I was born with a mild to moderate hearing loss in a rural area in the late 1980’s. My hometown, Bairnsdale, was about three hours east of Melbourne and maybe had a population of around 10,000 when I was growing up. I’ve been reflecting on my experiences growing up with a hearing condition, and the unique flavor that a rural context bought to my experiences. I have identified three things where the rural context and my hearing condition had the most impact together: isolation, rural resources, and self-knowledge.
On isolation, I feel my mother’s experience is just as important as my own. When my older sister, and then myself, were diagnosed with hearing conditions, my mother’s support networks became more fragile. Friends, either uncertain about disability or unsympathetic to it, drifted away. In rural areas, there are few opportunities to step outside of the networks that are important there. As a consequence, any loss was significant, and the loss of these friends created enduring gaps in my mother’s support network.
My mum did attempt to engage with others with similar experiences, but locally this was a challenge. There were few children with hearing-specific conditions: we had heard there were only two families in the area. Instead, we connected with broader disability groups, where we met with families with children with a variety of different conditions. My mum found herself struggling to manage the empathy she felt for these other parents, who were often even more isolated than herself. Instead of finding catharsis, my mum was overwhelmed.
To find other families with more similar experiences, we had to travel to Melbourne. On the occasions that we did this, we would meet with established groups of families with kids with a range of hearing conditions. For me, these events were filled with social anxiety and discomfort. The children there were usually already friends, and were able to communicate with each other in ways that I wasn’t used to, including by using Auslan. I found myself on the periphery, without even the skills to begin a conversation. I felt isolated more isolated here than I felt navigating spaces filled with children without a hearing condition. I had been well socialised into the hearing world out of necessity, and now found it threatening to step outside of it.
On resources, rural areas had fewer specialists that could serve those with hearing conditions. Speech pathology for children with hearing conditions is crucial, but this was not available locally. Instead, my mum found a singing teacher who was willing to take me on to see what we could do together. My singing teacher took the time to instruct me in the specific positions that my tongue and mouth should take to create the right sounds, and my speech improved as a result. I really enjoyed the training, and found it as valuable as any work I could do with a speech pathologist.
A side effect of this approach is that the training resulted in a distinctive accent which is noticed (and remarked upon) in rural areas. Growing up in Bairnsdale, those who didn’t know me personally assumed I have moved from Europe or North America. This meant that even our best work to respond to my hearing condition marked me out as different from my peers, reinforcing a sense of not-quite-belonging in my rural hometown.
It has only been in my move to larger cities that I have come to recognize where this feeling of not-quite-belonging came from, and what I could do about it. This brings me to the final factor: self-knowledge. It is only through the resources and serendipitous connections available in cities like Melbourne that I have come to learn what is distinctive about the experience of having a hearing condition. As a child, in a place with little knowledge and resources about hearing conditions, the focus was on identifying strategies that would help me access the hearing world. The rural world and the hearing world were one in the same, so this was important for my education, for my socialization, for my employment, for my belonging. But because this rural/hearing world isn’t made for those with hearing conditions, I never felt quite connected with it or safe within it. It is only now, moving away from that world for awhile, that I’ve had the chance to learn how to connect with relationships, spaces, and workplaces which aim to meet my needs equally as well.
The rural context provided a unique background for a child with a hearing condition, and I’ve taken that rural upbringing with me as I’ve moved. It informs my work and my understanding of myself and the world in great and positive ways. It also is an example of the importance of considering intersectionality when understanding hearing conditions. Without understanding the rural context of my childhood, it is impossible to fully understand my hearing condition as an adult.