OPINION: Katia Schwartz had established a dancing career when she became profoundly Deaf. Katia explains how she embraced her Deafness and became the owner of one of the most popular burlesque, pole and aerial dance studios in Sydney.
I am Deaf. But I haven’t always identified this way.
My hearing loss journey began thirteen years ago, when I was eighteen. After a series of balance issues, and what I thought at the time was ‘fainting’, I was told to see an audiologist to have a hearing test. I found out that I had ‘severe’ Deafness in my left ear, but still had all of the hearing in my right. I didn’t feel particularly upset about it, as I connected it to more of an explanation regarding my balance issues. I also didn’t feel Deaf, or face the same barriers that I do now regarding hearing loss. For example, I could still study and be employed in the same capacity as an abled person, watch movies without subtitles and talk on the phone. It also didn’t affect dating, friendships or communicating with my family. In fact, I don’t even remember telling people about my diagnosis. It just didn’t feel like a big deal to me, because I didn’t believe that I faced any barriers.
As a child, I was always very off-balance, I went to speech therapy, and I was only good at subjects that didn’t involve the teacher facing the chalkboard all lesson. I failed maths in high school, because I couldn’t understand my teacher. I blamed not liking group conversations and preferring one-on-one interactions on being an introvert. When I was told that I was Deaf in one ear when I was eighteen, I didn’t notice a decline in my hearing. It felt the same as it always had been. In hindsight, I had faced barriers because of Deafness. But they didn’t feel like barriers, because they didn’t have the stigma of hearing loss attached to them.
I was in my early twenties when I got my first pair of hearing aids. I didn’t tell anyone. I wore them once, hated them and then they lived for a year in a drawer until I moved house, and then my cat chewed them. At the time, I was told that I had a profound hearing ‘impairment’. The explanation that medical professionals gave me was that it was ‘sensorineural’, which is the diagnosis they give you when they can’t find anything else.
My nan is profoundly Deaf, and has been that way since her 30s. They never found a true diagnosis for her Deafness. She was actually one of the first people in Australia to be issued with a cochlear implant! She doesn’t use sign language, and she’s always been very vocal about the barriers she faces being Deaf and that she doesn’t like being Deaf.
When I started to notice my hearing decline in my mid-twenties, I quietly felt scared. The only Deaf role model that I had, my nan, hated being Deaf. I didn’t know about Auslan as a language. In all of the doctors’ appointments and audiologists that I went to, Auslan was never offered to me as an option. The Hearing World has a preconception that sign languages aren’t equal to spoken languages. Being oral, speech therapy and working with aids (like cochlear implants, hearing aids) is encouraged in the medical industry. But these aids don’t work for everyone, and even if they do – hearing is still really exhausting and difficult. The onus is always put on the Deaf person to accommodate for the Hearing person. The medical industry sees Deafness as a defect, an impairment that needs to be fixed.
After years of labelling myself “hearing impaired”, copying the damaging language used by my doctors, I decided to learn Auslan. Well, I wouldn’t really call it a “decision”. I was forced by my friend Dahlia (a Virgo), who wanted to become an Auslan Interpreter at the time. My hearing was declining pretty dramatically and life was getting pretty hard, as lipreading and my new pair of hearing aids weren’t really cutting it anymore. Dahlia said to me, “Why don’t we just give one lesson a go, and you can see if you like it!”. I firmly said “No”. Dahlia persisted, “Well, I think it would be really great for you to learn since you’re Deaf!”. I told her I wasn’t Deaf (I was so Deaf) and that I was just “hearing impaired”, but I’ll go to one lesson just to get her off my case.
I met my Auslan teacher, Dion, in our first private lesson at my house a few weeks later. It was the first time I had ever met a Deaf person that wasn’t my nan. Dion is so charismatic, funny, and very proud of their Deaf identity. They always put the onus on the Hearing person to adapt to their preferred communication. It was the first time that I saw the tables turn, and the Deaf person had the power. That moment changed my life.
Learning Auslan was really tricky at first, and there were times that I felt like I struggled more in Deaf conversations than I did in ones with Hearing people. I would leave ‘Deaf socials’ exhausted and a little deflated. But all of a sudden, it came to a point where everything just clicked and my Auslan got to a level where I could understand and communicate freely. For the first time in my life, I felt like an extrovert. I would leave conversations feeling happy and full of life and energy. I met more Deaf people, I made Deaf friends, I learned about Deaf culture.
The social model of Disability puts the onus on society for creating barriers for Disabled people. I’ve always felt like the barriers that I face from being Deaf aren’t because of the fact my ears can’t hear. It’s because people don’t use sign language, or there are no captions on a show I want to watch, or a performance that doesn’t have an interpreter. Or that abled people expect me to be completely uncomfortable and tired through accommodating to their communication needs, because they are too busy or tired to meet me at least halfway.
I don’t really care about not having sound in my life. Sound sucks. People are loud and annoying. The moment I take my hearing aids off at the end of the day is my favourite thing to do. I had a hearing test recently, and instead of going home feeling like I failed at something – I told everyone I “passed” the Deaf test.
I’ve recently been diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease. After years of searching for answers and feeling like no diagnosis properly fit – I now have an explanation of why I am Deaf. Meniere’s Disease is a balance disorder. It basically means that my inner ear fills up with too much fluid, and over time it damages the ear, resulting in hearing loss. It’s extremely rare for a person my age to be diagnosed with the disease, as it’s most commonly found in people over 50. Hence why it was never picked up when I was younger. I’ve also been told that it can be hereditary, which means that my nan probably has it too. Although she’s far too old now to be tested, and since the tests involve being strapped to a chair and spun around, while looking at different coloured lights – it’s not super comfortable for me, let alone a 90-year-old woman.
Given my history of balance issues, it might be a little shocking that I’m a professional aerialist and erotic performer. I also own a dance studio in Sydney, Sky Sirens. I’m now probably the only professional aerialist in the world that has Meniere’s Disease. Since my job involves literally balancing on a metal hoop in the air… it’s not the most accessible activity for someone with a pretty severe balance disorder. Over the years, my body has adapted for my job, which is incredible.
A lot of Hearing people have the misconception that Deaf people don’t understand music. It’s simply not true. Not only has my body adapted to being upside down, my Deafness often gives me an advantage when I’m dancing. Unlike my Hearing colleagues, I have to break down a song into segments and memorise not only all of the beats – but also any moments of lightness, heaviness, quietness or darkness. I remember the song like a map in my mind, and my movement is a reflection of the journey. I work with the vibrations, and have developed a deeper connection with musicality the more Deaf I’ve become.
My Deafness has also inspired my interest in creating a safe, inclusive and accessible business. I understand how it feels to face barriers as a result of my Disability and other intersections. It’s my priority that nobody feels that way when they come to Sky Sirens. Through our website, social media, our showcases and the people we hire – I want students to be able to feel represented and seen. I want students to not be afraid to exist as themselves, to censor parts of their identity or feel like they can’t take up space.
I’ve often felt not “Deaf enough” because I am oral, or that I didn’t grow up using Auslan. I’ve felt embarrassed, ashamed or judged because my signing isn’t perfect. I’ve always felt like I couldn’t use the label “Deaf” to describe myself, and used “Hard of Hearing” instead. It’s almost like I’m not hearing enough for the Hearing World, but I’m not culturally Deaf enough for the Deaf world. This concept of not being “enough” is so damaging, and something that all of us can relate to.
Without hearing aids, I can’t hear at all in both ears. I am profoundly Deaf. I choose to speak or sign if I want to. There’s not just one way to be Deaf.