At an age where I am too young to be cognisant of time’s passing my mother announces the word audiologist to the kitchen sink. She is unconsciously circling around the room with a small grey device pressed against her ear, muttering.
This is one of the many absurdities that make better sense in retrospect, I think, as I recall her turning slowly towards a new thought. I notice less of what she is saying and more the absence of direction in her movements. I have no concept of the words but can see that she is removed from her surroundings, drifting through the conversation unfolding within her inner ear. As she turns back towards me, the half of her face I can see is moulded by a growing sense of concern.
As my mind revisits this scene it locates the device: telephone. Then, the odd and eccentric motions of her spare hand conducting the blurred ensemble of noises leaking in from the garden: expression. The quick bounce of nondescript syllables which follow are not as easy to place. Their meaning remains locked behind an opaque door. The sounds are like an image diffused by an unfocused camera lens — present but unrecognisable.
So much of what unfurls beyond the line of where I cannot hear is decoded in my habit of presiding over body language. I find sense in agonising over the details of the nonverbal cues — the pace of her turn, the slant of her brow; the meaning woven into the demeanour that assists the delivery of unheard words.
For as long as I can remember, I have shied away from the term, disability. I can perform most daily tasks and functions sufficiently. Nothing about my appearance evokes an empathetic wince from sentimental passersby. I am seamless. Invisible with the conformity.
I am one of the 90% of people with a disability that’s condition is invisible — lying dormant behind a facade of able-bodiedness.
I assimilate perfectly into a crowd which swallows my idiosyncrasies that sometimes emerge in the space of not hearing. And I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I wrestle with the sustained illusion that my disability doesn’t feel visually apparent enough to be real.
If I, like others, cannot see it, is it really there?
My genetic malfunction rests inside the inner chamber of my ear. The fact that even the audiologist is unclear of the tangible shape of my inefficiency makes it even more nebulous. It’s just loss. Hearing loss. A registering of what is not, rather than what is. An absence that runs through my bloodline.
When I am alone, which is quite common for a writer and academic, my disability vanishes. In a way it feels as if it belongs to someone else. It only emerges in the need to be heard which usually accompanies being surrounded by other people. In some ways I think my disability really belongs to those around me; to the people expecting me to hear noises that I won’t. To anyone or anything that asserts itself in a sound register I cannot detect whilst carrying the expectation of being understood.
On some days I see it as something that aids my concentration. It allows me to achieve a deeper point of immersion in my work which understanding the echo of words is an essential part of. Not hearing enables me to fall further into the vanishing zone, where concentration swallows the outer fringes of the room as I enter the world language constructs.
To afford myself the term disability has always felt like I am leveraging the mildness of my experience into the realm of those who’s lives have been more adversely impacted than my own. I understand this as the direct result of existing in a culture that is both dismissive of representing the variations of disability and rarely provides space or representation for invisible or milder forms. When representation does happen often it is very physically apparent and sadly the narratives are told in a way in which the person’s identity dissolves behind their disability. It reduces them to symbols or tropes of adversity and overcoming to serve the greater purpose of the dominant able-bodied narrative.
Lacking the ability to hear sounds at certain decibels has forced me to understand that sound isn’t just what is audible. Sound is also the movement and proximity of its manufacturing. Sound is the curling of the tongue, the shaping of the lips, the slant of the shoulders that gently cradle its delivery. The slight but sudden angle of the eyes widening.
It has taught me that language is not just letters but also the shape of the mouth hollowing itself out in preparation of the arrival of noise from the rear of the throat. It has taught me to unconsciously memorise the mannerisms of familiar people in my life, the way they uniquely tailor certain words, the idiosyncrasies of their sentence structures. It has taught me to listen like a mobile phone anticipating predictive text. I close the gaps in sentences with the anticipation of what was probably or ‘predictably’ there. I make sense of the unheard words by making sense of what they would have needed to be to give the heard words meaning. A formation. Sentences.
It has taught me that the closeness of a noise can determine its audibility and that the shape of certain rooms or materials that line the floor or ceiling can affect they way sound moves. But most importantly, it has taught me to have empathy for things I cannot see. To not jump to conclusions. To not assume everyone who is not visually disabled isn’t.
When the audiologist put the headphones over my ears in the sound booth, for the first time, and passed me the handheld button to press after each unrequited beep, I learnt and felt the separation between sound and source. Or what I call in my head, ‘pure sound’ — the kind that is capable of evading my ears. I understood in that moment that I was being starved of the visual cues, the lips, demeanour, timing in relation to everything else — everything precious that gives sound so much of its meaning. Listening has always been so multifaceted; an intertwining of my other senses. In this moment the room felt fuller of the absence of what was not there rather than what was as my ears flailed to catch what they couldn’t.
Living with a hearing impairment has forced me to understand how narrow our acceptability of inhabiting the space of a body is. The treatment dialogue surrounding disability is all correction and mimicry. Schemes and aids that are in some ways empowering but in a lot of ways reinforce the idea that it is not okay to be anything other than able-bodied or at least imitating able-bodiedness. The advertisements I have seen for hearing aids flaunt the discreteness of the object, using language like: barely there, smaller than ever; invisible. The perfect treatment of a disability seems to be creating an illusion of its absence.
I tell my partner this.
But you like that they’re discreet? She says.
Only because I’ve learnt to be ashamed.
When the audiologist laid out the futuristic hearing devices on the desk before me, she asked, which style I thought I’d like? In my moment of silence and contemplation I had wondered how the wire tip would feel reaching in and invading my ear canal.
She ruptured the pained silence, as I stared defeatedly at the object. She began by suggesting which ones she thought were the most discrete, before adding, particularly for someone as young as you. She spoke with a robotic empathy, one that was poorly timed, textbook learnt. Her voice was gentle enough to sound sentimental, but not soft enough that I couldn’t hear it.
We both shared a prejudice in assuming I was too young to want to be seen wearing hearing aids. Accepting the invisible shape of my loss was met with another resistance, again. I could be in denial about what I needed because it took no real shape until it was actualised with an aid. I could be in denial about what I needed because the representation of someone like me does not exist in our cultural imagination.
When I took my hearing aids home, I slid the first one tentatively into my right ear. In with it, the garden outside came alive. The wind went tickling through the branches and the leaves rustled in time with the air whistling past the house I never knew creaked. The birds erupted into a strange melody of chirping, back and forth frenetically.
I slid the left one in and I could hear a car engine purring outside the front of the house. A hammering from a construction site around the corner. An aeroplane approaching overhead, at a new distance one that sounded like the growling of distant thunder approaching.
As I stood up the chair made a new sound. A yelp like it was delighted to be relieved of my departing weight. One that I am not usually aware of. A foreign sound. One I hadn’t heard before. I sat down and stood up again to listen to it, unsure whether to be concerned or delighted. Then as I walked down the stairs my footsteps sounded artificial, louder and more crisp in the echoey resonance of amplified sound.
As I entered the kitchen there was a new sound emerging from the fridge, a faint buzzing, as if I could hear the electricity pulsing through its parts. I took a moment to stand there, listening. Listening to the life in the kitchen, and the rooms beyond it — the roar of the washing machine, the faint echo of conversation seeping through the wall separating our semi from the neighbours.
I continued to stand there taking it all in. There were new sounds layered with old sounds turned up louder. The room was still but swathed with a new layer of amplified life. The world is loud, I thought, far too loud, as I took them out, not wanting to hear it all.
Georgia Rose Phillips is a casual academic and a PhD candidate in the Creative Writing program at University of New South Wales. She holds a BA. English Literature with a first-class Honours in Creative Writing. In 2018, her creative nonfiction novella, Holocene, was shortlisted and then highly commended for the Scribe Nonfiction Literary Prize. Her work appears in Rethinking History, Historical Novels Review, The Wheeler Centre Notes, Literary Veganism, Tharunka and The Quo.