and thumbs down at its most basic. Being a deaf child actually helped me become more intuitive in absence of communication, and certainly here I’m using the same tricks I learned as a child.
But working with differently-abled children is when impending deafness will become an asset rather than a hindrance. It’s already helped me bond with the children. They understand that like them, I am a little different from everyone else, and that helps us develop trust. I better understand their neglect and their isolation, and I understand their desire to be accepted. Most importantly, as an example to others, I understand and cater to their need for patience, their tendency to become frustrated, and their desire to do as others would in spite of prejudice – if only to a fraction of their experience.
I hope that I serve as an example of diversity in practice to staff members on site and community members beyond. Sure, I’ve heard ignorant villagers ask if I’m ‘mentally retarded’ and perhaps sometimes gasp with surprise that I can do what I do despite being part of ‘this community’, but I’m able to challenge that ignorance. Much like the children I live with, I’m used to exceeding somewhat low expectations and I’m proud to serve as a role model for inclusion.
If my hearing aid does die in the next few months before I return to the UK I won’t be upset. I might face frustration while I adjust, but being able to resign to a world of silence isn’t a bad thing. Without dependence on my hearing aid I can be more realistic about the expectations I place on myself, and I can get a step closer to fully understanding the children I work with. This is a privilege that other staff don’t have, and for that – like all my diverse aspects – I’m grateful.