Monday, March 10, 2014

Talking Back: The Battle to be Listened to . . . Properly, A Guest Post from Donna McDonald

Please welcome Australian author and fellow deaf woman, Donna McDonald. I must say in advance, this is a powerful and very true guest post. I've had these frustrated thoughts myself, but she puts it into better words. Feel free to leave comments. I'm pleased to share details of her latest book, The Art of Being Deaf, below.

Recently, I went to see a movie with a new Date. We’d had dinner together the previous week and he understood that I am deaf.  The movie was great (as befits its title “The Great Beauty”) . . . the date not so much.

I am fifty-nine years old. I was born deaf and belong to the 1950s generation of “oral deaf” children. This means that although I am deaf (“moderate-severe, sloping to profound” according to my most recent audiology assessment), I have sufficient residual hearing that allows me to speak rather well. Not perfectly, but not bad: the missed sibilants and the occasional monotonous tone in my speech patterns reveal my deafness. I work hard to keep my speech patterns rhythmically inflected.

Image courtesy of Ambro/
I also work hard to listen, read people’s lips, stay focused on their faces and body language, and follow the flight of their words. I do all this listening and attending work because I want to be connected to what they are saying. Connection begets connection; it is the origin of understanding others, which in turn evolves into empathy, compassion, and a reciprocal sharing of our humanity.

Which brings me back to my Date. He mumbled. Not once; not twice; but thrice. Three times I asked him to speak more clearly; three times he denied my request and continued to channel Marlon Brando’s performance as “The Godfather” as if he owned that role. Remember: we’d already had that dinner the week before. I’d already exhausted myself over a glass of wine (just the one glass; I was trying to do “Dry February”) by peering at his clenched lips and trying to find meaning in his stiff, expressionless face.

It was late; I was tired; I spat the dummy. In the foyer of the cinema. In public, and in full hearing view of all and sundry. “Look”, I cried out, “if we are going to get along, you really must speak up and speak clearly. Why can’t you do this one simple thing for me?” The Date looked stunned. He mumbled, “I’m sorry.” And then (you’re going to love this!), he said, “I don’t know much about deaf people. I don’t know how to talk to them.” I snapped back, “I am not going to do Deaf Studies 101 for you now. Just speak clearly. That’s all.”

We’ll draw a veil over the next couple of hours. Suffice to say, there will be no third outing. However, my anger and frustration with the Date is not the point of my story. Stay with me.

A couple of nights later, I recounted my story to a life-long and close friend. We have known each other since we were teenagers, and we have shared much with each other. The good, bad and ugly.  My friend is kind and wise; I anticipated that she would sympathise with me. I thought she might say something like, “What a boorish man!” Actually, I would have settled for a simple “oh dear” sigh of empathy.

Instead, what I got was a reminder of how the hearing world persistently walks out of step with me. And I am deliberate in my syntax here.

I have spent the better part of my 59 years learning how to walk in step with the hearing world; how to speak clearly, avoid being too expressive, keep my hands still, don’t look wounded when others laugh because I’ve misunderstood what they have said, remain stoic in the face of others’ criticism when I ask them to repeat what they’ve just said—“Oh for God’s sake, I’m not going to say it again. Why can’t you just listen properly? It doesn’t matter anyway; it wasn’t that important.” (Why say it in the first place then? Why indulge in drivel?)

And yet, when I voiced a complaint to my friend, her first and immediate response was to say “Don’t be offended, but you need to see the situation from his point of view.”

Really? From his point of view? What happened to the authority and legitimacy of my point of view? If I was a Jew complaining to my friend about anti-Semitic behavior, would my friend have admonished me, “You need to see it from the Gentile’s point of view”. Or if I were an Aboriginal Australian complaining about being excluded from a job opportunity, would my friend have said “You need to see it from the white employer’s point of view.” Or what about if I was a young woman who had been raped by her uncle? Would my friend have clucked at me and said “Oh, but you need to understand your uncle’s needs.” Of course not.

So why is my perspective as a deaf woman, holding my own in a dominant (and dominating) hearing world of so little value? First with the obtuse Date, and second with my life long friend. Where is their effort to connect with me in these exchanges? To walk in my shoes? Because let me tell you, I am damned footsore from walking in the shoes of hearing people.

I don’t know the answer. Do you?

CREDITS: Published as “Footsore on Valentine’s Day” at:

We all take our sense of connectedness from where we can best find it. For some deaf people, it is within their own Deaf community. For others such as Donna McDonald—those oral-deaf people, in the “shadow-lands”, scattered across the hearing world—such a sense of connectedness can be buried or lost.

In writing her memoir of deafness and being deaf, Donna McDonald found that learning about the heritage of other deaf people’s memoirs, biographies, and life narratives was enormously helpful to her. She writes “the hand of mentoring reached down to me across the span of history”.

Donna’s memoir “The Art of Being Deaf” is, however, much more than a personal examination of her life as a deaf woman. It is a story of reconciliation, the search for romantic love, and the quest for answers about what it means to live an authentic life.


Dr Donna McDonald is Senior Lecturer and convenor of policy and disability studies in the School of Human Services and Social Work at Griffith University. Over a span of 30 years Donna has been at the forefront of developing social policy as a social worker and has established extensive policy networks in Australia and England. She has provided policy advice to Federal, State and Local Governments nationally and internationally. 

She is also a published writer with two books, several book chapters, journal articles and essays. Her publications include her memoir of grief following her infant son’s sudden death in 1987 "Jack's Story", and essays such as "I Hear with my Eyes" (Griffith Review 2006), "The Reluctant Memoirist" (Griffith Review 2011) and "When Time Stops: The Courage for Joy" (Stories of Complicated Grief: a critical anthology 2014). 

Her latest book is The Art of Being Deaf: a memoir (Gallaudet University Press: Washington DC. March 2014). 


  1. What an interesting insight into the world of the deaf. As someone who's been accused of being a mumbler my whole life, I can certainly see how our conversations would probably frustrate you. I can understand your anxiety with your date. Just for some perspective, my "mumbling" is a result of a pronounced TMJ (also known as severe underbite) and eternally plugged sinuses from out-of-control allergies. I'm sure that wasn't your date's problem, though, sounds like he was just being inconsiderate. Or maybe his mumbling was such a force of habit that he found it hard to let go of. Anyway, I agree that sometimes we should be the ones to conform to the deaf, rather than the other way around. Valuable insights.

  2. This is food for thought. Wow will have to remember this. I often wonder why it is that the person with the disability is the one to conform all the time. What is it we could do to help them should be our thought.