A cornerstone of all healthy relationships is good communication. So, how do you navigate the complexities of communication in a relationship when one of you is hearing, and the other deaf?
William, who is profoundly deaf, and his partner Michael, who is hearing, have demonstrated exactly that. In the recent ABC program ‘My Story’, the couple shared how they embrace their differences to build a loving, healthy relationship that navigates both hearing and Deaf worlds.
We caught up with William to further explore some of the experiences and topics he explored on the program. And we talked to leading expert Professor Greg Leigh, the Director of our NextSense Institute, about what the evidence shows about learning sign and spoken language. Greg, who was also featured on the program, discusses the importance of inclusivity, choice, and the need for people to be supported on their own unique journey.
William’s journey to sound
William was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at six months of age after his parents noticed he was non-responsive to sounds and verbal commands.
When he was eight years old, his parents decided receiving cochlear implants would be the best option for William's unique situation. With the support of a team of experts from NextSense (then known as the Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre), including Professor William Gibson who led the operation, William successfully received his first cochlear implant in 1996.
'I already had some idea of the world’s sounds from use of my hearing aids,' William says. ‘I could hear birds chittering in the breeze, doors creaking and closing, the thumping of shoes on the stairs. So, it wasn’t an instant “a-ha!” unlike the term “switch-on” suggests. But after my implantation, over time these commonplace sounds became refined, crisper, disparate. Sounds that the average hearing person perhaps takes for granted.’
Years later in 2010, William was encouraged by his audiologist to get a second cochlear implant to improve his access to sound.
After learning the benefits of having access to a 180-degree range of sound, William says he had little hesitation in receiving his second implant.
‘My recovery and adjustment period was much quicker the second time around due to the strides made in cochlear implant procedures and technology,’ William says.
He now relies on his hearing, spoken language, and Auslan skills to navigate both hearing and Deaf worlds.
William emphasises that every person’s path and experience is different, and the power must always lie with individuals themselves.
‘People now have more options than before and can choose whether or not to switch on or to adjust a new world of sound—there is no pressure to adhere to a professional recommendation,’ he says.
Cochlear implant technology is a perfect blend of human skill, triumphant science, and product innovation—restoring what nature cannot provide, or in some cases, improving upon it.
Professor Leigh, who has worked in early intervention and education for deaf and hard of hearing children for more than 40 years, says that that just as every person is unique, so are the solutions that work best for them.
‘There is no single description of what it is to be deaf or hard of hearing and no “one size fits everyone” when it comes to responding to childhood or adult hearing loss,’ he says.
‘One misconception is that learning sign language will prevent a child from using spoken language. There is no evidence to suggest that learning the two languages is incompatible. What we do know is that in order to learn either language, children need access to rich and deep and meaningful experiences of using those languages. Another misconception is that there has to be a divide between using a cochlear implant and using sign language. It isn’t so.
‘I think we have come to a new era in technology where it is better understood that using a cochlear implant does not mean someone must stop using sign language. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. It’s important for people who work in the field and for people more broadly to understand that these are not entirely separate worlds. They do interact and they do mesh with each other in very meaningful ways.’
Finding love from across the ‘sound divide’
William and Michael met in March 2013 after connecting through a dating app. The pair’s connection was almost instant, with both professing their love within a week of meeting.
‘Michael saw something in me that nobody else, or a very few did—that I was worthy and had value of love and being loved, and the way he wanted to be with me was terribly romantic,’ says William when describing how he knew Michael was the man for him.
‘He was even eager to learn Auslan for my benefit and showed care and consideration in that way.’
However, Michael explains that it was originally difficult for him to get the rhythm and flow of William’s speech patterns and understand that there is a lot of variation in approach and lives of people within the Deaf community.
‘I guess my experience as an actor as well as growing up in a Croatian community, where English was a second language, helped me navigate William’s speech,’ Michael says.
‘This bettered my understanding of how to navigate his world in terms of communication in a more lateral, expressive, and supportive way.’
As they approach almost 10 years together, William and Michael have built their business—an inclusion focused casting agency—and their shared lives together.
Their relationship has demonstrated that communication is about much more than the words or signs you use.
‘It is a relationship that is more similar than it is different, says Michael. ‘Communication is not just words, it is also gesture, reaction, and caring.’
‘It is not always clear cut, and you have to work ... I think you have to put in extra effort. In saying that, every relationship has its own difficulties anyway. There are loads of hearing people who have trouble listening,’ William says.
Gaining a better understanding of hearing loss
William and Michael agree it’s vital for all people to be willing and capable to adjust their habits and behavior if we want a society that is more inclusive of those with hearing loss or disability.
‘The abled world has to come [to us] on people with disability’s terms. They should make it easier for us than the other way around,’ says William. ‘I deal with this by coming into their [the hearing] world but on my own terms.’
Professor Leigh agrees, explaining that to be fully inclusive of all individuals is to be actively aware of, and responsive to, others’ needs and circumstances all day, every day.
‘Really, being inclusive is all about being aware of how easy it is to be exclusive if you don’t take account of individual people’s situations. There’s never a downside to seeing things from someone else’s perspective—being open to the worlds of others,’ he says.
And it is that openness to the experiences and world of other people who live different lives to him that has driven William to engage with the hearing world and into his relationship with Michael.
‘Perhaps it may be easier to seek someone [whose life is] similar to your own, but this is also more restricting and secular. I like to ingrain myself within very different cultures and other ways of understanding. It enriches my worldview,’ explains William.
William believes how you treat someone whose world is different to your own is a reflection of your character, openness, and awareness of the fascinating, sometimes frustrating, differences and similarities that make up their lives.
He says that this perspective, alongside his embrace of technology, has informed his unique identity, autonomy, and lifestyle.
‘My cochlear implant has helped me achieve the things I have at this point in my life and has enriched the depth of my relationships and friendships,’ William says.
Together, he and Michael have truly embraced each other's similarities and differences, crossing the ‘sound divide’ to build their own shared way of living.
‘It's really about how much heart you can give, and if you're lucky to be recognised for it and loved, then there's no world where any barrier can ever exist.’