Opening up important questions about deafness

  • The Shape of Sound, by Fiona Murphy. Text, $34.99.

What is it like to occupy the murky grey area between appearing able-bodied while living with an invisible disability? How do you choose whether to claim your disability, and with it the conscious and unconscious bias you will experience from teachers, employers, even friends and family, or to pretend you don't have it so that you can forgo that trauma?

Fiona Murphy spent the better part of her life trying to hide or ignore her deafness, until eventually, as an adult, she learned the power of sign language and began to own and claim her deafness. In her debut memoir, The Shape of Sound, Murphy writes with great insight and self-reflection of her journey to accepting her deafness.

Written as a series of essays, The Shape of Sound explores Murphy's experiences of friendships, school, practicing as a physio and then working in an office, through the lens of her challenges with hearing. Murphy spends the majority of her life trying to keep her deafness secret, and compensating for it in every interaction, leaving her fatigued and exhausted whenever she is interacting with other people.

In bars, she oscillates between talking incessantly to avoid having to listen, or sitting mutely, unable to interact with the conversations around her. Her romantic relationships falter, and her friendships suffer as she tries to define a way of being in the world that isn't at the cost of her health.

But through it all, a fear of being treated "differently" and of being seen as incapable keeps her from owning her deafness and seeking meaningful solutions to support her.

When she connects with the deaf community through Auslan lessons, Murphy realises that her attitude towards her own deafness has been influenced by the assumption that being deaf is a negative identity trait. By spending time with people in the deaf community, Murphy realises that it doesn't have to be this way, and begins a journey of owning her deafness.

The Shape of Sound takes the reader through Murphy's experiences as scenes in a story, while also interjecting research, social theory and ethical lenses to the discussion. Although the reader can sense how difficult it must have been for Murphy to be sharing it so openly now, this leads to a closer sense of empathy with Murphy as a protagonist, and enriches the overall reading experience.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this book is the revelation that there is still so much work to be done in our community to be meaningfully inclusive of people with disability, to ensure the alienation and anxiety that Murphy experienced doesn't continue to be the norm.

  • Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman: A Memoir of Not Belonging.
This story Opening up important questions about deafness first appeared on The Canberra Times.