The statistics are well-known. More than 1.1 billion people around the world are affected by hearing loss, but only one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid actually uses one. Ask anyone and they will probably either know someone with hearing loss, or have someone they know who could probably benefit from a hearing aid. But why is it that while people often recognize symptoms of hearing loss they rarely do anything about it? Kate Disher-Quill, an Australian photographer who was born with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss, is targeting this question with a photography, multimedia, and sensory exhibition that aims to help break down the barriers and stigmas associated with deafness, to open up a conversation and to empower those who feel the need to hide a part of their identity.
I talked with the 27-year-old photographer about her upcoming exhibition and her experiences of growing up with hearing loss.
Jill: What was the hardest thing about growing up with a hearing loss?
Kate: I was diagnosed with hearing loss at age three, but didn’t get hearing aids until I was 10. I don’t know why the doctors waited so long, but I think it was because I was doing OK at school, so they didn’t think I needed them. That for me was the beginning of the ordeal of realizing I had a hearing loss. I guess before that I didn’t realize I had a problem.
When I got my hearing aids I hated them, but I was too young to communicate how I felt. Instead of talking about it, my way of dealing with it was to ignore it. I never wore my hearing aids outside of the classroom and never talked to anyone about it. Jill: Do you think it was more difficult to deal with what others thought about your hearing loss, or your personal struggles with it?
Kate: I never felt like I was bullied. I had a good group of friends and we semi-joked about my hearing loss, which was kind of my way to deal with it. They called me “Partially-deaf Kate,” haha. But at one point it started to get to me, and I had to tell them to stop.
On the other hand, when I started wearing my hearing aids I had to see a special-needs teacher to assess me, and I was quite insecure about the whole thing. I thought I wasn’t going to be smart because I had a hearing loss, but I never communicated it to anyone. Jill: Was there a turning point where you decided to embrace your hearing loss?
Kate: It wasn’t until about a year ago when I read an article in some popular fashion/lifestyle magazine about a girl who had a cochlear implant, and how she grew up with similar experiences – being insecure, missing punchlines in jokes, having social struggles, and eventually becoming a photographer. I instantly related to her and it sparked something in me that made me want to address my own hearing loss and talk about it. I went into this thinking, why have I felt so insecure about it?
It’s a part of who I am, it’s always been part of who I am, and I need to get over it and start coming to terms with it.
Jill: Tell me about your project and what you hope people will take away from it.
Kate: It’s photography based, but it’s really a sensory experience with other multimedia, including a film from a sign language artist and interactive works with vibrations, which show the whole range of hearing loss. I showcase people from 2-years-old to over 50, with all degrees of hearing loss. Some never learned to speak orally and use sign language as their main form of communication, and others have cochlear implants or hearing aids.
I want to be able to educate “hearing people” on the struggles people have in dealing with a hearing loss. People might feel awkward to talk to someone wearing hearing aids, but there are always ways to talk to those people – even those who use sign language – you shouldn’t just shut down.
I really just want people with a hearing loss to be accepting of it, be excited to talk about it and be open about it. There are so many people with a hearing loss, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all have our little things that make life a bit difficult. I want to be able to share this feeling I had when I was finally capable of accepting my hearing loss, and help others feel that way. If I can make a 16-year-old feel how I wish I felt when I was 16 that’s all that really matters. [wpvideo GYxAwiCx] Kate’s exhibition, titled “Right Hear, Right Now,” will be held May 7 at District 01 in New South Wales, Australia. Photo credits: Kate Disher-Quill.