Imagine you live under constant scrutiny in society: you are an Australian woman, you come from a Lebanese-Muslim background, and your hijab identifies you wherever you go. How would you feel?
But what if you are also Deaf or Hard of Hearing? You don’t fit in the ‘Hearing’ world or the ‘Deaf’ world. You can’t quite fit into your own family or community, either, because of your hearing loss and in the wider world you face multiple communication and language barriers. Where do you fit then? How do you manage your multiple identities?
This is what I sought to find out.
My name is Ayah and I am an Australian Lebanese-Muslim woman with a hearing impairment. I was born and raised in Australia, and growing up I have faced many challenges due to both my ethnicity and my hearing loss. My hearing loss added another barrier I have had to face, not only in the wider Australian community but in the Lebanese-Muslim community as well. There is a lack of support, understanding and awareness about hearing loss, and other disabilities, in the Lebanese-Muslim community, and a lack of understanding and acceptance of Islam, and other ethnic minority backgrounds, in Australia, including in the Deaf community.
I want to close that gap.
The intersection of fitting into these different categories related to gender, culture, religion and disability meant I have faced a unique, complex and silent experience of trying to find out who I am and where I fit. My journey of self-discovery and passion to understand the world around me led me to pursue a degree and career as a Social Researcher.
Last year, as a requirement of my Social Research and Policy Degree at the University of New South Wales, I devoted my honours research to this topic. My thesis explored the identities and lived experiences of Australian Lebanese-Muslim women with hearing impairment and investigated if they perceive their hearing loss as a ‘blessing’ or a ‘curse’. This thesis also aimed to raise awareness and break the strong cultural stigma associated with hearing loss in the Lebanese-Muslim community, as well as contribute to the wider discourse about diversity in the Deaf community.
As a researcher with these multiple identities myself, I used auto-ethnography to incorporate my own reflections and insights into the study. Auto-ethnography is a theoretical and methodological approach where ‘researchers use themselves as their own primary research subject’ (Butz & Besio 2009, p. 1665). Within this framework, I also used data from my Facebook page Silent Signs, where I share my experiences and observations in different community settings.
Additionally, I conducted semi-structured interviews with eight women living in Sydney, who also identified as Australian, Lebanese and Muslim women with a hearing impairment. Recruitment, preparing and conducting the interviews were a fundamental part of my research. Numerous challenges emerged due to language and communication barriers; reflecting the lived experiences of these women. For example, consent forms were offered in English and Arabic, a sign language interpreter was hired for three of the interviews and, due to my own hearing loss, assistance was needed with transcribing the interviews. I even made a video in Auslan (Australian sign language) to recruit participants and this proved to be a successful way of approaching and connecting with these women. You can view the video here.
Numerous themes and results emerged from my research and the key findings can be summarized as follows:
- Most of the women regard Auslan as their primary language.
- The majority of participants identified themselves by their hearing-loss identity first, followed by their identity as a ‘Muslim’ which was in the top two responses. Most of the women who chose the ‘Muslim’ identity stressed that religion allowed them to cope with all the different challenges they faced and to even perceive their hearing loss as a blessing from God. Many gave thanks and the Arabic phrase ‘Alhamdulillah’ (which translates as ‘All praise belongs to God’) was used numerous times by different women.
- All women in the study faced different identity challenges such as conflicts between their ‘Muslim’, ‘Deaf’ and other identities. Navigating their ‘Lebanese’, ‘Australian’ and ‘Woman’ identities also included other identities such as being a ‘Mother’, ‘Wife’ or ‘Student’.
- The women’s experiences and stories also showed that strong cultural stigma, barriers to communication, isolation in the family and a lack of accessibility in the community served to produce hearing loss as a ‘curse’.
Of course, my thesis has obvious limitations, including a very narrow sample. More expansive research will be needed not only to highlight diversity in deaf discourse but to also close the anecdotal gap between Islam and disability. I look forward to expanding on my honours thesis and conducting further research to meet these research desiderata.
At the moment, I am working at Advance Diversity Services on a research project about the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and accessibility for people from different ethnic backgrounds. I also volunteer with MuslimCare Australia where I run a “Muslim Deaf Group” to raise awareness and provide support for other people like myself.
I recently collaborated with the Muslim Deaf Association Sydney on a Ramadan project where we encouraged people to sign “Ramadan Mubarak” in Auslan and send in their videos. You can see the final video here.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions at Silent Signs.
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Butz, D., & Besio, K. (2009). Autoethnography Geography Compass, 3 (5), 1660-1674 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2009.00279.x
Wehbe, A., (2016), ‘Blessing or a Curse? Exploring the Identity and Lived Experiences of Australian, Lebanese, Muslim Women with a Hearing Impairment’, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia