Yes, that’s right, the N-word. I’d like to discuss a type of N-word and what it has meant to me. The word I refer to, of course, is ‘normal’.

By Max Stroemer

I recently addressed an audience at a symposium in Zurich for the renowned TED Institute. I started directly by saying: “I would like to let you all know that I have a disability. Can anybody guess what it I might be? (For dramatic effect, I waited for an audience member to respond) … “I can’t hear you, I prompted”… “No, I literally cannot hear you,” I revealed.

As someone who has lived all 17 years of their life as Deaf, I often find myself pondering the extent of my disability. These moments, which usually occur when I lay in bed awake late at night, are reserved for contemplation of the ongoing journey that my impairment has taken me on.

It wasn’t always easy explaining to my peers that indeed, I was not exactly like them, that I didn’t hear the same way they did. That I relied on two tiny pieces of technology, my hearing aids, to hear. While most of the kids were pretty nice about it and didn’t ask too many questions, I would always do this strange thing when I first explained my disability to them. I would do so in an almost apologetic manner. It was as if I was pitching to them the notion that I could hear the same way they did, that I had something to prove. But by then, it was too late. By then, they had noticed and done the look, the subtle facial expression that indicated how they had already categorised me as a misfit. It was at this point that I was no longer considered normal. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my introduction to the N-Word, “Normal.”

Gaining experience

I reminisce about when I found my passion for public speaking during my first stand-up comedy routine in middle school (an admittedly strange endeavour for a Deaf person) as well as memories of parties with loud music where I would watch people laugh at a joke that I couldn’t hear and the first time I played rugby, relying completely on my other senses. As I reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of my journey, I am reminded of important life lessons that I have learned along the way.

It’s important to understand that my diagnosis in July 2000 left a lasting impact on my family and loved-ones. It begged the question of whether or not I would ever be able to live independently or communicate verbally. For my mum and dad, there were no words to describe the feelings of uncertainty and distress that arose when they were informed that their first new-born wasn’t perfect. I am sure that parents reading this piece can sympathise with how my parents felt when they heard the news. My grandmother certainly could relate, as she herself, had raised a Deaf child (my uncle.) As my father says: “Grandma told us that the time for tears was over and that we needed to focus on enjoying our beautiful son for what he was, rather than lamenting on what he wasn’t.” To this end, after the initial shock, my parents garnered their combined strength and vowed that they would do everything in their power to help provide me with the same opportunities and experiences available to the other children.

What does it mean?

My formative years were comprised of hundreds of hours of audiologist appointments and speech therapy. I sometimes felt like my disability represented a fundamental flaw from the perceived standard of normality, but then I would ask myself, “What does it really mean to be normal?”

I sometimes ask myself what life would be like if I had not been born Deaf. I have come to understand and appreciate that it is up to one person; me, to overcome the challenges that my impairment has presented. This understanding has empowered me and given me the courage to write and share my story with audiences and interested readers.

As you read this short article, I would ask you to consider the following questions as food for thought. Is there value in being honest with yourself and your limitations? As human beings, are we not, by nature, examples of imperfection? Isn’t it worth celebrating your imperfections and being proud of the qualities that make you unique?

A second notion might be a hope that you begin to adopt a sense of consciousness in your lexicon and choice of words and that you use sensitivity when throwing around the word ‘normal’.