Review: Deafness Gain, a memoir by Michael Uniacke
Deafness is seen as a wall of stigma that surrounds many, but there are these who, on the inside of the walls, peer outside into the hearing world. In Deafness Gain, a memoir by Australian writer Michael Uniacke, a life living within these walls is the story of a life where he is seen as an inconvenient burden by the general population who would rather give up and find someone else instead. Yet, within the walls alternate paths are carved. As a Deaf person I found myself relating with his story on a personal level and it led me through laughter and tears as I read of his journey from being a deaf person never fitting in to a Deaf person as a source of pride. Uniacke writes of attempting to fit in because it is what is taught by his family, to be normal and not to receive special treatment. It is better to fail at a normal school than succeed at a deaf school where everything is made easier, as his father staunchly believes for him and his other deaf siblings. In this family sign language does not exist and it is one of the most common experiences for deaf people; to be among these who do not understand the deaf, nor attempt to.
The memoir begins with him starting a new life out of school. Eager to wipe clean the slate that was tainted by deafness, he visits his school one last time and looks to a new beginning that comes with work at a tax office. Despite wanting to write, his father instead directs him into the field of accounting and business. Uniacke, growing up technically hard of hearing, finds he can understand some people better than others due to multiple factors (the accent, facial hair, etc.) and the reactions of others vary from understanding to impatience. Still, the stigma of deafness catches up to him at the tax office. He is told that he cannot do the job; this he ignores and completes the task at hand, in an alternate way he has figured out from experience. Uniacke sees that the hearing does not understand that about his alternate experience being deaf. He shares the incidents from work with other deaf people like him, people he can hear and understand well, because they understand, without sign language. Instead of being the sole deaf person among hearing people, he finds himself among others that understand him.
In the beginning Uniacke saw sign language as an “incomprehensible language of signs” used by real deaf people and wonders about his parents’ idea of what is normal. With this it is seen that while holding on to the standards of his family, he does not see himself as a real deaf person. Just being deaf already challenges the ideas of normalcy and brings up questions of conformity, as he wonders if there is anything wrong with preferring to spend time with deaf people instead, and belonging in a hearing world. Within this group of nonsigning deaf friends, a normalcy different from the hearing perspective on what is normal after meeting more different types of deaf people is found. Discussions are had without missing out on words or having to ask to repeat, and social outgoings which bring a different light in his life. There is talk of whether they should pretend they are not deaf, or declare it. Some say it is just a game of pretend, to play along with it but despite the varied responses with them, Uniacke can see hearing people as the “other people” rather than the people he is surrounded by.
Eventually he attends a Christmas party in Jolimont, where sign language is everywhere on the contrary. Despite not knowing sign language beyond a basic grasp with the alphabet, it began to lose its strangeness at the Christmas party. And so there is a shift of normalcy throughout Deafness Gain, from seeing sign language as a “waving flapping incomprehensible thing” made by people in the lower rungs of society, to feeling more at home in “this rich and exotic land of deafness”. At church with a hearing mass, he would have rushed home at the end but with a deaf mass, he stayed to socialize afterwards with them. There he is discovered by a well known man in the Deaf community and is asked to show his writing. Leaving the hearing standards of normalcy, he finds a new beginning he couldn’t have before with sign language.
With a changing shift, there is tension to be seen within his family, who do not understand his interest in deafness as it threatens their normalcy. From the socialization with other deaf people, Uniacke comes to learn that he not only just has to bear with hearing people, but he could also teach them about different ways of communication. With the group of deaf friends he begins to see what other opportunities deafness could lead him to, instead of as a barrier while among hearing people. There is talk of taking trips together, planning things for the future. With them anything becomes more possible. His memoir takes us into a world of a deaf person, and his journey towards what normalcy means for him as he finds more deaf people and a Deaf pride emerges. We, as readers, witness the shift from being the sole deaf person to knowing different kinds of deaf people and having all sorts of discussions about deafness. In a way this opens Uniacke’s world to opportunities never before considered. Deafness is not just a can’t, it’s an opportunity to forge a path for a new beginning as evident in starting to associate with more deaf people, and a new deaf social club. This is an experience shared by people that have no choice regarding not fitting in with the most of the world, and a gift to read. With this story we are reminded of what it really means to attempt to be “normal” within the mainstream standards of normalcy, and to stand outside that standard as many do.