Having a child who is deaf has mostly hardened me to the questions (well-meant and not so much) that people tend to ask in shopping centres, waiting rooms and other public spaces when the topic comes up in passing conversation.
In an earlier post, I covered some of the so-called ‘dumb’ questions that we encountered in the time following Amelia’s diagnosis.
Since then, I think I have developed a second, tougher skin that has helped to guard me against genuine offence or my own hyper-sensitive reactions.
Two years down the track from the moment we emerged from the chrysalis of one life pre-diagnosis and emerged somewhat bruised into another, I have developed ways to evade questioners when I’m not in the mood and found better ways to answer them when I am.
It really all depends on the day, which way the wind is blowing and the nature of the approach. If a person is having a good old Aussie crack at trying to understand something new, then clumsiness is certainly not a sign of bad intentions. It just means they have minimal exposure to the intricacies involved.
The keys to ‘getting it right’ are the demonstration of qualities like restraint, thoughtfulness and compassion from the questioner. Questions themselves are not the enemy – a communication started with care, that is watchful of the signs about how the questions are being received, is less likely to tread on vulnerable toes.
I’m not hanging around waiting for people to ‘get it wrong’ so I can rain blows of righteousness down on their heads. Well, I used to be, but now I’m more interested in solitude on those days when Amelia and I can just be, without questions, tests, diagnoses and labels disturbing the peace. Yes, solitude or privacy or anonymity, even when we’re in public.
So I’m not exactly sure why I was so bothered by the woman – a fellow mother – I encountered last week at the park where Amelia and I went for a run in the winter sun. But there was something different about the way she came at us, with her machine-gun mouth, poised to fire as many questions at me as she could muster before it was time to re-load.
It was, on reflection, a combination of the level of her intrusion into our hard-won solitude, her condescending tone, her incessant questions and her lack of reading of my mood – in my eyes, my voice, my body – that made me feel that enough was enough.
I’ll try to keep it short, but here’s how our meeting played out.
I was signing something to Amelia as we walked over to the swings and this woman, also with her kids at the swings, said to me, “Oh it’s really great that’s you’re teaching sign to her”.
It’s not unusual for people to remark on our use of Auslan – I understand that it is a novel sight, and to many a beautiful language to behold, so I don’t mind being asked about it.
Usually once people have chatted with me about the topic and some related things for a few minutes, they move on to the busy job of watching their own children navigate the pitfalls of the playground.
And then Amelia and I are free to return to our blissful solitude.
To this woman’s opening question, I replied, “Yes, it’s really important for us to sign with her”.
My response seemed to confuse her for a second, but I wasn’t sure why. Then her tongue tripped awkwardly over the words, “Oh right, does she have some kind of disability or difficulty…or something?”
“Um, yeah, she’s deaf, so she is bilingual – she speaks and signs”.
“Oh, right, ok, wow”.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t choose to sign with her unless it was a necessary part of her life”.
It dawned on me that she had not been asking me about sign language because she immediately associated it with deafness – as the language of the Deaf.
No, she was congratulating me because there are people out there for whom teaching ‘Baby Sign Language’ (not Auslan) to their infants is an optional luxury, not a necessity or a defining part of their child’s identity as it is for us.
That’s a new one, I thought. This was the first person not to assume that Amelia was deaf after they saw her signing. It was an odd start and it went downhill from there.
The woman then began peppering me with a barrage of questions over the next 15 minutes about the diagnosis, my feelings, behavioural problems, hearing aids, deaf primary schools, and on and on. It was more interrogation than conversation.
There were no queries about my daughter’s age, name, habits (standard park chatter), just an endless quiz about her deafness. I tried in vain to steer her away from the topic, to avoid her, but it’s a small park and there was nowhere to hide.
She also ventured a number of uninvited statements about how she imagined Amelia’s deafness had affected me, such as “Ohhh, how heartbreaking for you,” or “You poor, poor thing”. I don’t think I cut a particularly forlorn figure at the park, but what do I know?
It all went way past my personal mark of ‘too much’. It’s an invisible line, sure, but most people seem to know where it is.
My answers became increasingly brief, curt, I turned my back, anything to send the signal that the subject was closed, but she wasn’t reading me and I didn’t want to have to be more explicit. I just didn’t feel like expending the energy.
When she wasn’t speaking directly to me she was in the background loudly telling her kids all about Amelia, the deaf girl. She adopted an affected teacherly tone to say things like “Honey, do you know what DEAF is?” Then she reminded them about a story featuring a deaf turtle from a book they had at home. It was excruciating.
I just kept thinking, dear god, please make this woman go away.
Thankfully, a parent we know through Amelia’s childcare came over and started talking to me about ordinary things, which broke the park-hold the woman had on us until then. She drifted off and our privacy was restored.
I didn’t want to have to fire up and be rude by saying to her “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but we just came here to enjoy ourselves, not answer question after question about deafness and listen to you ‘educate’ your kids about my daughter like she’s some kind of ‘special’ case”.
And anyway, I don’t believe the onus was on me to point out how far she was pushing the boundaries of decent behaviour and I’ve come too far to let people like her bring out the worst in me. When I cross that line myself, it comes at a cost – giving in to anger is usually more upsetting than whatever I’m reacting to.
Throughout the conversation it seemed as though the woman was trying to prove just how ‘right on’ she was about the difference we introduced to the park when we stepped onto the tanbark that morning. “Look how tolerant I am, with all of my probing questions, I’m not shy about disability!”
Unfortunately, her tactless, dog-with-a-bone approach had the opposite effect, making me feel harassed and uncomfortable. I wasn’t upset as I might have been a few years ago but the unrelenting tentacles of irritation curled around my mind and stayed there all day (I wrote an excoriating post when I came home but it was not fit for print).
I had gone out with small intentions, which included Amelia and I maintaining our status as the unexceptional mother and daughter at the park, but the woman was determined to mark us out as something else; something reduced within the limits of her too-bold attitude to the private lives of strangers.
It’s possible I’m being too harsh, but in life you have to be guided by your own thoughts, feelings and responses. It is not for me to re-cast the interaction as something other than what it was – an unwelcome disturbance to the peace of holiday solitude.
I’m glad to say that this type of negative encounter doesn’t happen too often, if at all. Most people understand how to balance their curiosity against the need for discretion.
The ‘rules’ aren’t obvious to everyone, and I understand how tricky it can be, but it’s not that hard, is it? Just imagine how you would like to be asked about deeply personal, complex things (cautiously) and have your life commented on by someone you have never met (sensitively) and then, simply do the same for everyone you meet. Provided your baseline is a kind-hearted one, I suppose.
And always look for signs of discomfort or unease, and when in doubt, begin by saying, ‘Do you mind if I ask you about…?’ before you go hurling question Frisbees across the park when no-one asked to play.
Recommended further reading:
Facing the crowd: managing other people’s insensitivities to your disabled child by Deborah Fullwood and Peter Cronin (first published in 1986, it is still relevant today)