Can you hear me now?

For most of us, growing up in a world without sound is incomprehensible, but for Emma Ripard, Nadine Grech and Annabelle Cauchi, it is the only world they know. Alison Bezzina finds it easy to communicate with these young women, despite the fact that they live a silent existence, without music or noise; a life without song, deprived of the sound of laughter.

Emma Ripard, 21, was born profoundly deaf in both ears due to a genetic problem. She has never experienced hearing at all and was always comple­tely deaf except for extremely little residual hearing that, when amplified, gives her an idea of sound, or lack of it.
According to Emma “it is like some blind people can just about make out light and dark but nothing else”.

Nadine Grech, 19, and Annabelle Cauchi, 25, both lost their hearing when they were still children; Nadine from meningitis when she was two, and Annabelle through a viral infection when she was six. Today, while they can both lip read, dealing with their deafness is still a challenge.

But all three women live full and active lives, and deal with their deafness in different ways. None of them consider themselves disabled, but they’ve all had to overcome the prejudice of others who do.

“In Malta, people are too narrow-minded,” says Nadine. “I don’t understand why people can’t just casually ask me about my disability, and get on with it.”

Emma, who has a diploma in sports from the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology and works with the Malta Football Association, thinks that more allowances need to be made to cater for the difficulties that arise from being deaf.

“When I was younger, I got on a bus and the bus driver could not understand what I was saying. He got so impatient with me that he just ordered me off the bus.”

Annabelle is convinced that in some cases, society is simply not well educated. “People don’t understand that there’s nothing wrong with us and I cannot stand it when they admire me for doing ordinary things.”

Despite her condition, Annabelle dances with several dance schools. “Even though I can’t hear the music, I’ve found a way of memorising the dance steps and syncing them up with the other dancers,” she explains casually.

Although Emma was born deaf, she attended mainstream schooling. “I know and understand that this was done in good faith, but unfortunately, school breaks were hard to handle,” she explains sadly.

“The girls tended to sit in groups chatting, while the boys played football. Had it not been for a couple of friends, who did their best to include me in their conversation, I would have felt very lonely and isolated.”

Nadine spent much of her childhood travelling back and forth to Manchester for surgery. “At one point, my childhood hearing aids became inadequate and I had to have cochlear implant surgery. This made a huge difference in my quality of life, but my teens were still a difficult phase.”

Annabelle recalls a similar experience. “I had perfect hearing until I was six, and by that time, I could talk and communicate fluently. When my deafness ensued following a viral infection, I was given hearing aids to cope. I then taught myself to lip read and was doing well, but when I hit my teens, life became more difficult to handle.
“Although I always had many friends, at that age, I started to feel inadequate. I insisted on hiding my hearing aids behind my hair and refused to display the physical evidence of my hearing impairment. Today, I’ve overcome this feeling and realised there is nothing wrong with being hearing impaired. I cope well with lip reading though I sometimes miss out on things that are being said when I’m not looking at the person who is talking.”

All three women credit their families with giving them all the support they needed and for pushing them to make their own way in the world. However, they feel Malta, as a country, has let them down, especially when compared to other developed countries around the world.

Cinemas and TV stations fall squarely in the line of fire because, until recently, none of them, or most of them, did not show films or programmes with subtitles.

Schools and universities are another issue. While other countries have several schools for deaf people, or simply provide means of technology in mainstream schools, Malta has nothing of the sort.
Annabelle explains how she was recently blown away by a sightseeing trip in Edinburgh. “The facilities on offer for those with hearing problems were top notch,” she says. “Not only did they provide headphones with speech in different languages, but they also provided English subtitles on the screen, which were in sync with the speech and in line with what hearing visi­tors were listening to on their headphones.

“There are so many little things that people tend to take for granted,” explains Annabelle. “It is only when you’re living with a hearing impairment like us that you realise – little things like not being able to rely on an alarm clock to wake up on time in the morning, for instance. Since I’m Gozitan and live in Malta alone, I have no one to wake me up in the morning so I found a vibrating alarm clock, which I put under my pillow.”

Finding a job has not been easy for all three women. Emma is convinced that employers are afraid of deaf workers and make them feel more disabled than they actually are.

“Although we might not be able to use a standard telephone we can still communicate through e-mails and other electronic means. Unfortunately, however, we’re not given a chance, and we often have to settle for low-paid manual work, to the point that those who manage to find work as mechanics or hairdressers feel super lucky.”
Annabelle works as a marketing executive, but she firmly believes that despite possessing the experience and qualifications required for the post, it was the Employment and Training Corporation Subsidy Scheme that helped in securing her position. “Unfortunately, we can only take advantage of this scheme with one employer, thus greatly reducing our chances of moving up the career ladder by finding job opportunities with other employers in the future. I understand that employing a hearing impaired individual might slightly reduce productivity and efficiency, but nowadays, technology provides a lot of solutions.

“By speaking out, I hope that businesses will put aside their stereotypical view of deaf people and judge individuals only according to their qualifications and work experience rather than their disability,” Annabelle adds.

There are numerous deaf children in our society and both they, and their parents, will invariably worry about what the future holds for them. Emma, Nadine and Annabelle are just three examples of the many who have battled to overcome both the physical and psychological issues of being hearing impaired.

“We hope that our experiences will help open the eyes of the people who can make a difference, as well as help in the form of advice for people who are going through the same thing. We hope that young deaf people will find the strength and motivation to make their own way in the world, not to settle for second best, and to keep fighting for their rights.”

Emma advises: “Do not hide yourself from society. If you’re a woman with a hearing problem, don’t be shy, and try to talk to others. Spread the word about your experiences; teach basic sign language to others. Once friends master sign language, it opens up a whole new world of communication for a deaf person and greatly lessens the isolation.”

Nadine is slightly more reticent, however. “I may not be strong,” she says, “as I may have not yet found a place where I truly belong, but if I had to give someone like me a word of advice, it would be to always be true to yourself. Never let anyone make you feel inferior or hopeless. Just because you are a little bit different doesn’t mean that you cannot get through to the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Annabelle insists that individuals need to make it for themselves. “While family and friends can offer invaluable support, it is only you who can make things happen, through your own strengths and efforts,” she insists. “Do tell people you are dealing with that you are hearing impaired, and do not feel shy about telling them how best to speak to you in order for you to understand them. This will make things so much easier for you!”

Tips on how to talk to me:
• It’s OK to touch me to get my attention.
• Screaming at me from behind does not work!
• I can speak.
• It’s OK to write things down for me if I can’t understand you.
• It’s also OK to ask about my hearing and how to best speak to me.
• Rephrase, don’t repeat the same thing shouting.
• Please don’t feel awkward or embarrassed. Let me deal with that.

Source: Pink Magazine – March 2013

Nadine, Emma, and Annabelle

Nadine, Emma, and Annabelle

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