Deafness Made Me Who I Am Today

Jun 11, 2021 - Stuart McNaughton

It might sound weird, but losing my hearing as a baby was one of the best things ever to happen to me. I see that now. From the moment my parents noticed I stopped responding to their voices, until the moment I was diagnosed two and a half years later, I observed the world with my eyes. I still do. Many times, my Mum has repeated the story: “They told me you were either incredibly deaf or incredibly stupid.” Forty years on, my Mum is still in disbelief that a medical professional would label a four-year-old boy in this way, but we have to remember this was in 1981. Attitudes have, fortunately, changed enormously.

I got my hearing aids at the age of four, which, according to my medical records, helped with my development enormously. My mother begged a local headmaster to let me enroll in the same mainstream school as my two sisters. It is definitely my hearing aids and the access to mainstream schooling that helped me to get to where I am today. Mainstream schooling, however, was a lonely experience. I was bullied relentlessly at school. I was pushed around, and my speech was frequently mocked. There was even one incident where three boys dragged me into a toilet, pulled one of the hearing aids out of my ear and flushed it down the toilet. 

That experience still stings, even now. In fact, it brings a tear to my eye as I’m writing this article – it hurts every time because bullying is still a massive issue today.  Just like losing my hearing, the bullying I experienced has made me who I am today.

Just like losing my hearing, the bullying I experienced has made me who I am today.

The day I left school in 1993, I was overjoyed. I was free of the playground negativity and classroom struggles. Within a week, I was employed as a data processor – I have always had a knack for making things happen. I was 16, I was working, and I was becoming more and more aware that I was gay. This is going to sound strange again, but having endured a whole childhood where it was “the others” who made my life hell, being gay didn’t bother me – and it never has actually bothered me. And looking back and having endured –  and survived – hearing loss in a mainstream school, I was also going to get through this too, wasn’t I? Because I didn’t let it bother me, it didn’t seem to bother others. 

When I was 23, I got my first cochlear implant, which is why I’m celebrating 20 years of bionic hearing this year. When my implant was activated, I made my first ever telephone call six weeks later. I can still remember my parents crying on the other end of the line when I made a surprise call to them in Spain. Since then, I haven’t looked back. It’s like this is who I am meant to be. If I was meant to be deaf, I would have been born deaf. And that wasn’t the case.

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It was in my mid-30s that I struggled mentally, like lots of men do. Years of powering through had finally taken its toll, and I sought counselling. Only one of my colleagues was aware of the breakdown I was going through – if you are reading this, you know who you are and I thank you enormously. The employee assistance program probably saved my life. The questions I had were very existential. Why am I here? Why am I deaf? Why am I gay? Too many whys and not enough answers – it seemed to overwhelm me.

For years, I was telling myself that I was okay, but I was just kidding myself. Anyone who knows me well knows that I love to do two things: laugh and learn, so why was I feeling so down?

For years, I was telling myself that I was okay, but I was just kidding myself.

It was a combination of things, but if you look at the statistics, it’s not unusual for men to feel this way as we approach our forties. Not only did I have a disability, but I was also gay, so I was suffering from two situations where I didn’t fit in with the “norms” in society. This type of scenario can lead to feelings of inadequacy and manifests itself as “minority stress.”   

With regards to learning, I have always been in an educational program of one kind or another. I’m a qualified accountant, but quickly learned that I didn’t want my working career to revolve around the calculator. So I studied marketing, which tapped into my more creative side. It is the transition into counselling, however, that has fulfilled me the most, and  it really complements the work I do at Advanced Bionics, which is to help our local teams to support families. I have had the immense privilege to work internationally and to see first hand the impact hearing loss has on people who live in very different cultures from myself, be it socially, politically, or economically. I enjoy working with local teams to raise awareness of cochlear implants and also enjoy reading the many stories we get from other CI wearers sharing the joy of hearing.

After four years of study counselling, I now get why people are the way they are, which means I can now forgive the bullies. They were targeting me not because they knew I was vulnerable, they were targeting me because they were unhappy with themselves and chose to vent their own anger onto someone they knew was not going to fight back. It is against my principles to hurt someone. I also now believe that people in minority groups have so much to teach us. I am proud to represent not just one, but two minorities.

When I was a child, I would have cowered away, but now I’m so curious that I want to understand why. Imagine if you stopped for a moment and just asked yourself why something was happening, why someone was behaving in a certain manner or feeling a certain way, you would get some insight into what it means to be human, and the richness of it. Yes, it still bothers me when someone thinks they have an overt right to bully or domineer, but when I ask myself why they do it, I  muster up all kinds of empathy. For many years, I didn’t have the social skills to do all this, a remnant of the deaf, uneducated me.  

Today, we are still dealing with the COVID19 pandemic, and again, I’m thankful for my hearing loss. You see, the social isolation I experienced as a young child meant that I was better prepared than most for the isolation we have all experienced during this pandemic.  Every cloud has a silver lining and for me, those periods of isolation – and reflection – are when I have grown the most. 

I’ve now happily turned forty. (Actually, I’m 44, but don’t tell anyone!) I want to finish this message by thanking everybody at AB for everything you do. Every single thing you do benefits people like me. My other message is to anybody out there who is suffering from hearing loss: “You might not feel it and you might not believe it, but you ARE special. Life might seem unfair, and the bullies might always seem to get their way. I know it’s tough, but we’ve got this – you might not know it yet, but the bullies actually make us better people. Be patient, and you’ll see!”

My cochlear implants have helped me to live, to love, to laugh and to learn. I’m now one of the happiest people I know, and that’s a result of everything that has passed. I hope the next twenty years will bring as much a discovery as the last. My hearing journey has been absolutely amazing and I would not change a single thing.


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