By GEMMA GALEA
When I was around 11 months old, my mother crept close to my cradle whilst I was sleeping and shouted. I did not move.
She shouted again, closer. I slumbered on, blissfully unaware.
My mother had just discovered I was profoundly deaf.
At the age of three, I was enrolled in Farrar School for the Deaf. I was taught using a method called Signed English. It is not a language but instead, an attempt to teach English through signs, with English grammatical structure.
After two years of consideration and testing, it was decided I was a good candidate for cochlear implant surgery. It wasn’t without risk; to have the implant means the entire cochlear must be removed, so any residual hearing is destroyed. There are also possible outcomes like facial paralysis, nerve damage and infection.
I remember being wheeled down the corridor in a hospital bed, age five, completely oblivious as to what was going to happen. Suddenly a doctor in scrubs appeared, removed his frightening-looking mask and began mouthing words at me that I could not hear.
My mother was there and they were both smiling at me. I felt an immediate panic rise in my chest and I began screaming wildly and fighting.
I remember the needle in my arm almost coming out as the nurses and my mother struggled to hold me down. It took three of them to hold me down as they struggled to inject the anaesthesia.
I guess this characterises my entire relationship with the cochlear implant, and the whole notion of “fixing” my deafness: “Not happy, Jan.”
When my implant was turned on two weeks later, that supposedly momentous moment was filmed. My experience wasn’t like a lot of the viral YouTube videos you see of kids hearing for the first time: Instead, the video shows me clearly distressed at hearing my first sounds, jumping onto my mother immediately and shaking my head forcefully “NO” every time I was asked if I liked it.
Not really the stuff of 60 Minutes.
My mother was advised by the medical profession to stop signing with me. She didn’t agree with this advice and continued to sign with me.
But my school began the eternally annoying practice of speaking at me – with their hands over their mouths. I barely heard them. Day in, day out, I was forced to train like this for an hour at a time, at the expense of my education – ssshhh, ch, p, mmmm, ahhh. Noises that meant nothing to me but earnt me a meaningless star on the chart.
I was tossed from school to school, six times over my life, as people struggled to categorise me. Was I deaf? Hearing impaired? Hearing? It was an exhausting, confusing, and disheartening process.
Then at 14 I was given my first Auslan interpreter. I didn’t know Auslan yet — but suddenly the world came alive. Things began to make sense.