real life

"I felt the house shake with a bang." What it's like being deaf in an emergency.

Late February I was home alone. Having just finished working at home for the day, I headed upstairs to my room. Just as I reached the landing I felt the house shake with a bang. I looked out the window ahead of me and saw white smoke. ‘There must be car accident outside,’ I thought. ‘Maybe they hit the house?’

I ran back down and found nothing outside, then I looked up and saw that the smoke was pouring out from my bedroom window. Back up the stairs, I found my bed blazing.

I quickly thought through what to do in a fire.
1. Water: it could be electrical, and water could make that worse;
2. Smother: it is too big. I can’t safely smother it;
3. Cut off oxygen: the fire is between me and the window, I can’t close it – close the door and get out.

And number three is what I did. I closed my bedroom door and ran out of the house. As soon as I was outside, I knew I had to call 000 – but how?

The thing is, I am profoundly deaf.

I didn’t know there was a fire because I didn’t hear the fire alarm, and I can’t hear very well on the phone. The problem was my hands were shaking, and I knew it would take much longer to use the text-to-voice National Relay Service as I can speak faster than I can type. So, I jumped into the deep end and called using the normal telephone service. I think I mostly just spoke at the person on the other end. I remember just repeating “Fire, fire, my house is on fire.” Then rattling off my home address to make sure they had the information they need. I had a lot of trouble hearing on that phone call, but I’m sure I did the right thing in that moment.

A good Samaritan driver stopped and stayed with me as we watched the tongues of fire start appearing out the window and watched the glass break.

The fire brigade was there in minutes, as soon as the first truck arrived they started gearing up – full-face oxygen masks, which were half-clear, half-black covering their mouths. One of the men came over to ask some very important questions, but I couldn’t lip read him through his mask and it was muffling his voice – I couldn’t understand a thing. I kept asking him to repeat himself. He was yelling, needing to know some really important information, but it didn’t help. Then my brain finally clicked in: “I’m deaf, and I need to lipread.” He ran into the house and another firefighter came to speak with me; he needed to know if anyone was in the house and where the fuse box is. From then onward, they always had someone who wasn’t wearing a mask come to speak to me, which made it much easier.

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Soon there were three firetrucks, two police cars and an ambulance – it was so surreal.

Bec's room after the blaze. Image: supplied.

It was about an hour before I was allowed into the house. By that point, one of my housemates had made it home and my mum had arrived. After my statement was taken by a police officer, we were taken upstairs to see the damage. My room was destroyed, everything was charred and burnt. My bedroom door had half burnt before the fire brigade arrived, just in time to stop the fire reaching the rest of the house.

I lost almost everything I needed as a deaf person – a vibrating alarm clock, my cochlear implant charger, spare parts, dehumidifying box for my devices, a waterproof kit for my cochlear. Thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

It was hard and frightening, but I’m not the only one who can end up in this situation. Culturally and linguistically diverse individuals who struggle with English would have difficulties communicating as well, and anyone else with a disability who relies either assistive technology or medical equipment could stand to lose everything they need to participate in an able-bodied world.

I was blessed that I have friends and family who could loan me spare parts or old alarm clocks until I can get a new one, while the NDIS failed me in replacing any of what was lost and I was not eligible for any Centrelink support. But what is the average Australian supposed to do? At the end of the day, I faced my biggest fears: I was in an emergency situation where I couldn’t communicate. I lost most of the technology I rely on to participate in a hearing world, but I survived.

Bec was diagnosed with a bilateral mild loss at three years old and began wearing hearing aids at five. Bec has recently received her first cochlear implant late 2017 and wears a hearing aid. She works for Hear For You as the Western Sydney Coordinator and was recently featured in the 'Deaf' episode of ABC's You Can't Ask That.

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