Deafness is sometimes considered to be an invisible disability. This is probably due to the fact that most deaf people don’t walk around with a flashing LED display board stating, “I’m Deaf!”. I say ‘most’ because I like to think there is someone actually doing this in the world. You cannot see deafness, and the implications of this are interesting.
As always, I hasten to add that; generally, deaf people don’t see themselves as disabled but as part of a cultural and linguistic minority. Disability is a social construct that, in this case, believes hearing to be the norm, and anyone not conforming to this is disabled.
Deafness being invisible can be a blessing and a curse.
It is a blessing because until people realise you’re deaf, they’ll treat you like any other person. You’re not a label or different. You’re just another person on the street. It can be a curse because until people realise you’re deaf, they’ll treat you like any other person. You didn’t move when someone said, “excuse me”. Not because you’re rude like they think you are. But because you’re deaf, and you just didn’t hear them.
And this can be the battle when it comes to hearing people who have never encountered deafness before. The battle between assumptions (when they don’t know you’re deaf) and the stigma (when they do know you’re deaf).
For those who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants, these may be considered a visual indicator of your needs. A hearing person can see them and understand that they may need to adapt their behaviour.
It’s interesting to read online that many deaf people are told, “but you don’t look deaf!”. If anyone can tell me what ‘deaf’ looks like, please send it to us as I’m interested in knowing. There are bonus points if you include a unicorn in your drawing.
So what other disabilities are invisible? Let’s look at visual impairment – oh, the irony. I can, hand on heart, assure you that my eyesight is absolutely horrendous. I’m only 21, but I’ve been wearing glasses/contact lenses since I was 4. It was only at my most recent eye appointment that I was told my eyes had not gotten worse, and I decided to settle on being simply abysmal. I 100% depend on my glasses or contact lenses. Do contact lenses mean my disability is invisible, whilst glasses mean it is visible?
Fun side story
I once spent ten minutes on my sofa desperately feeling around for my glasses because I couldn’t see them. My housemate eventually rescued me and informed me that my glasses were on my lap. If I had told you this was the first time that had happened, I’d be lying.
Without my glasses or contact lenses, I am rendered completely useless. Driving and cooking would be out of the question as it would be too dangerous. Even answering the door would make me anxious as I couldn’t see who it was without getting so close I could count the freckles on their face. Truly, I’d be useless.
So consider this: as stated above, I would be unable to go about my daily routine without my glasses or contact lenses. But if you took away the hearing aids of someone who is deaf, they would still be able to continue with their daily routine, and there might just be a few more challenges.
So why is someone who is deaf considered to have an invisible disability, but not me?
I wish I had a definitive answer to this question, but I don’t. I only have musings I can share with you.
My first thought is that glasses and contact lenses are there to bring my eyesight to the correct standard, which they do. Whilst they don’t “fix” my eyes, they temporarily make them not-useless. In contrast, hearing aids and cochlear implants don’t “fix” deafness; they simply aid the person in receiving noise. Perhaps this is why I’m not disabled? Because my issue can, temporarily, be corrected.
My second thought is that visual impairment is simply more common than deafness. Whilst glasses have connotations to intelligence, there has long been the assumption that those who are deaf can’t learn to the same level as hearing people, and so the stigma and label of “disabled” has been used.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the stigma of hearing aids, and I discussed how I think the media are perpetuating the stigmatisation of deafness by encouraging people to have “discreet” hearing aids. In contrast, the media advertise glasses as a trend. People want the coolest styles because glasses are now considered cool.
From this comes my last thought. When I was a child, glasses were most definitely NOT cool. Luckily, I wasn’t bullied for it too much. But many people my age did not want glasses. If they did get them, they didn’t wear them. Nowadays, people are punching the lenses out of 3D cinema glasses so they can pretend to have glasses (take THAT, a random person who called me “four eyes”).
The progression of glasses going from not-cool to super-trendy fills me with hope that one-day, hearing aids, cochlear implants, and deafness, in general, will be considered so normal no one gives it a second thought.
We can dream.