Lend me your ears…

      8 Comments on Lend me your ears…

…and I will use them for hearing with, because mine currently aren’t working.

I don’t know what I’ve got, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, and it involves my ears being blocked. From the inside. No making an appointment to get my ears syringed and coming home with everything in Dolby surround-sound.

Currently, I’m existing on decongestants and painkillers, and generally being miserable.

It’s quite weird, not being able to hear properly (or chew food properly). I have to look at people directly in order to hear them; I wonder if I’m speaking too loudly (because I can’t hear myself very well). My balance is slightly off, and I feel like my mind is wrapped in a big pillow. I’m slightly disconnected from the world, as if there’s a barrier between me and it.

It’s been going on for several days, and it’s getting to the point where if you don’t lend me your ears, I will come and take them because I’m just that sick of not being able to hear.

Is this what it’s like to be really deaf? I mean, permanently.

In my last job, my second-in-department wore hearing-aids. She didn’t at first, and we started to suspect that she was a bit deaf when we had to yell two or three times to get her attention if she wasn’t facing us. Eventually, she went to get her ears tested and came back with two hearing aids. When she first wore them, she said that on the one hand (ear?) she hadn’t realised how many sounds she had been missing. Related to this, at first when she got the hearing aids, she found it difficult to pay attention to people, or to hold a conversation in a crowded room, because she would get distracted by background noise. I think this was because she had just lost the skill of listening to important sounds and tuning the rest out, so she had to relearn it. On the other hand, she said that sound through the hearing-aid sounded ‘artificial’, and she wasn’t sure that she liked it.

Then there’s Beethoven; deaf as a post. I’ve heard the joke that going deaf didn’t stop him hearing the music – it just stopped him hearing the distractions. But I wonder how he felt about it? Was the music in his head enough, or did he miss ‘real’ music?

What’s bothering me most is the feeling of not being quite connected to the world (although the rest of it isn’t much fun either). It’s playing Hob with my ability to concentrate. Do deaf people feel disconnected? Or is it the kind of problem you don’t have if you go gradually deaf, so you don’t realise you’re losing your hearing until you’re significantly deaf? If you’re deaf, what do you miss the most? How do you feel about it? Is it different for people who were born deaf, and if so, how?

A couple of my friends – a married couple – are disabled. The male half finds it difficult to accept that I can lift and carry stuff better than him. He’s an unreconstructed working class male, and my ability to pick up and carry heavy furniture hits him right in the manhood (even if I am careful with both ends of the bench). Intellectually, he knows it’s not his fault, but emotionally, he still feels shamed and frustrated by it. None of the rest of us resent having to do his share of the lifting and carrying, but he resents it enough for all of us.

It gets me thinking about disability… what does it mean, really? The word itself – ‘disabled’ – means ‘made-not-able’, as in, not able to do something. But then consider Douglas Bader – after losing both lower legs (one amputated above the knee, one below) he went on to become a World War II fighter ace. He could fly, drive, and dance (of which skills I possess only one out of three). Does he count as disabled? According to his biography, Reach for the Sky, Bader was certified – simultaneously – 100% disabled and 100% fit.

It makes me think, is it right to attach the ‘disabled’ label to someone just because they happen to have fewer legs than are issued as standard? Or because they are mildly dyslexic? Everybody with that label gets put in the same box, and once in the box, they’re not allowed to escape. Douglas Bader had to campaign hard to be allowed back into the RAF, despite the fact that he was capable of doing the job. Is a person still disabled if they overcome their disadvantage to be able to do everything any average person can do? If a person with no lower legs can do everything I can do, and can additionally do something I can’t, then who is disabled? Me or him?

In the UK, we have something called ‘positive about disabled people’. This means that, for companies subscribing to this, if you are disabled, you automatically get an interview for the job, if you fulfil the basic qualification requirements. This is supposedly because a disabled person might be disadvantaged somehow by being judged only on their application form. I fail to be able to get my head around this. Being in a wheelchair makes a person unable to complete an application form correctly? For dyslexia, yes, I could understand it, or any other disability that makes filling in forms difficult. But for all disabilities?

I wonder how disabled people feel about it? I’ve never had the opportunity to ask. I wonder if they feel the same way as I would if I found out I’d only got an interview because I was female? Under those circumstances, my first thought would be to tell the panel where they could stuff their job, and their obviously low opinion of women, if they thought I wasn’t capable of getting a job without special treatment. My second would be, if they give me the job, can I be sure that it was because I was the best candidate? Or was it because they needed a ‘token female’, or because their recruiting department had told them they needed more women so they’d better appoint the next one that applied for a job? What would my potential colleagues think? Would they resent me? Would they think I’d only been appointed because of my gender? How would that affect my ability to do the job?

Positive discrimination is a difficult area. On the one hand, one might say that it’s necessary in order to get minority ‘representation’ in under-diversified areas. But on the other hand… what if minority groups don’t want to be part of that particular area and that’s why they aren’t there? I mean, an extreme example would be the severe lack of diversity shown by the low level of Muslim participation in the pork-butchering trade. They aren’t there because they don’t want to be there. And if they don’t want to be there, it would be wrong to force them to participate, and a waste of time and effort to try to persuade them, no matter what we think about ‘diversity’.

This leads me to think of communism. It may be apocryphal (and probably is), but I heard the following story:

A group of Westerners is on a guided tour of a Russian factory (during the communist era). Of course, all the factory people speak Russian, and the Westerners have an official interpreter with them so that they can understand what the workers say. They are introduced to one chap, and when asked what he thinks of communism, his words are translated by the official interpreter as: “Even though I have won a Nobel prize, I still work in this factory under the same conditions as everyone else and I am given no unfair advantages.” However, unknown to the official interpreter, one of the Westerners speaks Russian, and later on, in their hotel, he tells the others that what the Nobel prize-winner actually said was, “I won the Nobel prize, and I still have to work in this crappy factory for the same crappy wage. What do you think I think about it?”

Equality is important, but equality of outcome is impossible. People are not equal; we have to admit it. There are people cleverer than me (not many, obviously), more beautiful than me, more graceful than me, more likeable than me. Our gifts are not all the same. To enforce equality of outcome by artificial means – by steering people into places they don’t want to go, or preventing from them achieving things they could be capable of – is to destroy freedom.

The only equality we can assure is equality of opportunity, so that everyone has the opportunity to be free to make of themselves what they choose.

Equality of opportunity, however, is much harder to do than a top-down imposition of equality of outcome. It means that we can’t just say ‘we need more women; if a woman applies for the job, you have to appoint her’. It means we have to actively engage the female population and locate those women who want the job, and encourage them to apply on equal terms with the men. And then, if not many women apply for the job, then we have to accept that it’s probably because it’s not intrinsically attractive to most women and they’d rather be doing something else. The same applies to other minority groups; true equality means allowing everyone to be self-selecting, but making sure that the opportunities are there to be selected. No wonder it’s easier to enforce positive discrimination than to make sure that discrimination of any kind isn’t necessary and doesn’t happen.

Equality means treating people as people, not as the contents of boxes marked ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’ and so forth.

It matters in writing, too. How many times have we seen either the book or film where every single character is white, in defiance of probability? (ThirtySomethingBride talks about that on her blog.) Or, just as bad, the ‘token black guy’, or the ‘token disabled person’? But how do you manage to get it right? Do you have to do some kind of mathematical analysis of the characteristics of your characters’ social group and work out what proportion should be from which ethnic group, and whether you’ve got enough people that you need to make someone disabled (and if so, what disability should they have)?

Taking myself as an example, since I’ve admitted that I’m writing the world’s slowest-developing novel, one of my main characters is black. I don’t know why he is, but he is. He came into my mind that way, and I knew his history practically from birth. I don’t think I could make him not-black if I tried. I’d have to delete him entirely and start again. So I’ve got five main characters, of which one is female, one is a black male, and the other three are white males. According to Wikipedia’s article, the 2001 census said that 90% of the population of Britain identifies as white. So does that mean I have to make my black guy into a white guy because black people are now over-represented? (Women are different: there’s a reason why the team is only 20% female.) Does this mean that I now can’t add an Asian guy, because even if I upped the team to six, this would mean that ethnic minorities would constitute 33% of the team instead of the correct 10%? Does this count as positive discrimination, and/or unrealistic, and can I be criticised for that?

Sometimes, I think I should stick to something safe and simple, like alligator dentistry. This author lark seems to have more hidden dangers than the Australian Outback.

How do you deal with it? Do you ignore it? Do you consciously add in characters to make sure that your book has all the right ethnic/gender/sexuality/etc groups? Or are you in the happy position that it all comes naturally to you?

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8 thoughts on “Lend me your ears…

  1. thirtysomethingbride

    Thanks for the mention, Tiffany! I would just like to try to answer a couple of your questions about disability and deafness, it’s a topic I have thought about as I have actually studied Disability Studies (yes there is such a thing!)

    Some people who are born deaf identify themselves as Deaf, with a capital D. For them, sign language (an amazing language which takes literally years and years to learn, and can never be spoken like a native by someone who wasn’t born speaking it) is superior to oral language. Sign language has its own dialects, and forms part of a rich culture which includes music and writing. A recent invention – the cochlear implant – which can simulate sound via electronic vibration which is felt through an ear piece, was described as by some Deaf people as ‘genocide’. They felt that this medical intervention was being forced upon Deaf children by the medical profession, who wanted to stamp out Deafness. For them, Deafness was a positive thing and not something they wanted to ‘cure’.

    Watching sign language can be quite a revelation – a window into another world. It really is the most expressive, emotional language. So in answer, to your question – do Deaf people miss hearing? I guess they would say ‘no, do you miss being able to speak in sign language?’ It’s an absolutely fascinating subject, and studying it really made me see the world in a different way.

    Regarding disability, there is a Disabled Movement which campaigns for equal rights for disabled people – and by that they would mean the right of a talented pilot like Bader to be able to fly a plane, despite the loss of his legs. For them, dis-abled means that they are able to do everything that other people can do, but are prevented by the way that things are designed for the ‘able-bodied’. The most obvious example is of stairs – until you have been in a wheelchair you would be blissfully unaware of the prevalence of stairs – a small obstacle for most of us, but impassable for those in a chair. The stairs dis-able the person, rather than a lack of ability – they may be more than capable of doing a job, but until they can actually get on public transport and get into the office, they will never get the chance to do it. So, I think while they would like to be treated as people, not herded into a category, they would like it to be recognised that they are ‘able’ people who have been ‘dis-abled’ by the barriers that they are physically unable to cross.

    Regarding writing, I agree it would be completely artificial to add a character just because you were ticking a box, or quota, but as you yourself said – on film a character can be interpreted any way – Watson in Sherlock Holmes can be a woman, Jesus could have been black – the basic essence or spirit of the person can be the same whatever their colour or gender.

  2. Theophania Elliott

    Hmm… to start at the bottom, and in a way, with the least important thing, I don’t think, if you are making a serious historical film, you could make Jesus black: he was ethnic Jewish. Making him black would be the same as casting a white Martin Luther King. If, however, you were doing a more conceptual thing (like they often do with Shakespeare – I saw Macbeth done in modern dress and with virtually no props and just a black stage) to emphasise Jesus as the bearer of a message, rather than a person, then you could probably cast him as whatever ethnic origin came with the best actor who could cope with the demands of the role. Dr Watson is different: he was imaginary to start with!

    It’s interesting about people who are born deaf, or Deaf. It makes sense that many of them don’t miss hearing; I would bet there is a large part of thinking that since deafness is part of who they are, in order to hear, they would have to be someone else… I’d heard about the regional dialects in sign language – I can’t remember what the details are, but I know that there are some significant, and potentially embarrassing, differences! I wouldn’t say that sign language is any different from a spoken language with regard to the difficulty of learning to speak it – with spoken languages, if someone speaks it as a second language, you can usually tell; it’s not just the words, it’s the idiom and also the culture that backs it. If you’re not brought up to it, then you just don’t learn all those tiny complexities. I guess it’s the same with sign language? Or should we say Sign Language – after all, we capitalise English and French!

    Did your study of deafness lead you to find out what people who become deaf think, in general? Do they miss hearing? I think I would, even though I would learn to cope. It’s easy – or, possibly, natural? – not to miss the things you’ve never had, especially if you are part of a supportive culture of people who are the same as you. But what about people who used to be able to hear and now can’t?

    It’s interesting about the cochlear implant, too. I can see the point made by the Deaf community opposing them; in a way, it is cultural genocide, if it’s applied across the board. However, there is the opposing point of view that nobody should be forced to give up an opportunity they want, (or in the case of parents deciding for their child, that would be beneficial for the child) because other people think it’s wrong – this is the abortion debate all over again, with all its attendant complexity. There’s an interesting article, which should be read with the following comments here: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2009/07/refusing-cochlear-implants-is-it-child-neglect/ . The most important point for me, from that article, that it isn’t as straightforward as cochlear implants: yes or no? It’s cochlear implants AND years of therapy to get the best out of them, or not?

    I also tend to get itchy when ANYONE regards their culture, whatever it is, as superior to any and all others – when you start thinking of yourself, and your culture, as better than the people around you, you start to treat other people as worse and lesser than you. Most cultures should be valued, yes, but a culture does not deserve preservation simply because it is a culture.

    Moving swiftly on to general disability, then, it seems that there is no logical ground for lumping all persons who have a disability into one box; a person isn’t ‘disabled’; they’re disabled AT something. For example, a person in a wheelchair is disabled when it comes to stairs, but they’re able-bodied when it comes to filling in forms – and vice versa for a dyslexic person?

    I wonder how that kind of thinking would play out?

    And going back to Deaf people again… if they don’t regard themselves as disabled for simply not being able to hear, is that the same as not regarding me as disabled simply because I’m too short to reach the highest shelves? If it’s different, then how is it different?

    Interestingly, people have successfully counted depression as a disability under discrimination law.

    And, from that, what does ‘able-bodied’, in the sense of ‘not disabled’ mean, anyway?

  3. thirtysomethingbride

    OK, so to answer your first point – I am quite sure that Jews around the time of Jesus and in the part of the world where Jesus was born could well have been black. Even today, there are Ethiopian Jews.

    Regarding the cochlear implant, what I found in the research that I did was that learning to use the cochlear implant actually delayed the acquisition of language in children, which does have detrimental effects. Children given the cochlear implant had to spend a lot of time in clinics learning to ‘hear’ and didn’t learn to interact properly until later in life. Many of them removed when they reached the teenage years. So, it is easy to think that they were being used as ‘medical experiments’ as Paddy Ladd said (can’t insert link but he is easy to find via internet search).

    Re disability – yes, you are vertically challenged, as am I – as are probably many people – so there is an argument for supermarket shelves to be placed lower, the people who designed them were probably tall and assumed everyone was!

    The term ‘able-bodied’ is quite meaningless, as is ‘normal’…

    And, it’s a pleasure to read your blog and discuss!

  4. thirtysomethingbride

    Sorry Tiffany just read the comment re would someone who could never hear miss hearing? I don’t think they would. I think they could live a rich and satisfying life which felt ‘right’. However, someone who lost hearing would miss it and these are the people who would choose a cochlear implant I imagine – someone I knew at work did it and was very happy with the result.

    Regarding disability, again, it strikes me that the person who was at the forefront of the development of disability theory and the ‘social model of disability, Mike Oliver, became disabled later in life – he had experienced life before and after, and must have noticed the disadvantages more than someone who had always faced them.

    Hope your ears are better soon!

  5. Theophania Elliott

    And if the benefit of cochlear implants is equivocal, then this would presumably be one explanation for why they are not in more common use. This day is obviously not wasted, because I have learned something in it! (Several somethings, but only one thing is required for the day not to be a waste.)

    Regarding the Ethiopian Jews (the Beta Israel), I believe there are several theories regarding how they came to be where they were:
    1) The Beta Israel may be the lost Israelite tribe of Dan.
    2) They may be descendants of Menelik I, son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, or to be the descendents of his companions.
    3) They may be descendants of Ethiopian Christians and pagans who converted to Judaism centuries ago. (There appears to be a certain amount of DNA evidence to support this one.)
    4) They may be descendants of Jews who fled Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and eventually settled in Ethiopia.

    Either way, they seem to have not been in contact with the main Jewish culture in the Holy Land at the time in question. Plus there is then the aspect that a black person in the Holy Land would probably have been pretty remarkable (if we are defining ‘black’ as ‘of African ethnic origin’); there would probably have been something about it in some of the early Christian writings if Jesus’ family had not been pretty normal for locals. It’s worth remembering that Jews are an ethnic group, not just a religion, and they have historically not been keen on intermarrying with non-Jews. Attitudes towards conversion are still variable – some Jews maintain that a person can’t convert to Judaism – you’re either Jewish or you’re not (something that worried my grandmother quite considerably when attempting to find out what my aunt would be promising during her Jewish wedding…)

    What do you reckon?

    1. thirtysomethingbride

      I think that you know a lot more about this than me. I wouldn’t want to go too far in defending my example! By black, I do mean non-white, rather than specifically African, so I guess Jesus would be dark skinned rather than the blue eyed blond of the Sunday school books. As you said, he isn’t a fictitious character so casting him is not the same as dramatising a book!

      1. Theophania Elliott

        We appear to have been at cross purposes! (Probably quite usefully, for any onlookers, though.) I was assuming that black = African ethnic origin, or appearance of it, such as the Ethiopian Jews.

        Blue-eyed and blond-haired is definitely, definitely out! Jesus was almost certainly dark-haired and dark-olive-skinned, like most pure ethnic Jews. I think Jesus has been portrayed, historically, in every society where Christianity has moved in, as matching up with the ‘local’ idea of handsome. I don’t think I have ever seen an ugly Jesus!

        You are right; Biblical history is a little bit of a hobby for me. I would certainly not call myself an expert or anything near it: more of an interested amateur. If you are interested in that sort of thing, the BBC Passion series is very, very good: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Passion-DVD-James-Nesbitt/dp/B001CBZDXU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352021992&sr=8-1

        It sticks pretty close to the history as we know it, and it’s very interesting, how they handle the mystical bits.

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