I recently attended an exhibition which was perspective shifting to say the least. An insight into the strength and vulnerabilities of the deafblind.
The deafblind population in Australia is approximately 300,000. For these individuals, the primary form of communication is through signing into the hand – a tactile sign language known as haptics. In Imagined Touch – Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens are your deafblind guides in an interactive performance. Neither of them was born deafblind. For pianist Michelle it was a progression from being born blind and going deaf in her 20’s, and for performer Heather – it was being born deaf and then going blind.
At the beginning of the performance, each woman tells you a little about themselves and then give you the opportunity to experience their world. For the next forty minutes or so, you wear googles that let in little more than shadowy light, and headphones that play a range of notes and tones that drown out normal hearing.
Almost immediately you notice the intensity of being in your own head, your own world. You are at the mercy of kindly strangers who take you by the arm and then abruptly leave you without explanation.
At one point, through your headset you hear Heather and Michelle tell of their struggles of not wanting to leave the house for years, of how scary traffic can be… and how tempting at times it might be to simply step into it.
You’re given a perplexing sheet of braille to explore… you’re left in the middle of an area you have no idea about… strangers take your hands… holding and signing symbols upon them. This is a very provoking method of communication if you cannot understand what is being signed or spelt out upon your palm. I realised as I automatically shrugged and used body language to express my lack of comprehension, that none of those things were of any use when communicating with someone who was unable to see these gestures, and I therefore had no way of expressing my confusion. The frustration bubbles a thought – I want out of this world… now.
It hits home particularly hard that all it will take is removing the googles and headphones. The privilege of that is stark.
Finally we are guided back to our seats and eventually told to remove our googles and headsets. Forty people sit stunned by the experience… moved, enlightened, humbled and in awe.
At the end Michelle plays a beautiful piece on the piano for us. On a screen in the background, we journey through an impressive and amazing litany of life events, bucket list items and achievements by both women, that many of us – with none of the limitations of being deafblind – have yet to achieve. I left feeling vulnerable and changed.
Imagined Touch was powerful, emotional, brilliant, terrifying and inspiring. The bravery required by the deafblind every day is physically shocking. Three times in 30 mins I wanted to give up, throw off the goggles and headset and run back to my non deafblind world in order to feel safe again.
I did not of course do that. I stayed.
It was the very least I could do to honour two such powerful, beautiful, funny and incredible women and their efforts to share the daily challenges of the deafblind community. Afterwards I sat in my car for several minutes readjusting to the overwhelm of being able to see and hear. Staring at the trees, the leaves, the textures and architecture around me – realising just what it means to be able to enjoy this reality versus that of the deafblind. We all have our troubles, but this tiny touch of perspective was even more powerful than I imagined.
I feel unquestionably moved by the experience. And inspired to be braver. As the discomfort fades… beauty, gratitude and deep admiration replace it.
More difficult than I imagined, but certainly touching.
(Click above to check out the website of creator Jodee Mundee and look out for the upcoming documentary).
Wishing you all love and gratitude for your reality – whatever it may be.