Paper for conference on Bullying, in Hobart, October 16, 2000. By Shirley Stott Despoja
When I lost a lot of hearing suddenly, after being mildly hearing impaired for some years, my then partner cancelled my opera subscription. Isn’t that simply a pragmatic response to someone’s disability? How can that be called bullying? The very fact that I ask myself that, still, is a sign of the bully’s success. The bully’s actions, to be perfect bullying, must be ambiguous. He must be able to show his clean hands. He must be able to put a respectable gloss on his actions. I am, he said, only thinking of you. But in another way, cancelling my opera subscription is a very good example of what bullying is all about, what it does to us.
Bullying clips our wings.
Bullying stops us from flying: flying over the top of our disabilities, soaring to acceptance, to reconciliation with our previous ideas of what we were.
Bullying gets in the way of grieving, the very naturaland necessary process of coming to terms with loss. Loss of hearing is a major loss indeed. Although comparisons with other forms of sensory loss are odious to most of us, Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, made no bones about it. She explained that blindness separated her from objects but deafness separated her from people. Loss of even a moderate amount of hearing separates you from the soft voiced lover, the sweet-voiced child. If it happens suddenly you are in a panic of isolation. Some stay in that state of panic for the rest of their lives. walls go up all around you. The looks on the faces around you say it all: from now on you are a source of irritation to others. Your deafness predominates over your personality. Getting through to Shirley becomes a task, when once getting to know Shirley was perhaps a pleasure, perhaps a disappointment, but not a task.
And deafness enrages people, often without their knowing it. Not the deaf people, but others.
One day in the late 70s, when I first became arts editor of The Advertiser, I was pinned against the wall of my office by an enraged man who said I had failed to recognise him and that he would not let me go until I did. It is true that I had met him once before and obviously his ego wascruelly stung that I did not recall his face to give it his name. The truth is that a person losing hearing concentrates so fiercely on the lips that must be read that she or he often fails to take in the whole face. It is not failing memory. It is panicked deaf behaviour, but most newly deafened people think they are losing their memories if not their minds. I got out of that sticky situation by ducking under the furiously raised arm.He behaved foolishly and didn’t deserve an explanation, but his dislike followed me down the years. Deafness has consequences like that. We don’t, on the whole, tell people about what happens, because quite often people are enraged by deaf behaviour without knowing it.
But we who are deaf know it.
It savages us.
We can’t often speak about it.
This is what one person found about his daily life when he was thinking about the low self-esteem of many hearing impaired people like himself.
The main problem is that we get walloped across the kisser a hundred times a day. But each wallop is subtle. Each blow is unobtrusive, almost concealed. There’s never anything you can complain about, or put your finger on. My hearing aid dealer (he says) takes off my hearing aid. “Wow, you’ve really got this one cranked up!” he says, as if he’s caught me stealing pennies from orphans. Bang. All of a sudden I’m one-down. I was doing something wrong and I didn’t even know it.
The phone rings and I answer. I have to make the caller repeat something he’s saying six times. And I still can’t figure out what he means. So he gets mad. Bang. Right across the kisser. I’m at a meeting at work and my wristwatch alarm goes off, but I don’t hear it. First one person gives me a dirty look, then a second, then a third and then a fourth. Finally I catch on when they point at my wrist. Bang. Bang. When people routinely get angry with you and communicate that your behavior is puzzling, you start wondering about yourself. It can’t just be them; it’s got to be you – they’re right. You ARE strange. You ARE different.
The hearing impaired are perfect bully fodder. Drop your voice level one little notch, and you can watch me squirm. You can see my confidence dissolve before your eyes. You can see, if you look into MY eyes, the beginning, the swelling of panic. Keep your voice low an instant longer. Now I must declare. I say to you:
“ Sorry, sorry, I am deaf, I didn’t hear you. Would you repeat.”
Listen to yourself as you repeat. People can’t seem to repeat without raising their voices, not a notch, but quite a lot. Do I hear the words you are shouting? No: I am paralysed by the thought that I hear anger, I hear exasperation, you think I am stupid. If you are a nice person you will repeat what I missed quietly, firmly, looking in my face, and perhaps choose other words if you want to break the stalemate.
If you are a bully, oh, you are loving this. You enjoy your own exasperation. You shove in the knife;
“You ought to get a hearing aid?”
“Hearing aid?” I say. “I am wearing one.”
“Then you’d better get a stronger one”.
It is said with a smile whose sweetness can hardly be contested.
“Just a suggestion.”
And the bully shows his clean hands.
We are at work now. The bully turns to the other people in the daily editorial conference, a group situation which my hearing aid does not cope with. I am struggling, sweating. trying to pick up clues from lips and body language, anything. The bully (name removed) smiles, “What are we going to do with cloth-eared Shirley?” he asks in a voice of great kindness. A second or two passes..yes, I have heard it right. Cloth-eared Shirley. I turn to my colleagues. “Should he say that?” I ask. “Oh come on, Shirley. You have to have a sense of humour. Try laughing at yourself for a change.” The pack have been led. They have no trouble finding me. And the bully has told them it’s OK.
The demand for the deaf to have a sense of humour is a bullying tactic any of us who speak frankly about our disability continually endure. Sometimes it comes from the deaf themselves who believe they must laugh at themselves to appease the hearing world.
Where are our resources? To what can we have recourse? If hearing impaired people complain about bullying abuse we are more than likely to be told that we misheard! Our relationships, at work anyway, are, by this stage, probably so impaired that we dare not present ourselves to be supported. A professional is just as likely to say he or she finds it difficult to communicate with us. Yes, upfront just like that. Try finding a therapist when you are deaf. It is not impossible, but it is difficult. As one malepsychiatrist said to me once (in a letter, he was not going to set himself up for tiresome verbal repetition) he was in the business of communicating subtle thoughts and nuances. My deafness would naturally impede this.
Do we ring a friend? Listen to music? Turn on the TV to forget? Some of us can, most of us can’t. It is the nature of deafness that our resources are cruelly limited. Even our talents and skills are under threat. The bully must smile at that. The deaf are paranoid, aren’t they? No, the hearing world is paranoid about the deaf. What could be more sick and suspicious than the frequently uttered: “She can hear quite well when she wants to.” It is obvious to anyone that a hearing impaired person hears better in some situations than others, but this is used against us, to invalidate our disability and replace it with character failings: stubbornness, evasion, cussedness. The very common phrase falling on deaf ears is a good example of deaf being a pejorative word. Deaf ears, it is implied, are stubborn and uncaring. If something falls on deaf ears it is implied that someone is at fault: the deaf who don’t want to hear. In truth, the hearing impaired strain after hearing, are more conscientious than most in trying to follow an argument or just acquire information. My daughter has done her best to have this phrase removed from Senate parlance because of the hurt it causes tohearing impaired people. Some hope! (Shirley’s daughter is the now retired senator Natasha Stott Despoja)
The suspicious incantation: “she can hear when she wants to” is the bullying family incantation. It is among the commonest reactions to adult deafness in the family. Not mine thank God. After the workplace bullying I have described, The Advertiser ship sailed into calmer waters. Bullying and copycat bullying receded and the staff felt safe again. Not I, however. I finally left the Advertiser not because I was too deaf to do my job. Far from it. I parted company (after years of abuse and an act of violence) because I was accused of NOT being deaf. Some people with whom I had worked for years said I was using deafness as an excuse for getting out of some jobs.They said I could hear well enough when I wanted to. With a borderline-profoundhearing loss and 30 years of struggle trying to hear – my deafness was a mountain I climbed daily – that accusation literally sent me madfor a bit. At least I felt the world was too mad for me, anyway. I brought a workers compensation case and was successful. But you never escape the bullies.
Until now I have used the word deaf and hearing impaired interchangeably. And I am sure that most of you are aware that there are differences. I can only speak as a person who has post-lingual, acquired hearing loss. I became hearing impaired in my 20s and wore a hearing aid from age 28. I am now classified as having a severe-borderline-profound hearing loss. Technology has improved my ability to live in the hearing world, but never imagine that hearing aids correct hearing as spectacles correct vision. At best hearing aids amplify sound with some degree of discrimination. In the past three years I have been able to supplement my hearing aids with a Microlink assistive FM device. This minituarisation of the hearing technology that has been used in TV studios and schools for some years enables me to hear radio, TV and the human voice a lot better than before in several situations. It cost $4000 and is not covered by any kind of benefit, so its blessings are beyond the reach of many. The description “hearing impaired” or “hard of hearing” which is favoured in the UK, soundlike genteelisms. Without my hearing aids I am deaf, so I feel no qualms about using that word with a lower case d.
Incidentally, my dad was deaf. He was deaf in the days when hearing aids were primitive. He wore large headphones and carried the microphone around with him in a case, like a small brief case. He was a carpenter working on Sydney’s wharves. His mates called him Deafie. One day he found his lunch order was always written as for Defy. That appealed to me a lot when young, ambitious and hoping to be an editor one day, I struggled with the prejudice and bullying in the workplace. Deaf, defy. I used to tell myself. But when it came to bullying, my defiance went to mush, of course.
But the capital d Deaf who use Sign are a culture within our multi-cultural society. They do not regard their lack of hearing as a disability. They are proud of their beautiful and expressive means of communication. I don’t romanticise their world, but they are proudly different from the small d deaf. I cannot speak at all for them. But I do know that many of them feel bullied by the promotion of the cochlear implant and the assumption ofthe wider population that to hear by any means is desirable. The cochlear implant, which earns so many dollars for Australia, is a threat to Deaf culture.
Among the most vulnerable in the world of hearing impairment are the late-deafened, as they are often called. They are the people who acquired hearing loss not only post-lingually, but in their later years when learning to use a hearing aid is difficult, a test of their patience, their nerves and the ability of ageing fingers to twiddle the little wheels of the volume controls. Minituarisation, developed because of vanity and the shame hearing impaired people feel about wearing hearing aids, has been a curse for these people in many instances. When I was a young woman trying to hide my hearing aid behind my hair and full of shame because of my disability, I thought it terrible to be young and hearing impaired. Now I have to say thatI am glad I acquired all the skills I have nowwhen young to compensate and to cope with technology.
The late-deafened have to cope with familyand friends who may be unused to the problem and are often unwilling to modify their ways to accommodate or even understand it. The late deafened face hostility and are often bullied into isolation within the family, let alone in the wider community. If you are told often enough by a family member that you are not trying, that your hearing aid needs turning up because you are not hearing or needs turning down because it is squealing, the will to cope dies. Family members manage their stress and guilt about the situation by saying “She can hear when she wants to,” or that “He has just given up.”
I do not underestimate the stress deafness puts on the other member of a partnership or other members of a family. I have found myself, often enough, critical of a hearing impaired person who depends too heavily on a partner in social and other situations. I too have been exasperated when a hearing impaired person refuses to try different means of hearing, such as assistive listening devices so that the TV and radio are not forever too loud for others to bear.
But often you will find behind that resistance a history of being rejected for their disability – and bullying. I first wrote about bullying in the l980s, long before I was emotionally able to write about hearing loss. I wrote a column for The Advertiser every Saturday, and because at the time bullying of the grossest and physical kind was going on around me – even as I wrote – it was an act of considerable bravado. But in those days I still thought the pen was mightier than the sword. Well, mightier than a slap in the kisser, anyway.
So I looked for bullies in general and I found them everywhere of course. In fact I began to wonder whether we were all working very hard to make the world fit for bullies. There were bullies on the bus where the boys used their schoolbags to cut a swathe to the seats where they could best torment the girls. Bullying was a huge part of domestic violence. I witnessed bullying in a hospital. Bullying was everywhere and most of all in the workplace. I had no trouble at all identifying it.
We all know when we are being bullied. It is when we are forced to fulfil someone else’s expectations out of fear, regardless of our own standards. If we are young this is accompanied by stomach cramps; if old, by chest pains. A bullied member of our editorial conference threw up regularly before he got to the door of the room that was his torture chamber. I had an archetypal bully for a maths teacher at school. She not only exposed wrong answers: she wrong-footed the child who tried to explain or apologise. She played cruel games with children’s names, physical appearance and posture. The victim was brought to the blackboard for more torture. Some kids wet their pants. A few kids bought immunity by ingratiating themselves with this monster. Even as a halfbaked 12 year old I knew that if the class rebelled against the bullying we could stop it, but it never happened. Never did we attempt to challenge the hypothesis of her power, which was that we were all lazy and despicable and powerless. Our worst fault was our complicity with the bully, and knowledge of that may have been pain sharper than that of being bullied. I tried to test that belief at a class reunion 30 years later. The subject was changed very smartly.
We know when we are doing the bullying. We want perfection at someone else’s expense and get a thrill from the by-product of fear and our ability to assume innocence easily if someone notices what we are doing. The advantage of the bully is feigned innocence and the disadvantage of the bullied is self-blame. The deaf are seriously into self blame. It is rare that they can declare their handicap without apologising: Sorry? Sorry? They say. I didn’t catch that. Sorry. The biggest achievement of my deaf life was to learn to say What, without adding sorry. I lapse often.
Well back in those days, before I even thought of writing about deafness, I thought I would test my belief that bullying was universal and increasing in our climate of restricted employment,by asking people for their experiences of being bullied.
There was a strange reaction. If I asked them by phone ( a special volume control phone) I could hear an intake of breath on the end of the line, then silence, followed by excuses about being busy or a change of topic. If I asked them in person, they would break eye contact, and mumble something like: “Well if you want examples from literature.” Or tell a story about someone else being bullied, never themselves. Bullying is a common experience but one so painful that it is not often willingly shared. People will deny it if they can. If they can’t deny it, they may justify it.
As a journalist who has asked people to talk about terrible things in my time I found that people will talk more readily about their dead children than they will talk about bullying. The years pass and I am free from having to dissemble at last. I am drawn into the world of deafness – hearing impairment – and I discover bullying all over again. I see the hearing bullying the hearing impaired. I see the mildly hearing impaired bullying the severely hearing impaired. People tell me about their reactions to hearing impaired family members, thinking I will sympathise with them, when what they are describing is their bullying behaviour to a person with a disability. an invisible disability, of course,a common disability, a goddam irritating disability, so maybe that makes it OK. In their minds, anyway.
But now we are in the age of the world wide web where everyone confesses and shares experiences. The internet is the perfect medium for the deaf. I believe that I can post a question about bullying and deafness on a hearing loss newsgroup and get a picture of what bullying the deaf are subject to. And I find the very same resistance, the same denial and evasions, the same changing of subject, the same pain that is, I have come to believe, for many anyway, unspeakable. A few people leave messages describing how they are or were bullied. A few. Most of them slide from talking about their own excruciating experiences to the safer ground of needing to protect deaf kids from bullying.
But then other kinds of responses started to flow. This one:
“I’m 40 years old and I grew up in New York City. I know all about bullying and I’m a stronger person for having dealt with it as a boy. Listen: this topic really isn’t worth discussing: sorry. I just prefer not to whine about the minor hurdles in life.”
“ Instead of wasting your time doing a paper on bullying, why don’t you do a positive paper on cochlear implantation or the auditory/oral/verbal method of oral therapy. Hearing impaired people are often bullied, accused of faking deafness to get out of work or family responsibilities. I have been on the receiving end.. although I never regarded it as bullying by the other person. actually I saw it more as a form of abuse.”
“Right. Kids get bullied. That’s life. As a parent you have to pull that kid through it by giving him the right way of thinking. You don’t want a hearing impaired child to have a chip on his shoulders. You want to rise above it. I don’t know, this thread is getting a little old.”
“I have been bullied, of course, but that’s human nature. You say you are being bullied because your neighbour rudely says you are too deaf to hear her screeching cocky so she’s not going to do anything about it. Have you asked her if she is troubled by something in her life at the moment? My friends sometimes use a bullying tone when I can’t hear what they say. They don’t mean anything but I shed a few tears often. My husband used to make me repeat things to him so that I knew what it was like to live with a deaf person. I am more concerned for the children.”
“Bullying is like shit. It happens. This topic is boring.”
You don’t have to be very smart or sensitive to hear the pain behind those replies, despite the denials and attempts to end the conversation. As I said: the deaf are perfect bully fodder. In many cases they think they deserve to be bullied. Not all bullies are loud mouthed. There is the bullying silence. Many hearing impaired people are left in that bullying silence as their relationships fail under the impact of their difficult, their infuriating disability.
Australian author Kate Llewellyn has written wonderfully about this in her novel, Dear You. For the biography she is writing in her fictional persona, she tries to interview a woman who remains silently carving away at a block of wood, “toying,” says Llewellyn, “with the steel tip of her malice towards me.” The author calls a taxi to leave, whereupon the bully protests, showing her bloodless hands. But, as Llewellyn says, “As always with the bully, it is not on the hands but on the boots. It happens when no one else can see or hear. It is in the school lavatory away from the eye of the teacher or others. Quietly, swiftly, the kick to the groin. Then the deadly air of innocence comes down like a knight’s visor. Only the victim, lying there quietly, gestures to the boot. “Not everyone is willing to look.”