In September this year, American author and illustrator Cece Bell released a graphic memoir, El Deafo, about losing her hearing at the age of four. El Deafo details Bell’s middle-grade life and deaf experiences: she wears a clunky hearing aid, ‘The Phonic Ear’; struggles to learn to lip read; and is embarrassed by her need to use sign language (‘Some people put on a real show when they start signing – like mimes!’).
Bell’s graphic memoir is a movingly honest portrayal of how strongly she felt herself to be the ‘other’ when growing up deaf in a hearing world. In her Author’s Note, Bell makes the point that while the book details her own experiences, she by no means intends to be a spokesperson for all in the Deaf community. She notes that some ‘members of the Deaf community view their deafness as a difference, but it’s a good difference, not a disability. Deafness is a condition that doesn’t need to be fixed.’ Likewise, Bell acknowledges that others in the community ‘might think of their deafness as a difference, and they might, either secretly or openly, think of it as a disability, too’.
It’s an important clarification, and one which recalls the sentiments expressed by Kayla Whaley – co-curator of the fantastic Disability in KidLit blog – when I interviewed her earlier this year. Whaley highlighted the need for ‘“varied” portrayals [of characters with disability] and not only “positive” ones’. She said, ‘I think that’s a point that doesn’t get made often. There are innumerable disabled experiences, not one single authoritative experience. It’s critical that we have varied portrayals, that we show young readers that their experience of disability is valid, no matter what that experience looks like.’
Chief Executive of Deaf Australia Kyle Miers agrees with the need for varied portrayals, especially in youth literature. ‘We actually need more stories about deaf and hard of hearing characters and for their experiences to be shared in stories. Often, young readers believe they are ‘alone’ in their deafness and do not realise that there are many others like them,’ he says. ‘Stories that show it is ok to be deaf, and demonstrate how they can be included in mainstream community, are something they need to see in order to have a sense of belonging; in other words, their social identity.’
It is also crucial that hearing authors writing Deaf or hard of hearing characters understand the power they wield in portraying those characters in varied and positive ways, particularly in youth literature. ‘It is important,’ says Miers, ‘for writers to delve into the lives of deaf persons and how they acquire information, how they live, and their challenges in the world of no or little sound.’
Australian author Chrissie Keighery’s YA book Whisper tells the story of 16-year-old Demi, who is plunged into a silent world after a bout of meningitis. It is a world that she must learn to navigate, from new friendships to changed family dynamics.
Keighery is hearing, and had major qualms about writing a deaf protagonist. ‘The more I researched deaf experience, particularly the politics, the more worried I became. At times, it seemed an impossible task to represent such complexity. But I discussed these terrors with people whose opinions I respect. My sister told me it was good and correct that I felt fear, since it showed a healthy respect for the topic I was going to tackle. She said I should get on with it – sage advice. Perhaps the idiom should be: “Write what you know and extend it.”’
Keighery researched the book by attending the Victorian College for the Deaf for three months, and had a valuable fact-checker in Lydia Risicato (formerly of Vic Deaf), who is the hearing child of two deaf parents. Such research not only helped shaped the story of Whisper, but Keighery’s understanding of her character. ‘Many Deaf people don’t regard their condition as a disability, but as a cultural identity, and I came to have great respect for this view. I do think authors may shy away from presenting characters society regards as ‘disabled’. Perhaps not so much from fear of writing outside their own experience, but from fear of coming across as didactic. That was certainly one of my greatest fears in tackling Whisper.’
One important reason to promote diversity and depict a wide range of disability experiences in youth literature is simply that young people will not always find their communities until later in life. According to Kyle Miers, ‘Many deaf or hard of hearing children do not have immediate access to deaf adults who could share their experiences and knowledge with the youth. Their cultural identity will come later in life, when they find the community that shares common experiences as them. It means that these youth will develop social skills and become an active member of the community at a later stage than their non-deaf counterparts. This is why it is important that deaf and hard of hearing people learn as early as possible that they are not alone in their community.’
And one of the best ways to do this is through stories. Recognising yourself in the pages of a book can be a powerful, affirming experience. The notion that ‘we read to know we are not alone’ is as true as ever.
This is certainly something that Cece Bell has come to understand over time, and it eventually became the resounding message of her memoir. ‘I found that with a little creativity, and a lot of dedication, any difference can be turned into something amazing. Our differences are our superpowers.’