I never would have thought that a casual birthday BBQ out in the burbs yesterday would be the setting for one of the most incredible conversations I have had with anyone for quite some time.
Elissa is a student who happens to be deaf. As we sat around the table chatting in the afternoon sun, I realised that she was trying to make sense of the conversations that were taking place around her. Conversations taking place within a large group of people is a chaotic affair. People are talking over each other, contributing to the conversations of others mid-sentence, and breaking away into discussions of sub-topics. For someone living in silence, this can be quite a challenge. Elissa tried to engage in the chit chat that was taking place around her but none of us were making it easy. There was, for example, no conscious attempt to try and face her when we were talking so that she could, at the very least, pick up the 30% of what was being said by reading our lips. In our perfect hearing world, we had shut out someone who was living in a world of silence. My friend Val can sign (Elissa had taught her) and made a galant effort to keep Elissa informed. I was intrigued and started a conversation. She was able to make out a lot of what I was saying by reading my lips (or at least fill in the gaps) but we eventually found it easier to use the pad that she had discreetly placed on the table when she first came over, and joined our group.
The first thing I noticed was that Elissa had beautiful writing. Elegant. Strong. Self-assured. She 'tells' me that most people apologise for their 'poor' writing, in response, but she reckons that even a doctor's scrawl is readable to her. We chuckle. I tell her that she should mark my student's exam scripts next year. She tells me about the uncertainty that surrounds her future when she finishes her studies. The university is currently committed to students with disabilities but what happens after she finishes her doctorate? Her comments were thought-provoking. I pause and think about all the battles she had to fight to get to where she is now and the ones that lay ahead.
I quickly learn that Elissa is incredible astute...a skill no doubt developed from having to spend a life time filling in gaps in conversations, reading people's lips, watching our hand gestures, watching the expressions on our faces. She is remarkably understanding. Elissa does not complain, does not expect concessions. She takes the hearing world as it is and tries to carve out a niche for herself within it. As our conversation progressed, I realised that I was engaging with a most incredible person. I told her that the notes we had been scrawling in her notebook had opened up my eyes to things that I had never ever considered. It was a profoundly humbling experience and one that I will never forget.