We each have five senses for a reason. Our eyes – it helps us not to bump into things. Our ears – help us to follow conversations. Our tongue – to taste food better. Our nose – to stay away from smelly stuff. And lastly, our sense of touch – it makes us sensitive towards our internal and external environments.
Our five senses aid us in navigating a world bursting with colours, sounds, textures and so much more.
But what happens when one of our senses is lost?
That’s the amazing thing about our brain: despite loss, it still adapts and compensates amazingly.
In my case, it means having to depend twice as much on my eyes. My sight has been my lifeline for so many years. It makes me aware of my surroundings; it alerts me when people speak to me. My ears are supposed to do all these things; but alas, my eyes now do it for me.
When it comes to lip-reading, I have to focus completely on the one person speaking to me. I must see their faces, and preferably it needs to be in a good light. I need to pick up what language that person is speaking: Afrikaans, English, Sotho, or Xhosa? Are they speaking directly to me, or someone behind me? Are the words coming fast or is it slow-paced? Most importantly: are they speaking clearly? Will it be an easy conversation to follow?
Lip-reading is an art you can only master by seeing that person’s face. This is how I communicate, this is how I view this world of words and languages.
Just imagine what it meant for me when the government suddenly decided: masks are compulsory.
Overnight, I became both blind and deaf.
A few years ago I attended the Valhalla Arts Tributes Awards at the exquisite Velmore Hotel & Spa in Johannesburg. Various women with different physical abilities were to be honoured for their pioneering in their fields of work. I was awarded for my work as a creative writer and motivational speaker. Women with cerebral palsy or spinal cord injuries attended the evening; they used wheelchairs or walked with crutches. The ones who had no sight used a guiding dog, a walking stick, or had someone leading them. All these disabilities were visible.
But as for me, no one could pick up the type of disability I have.
Deafness is an invisible disability.
That weekend I realized that hearing loss is indeed invisible to the eye. You cannot see it unless you talk sign language with another person. And I don’t use sign language as means of communication; I read lips and speak like a hearing person.
Even when I speak, people sometimes don’t recognize my accent. They’ll ask if I’m from another country, and/or if I only recently learned how to speak Afrikaans/English.
It is only when I tell them I have hearing loss, that a light bulb seems to go on in their heads.
But these days, it seems like the light bulb is no longer there.
There’s aggressiveness in the air. Call it fear, call it stupidity, call it madness.
Recently we were in a biltong shop. As we were paying, my mom took off her mask to talk to me. A man walked in, his face completely covered with a mask. ‘I am a doctor!! Please put on your masks!!’
My mom gently explained to him that I need to see her lips to understand, but he refused to budge.
Something strong rose within me. Call it defiance, call it anger, call it making my voice heard. I said to him, ‘I am wearing a mask. You are wearing a mask. We are both protected from whatever germs or viruses my mom might spread. If these masks are as effective as they say, you can relax. You will not get sick.’
But the doctor just bowed his head, ignored us, and turned away from us.
His back said to me: You are not heard.
In the 1990s, my grandmother had her first heart attack. In the years following that, she had two major heart operations and even got a pacemaker. For the last ten years or so, she only had 20% heart function left. It was a miracle that she was still alive and well. But for the last three years of her life, my mom and I took care of her. She was no longer able to drive, make food, or shower by herself. But she had us to help her with these things.
Then lock-down happened. Everyone panicked and gave in to fear.
Retired people are especially vulnerable when it comes to these things. Fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of what might happen can cripple people’s hearts.
Due to the wave of fear that came with corona, my grandmother had a series of light heart attacks. The stress and anxiety were too much for her. The news on TV didn’t help much; the propaganda and brainwashing were in full force from the media.
Finally, her heart gave in and she went to be with the Lord in September 2020.
It is said that in the last days people’s hearts will grow faint with fear; the uncertain expectations of the things that are coming upon the world will make people do things they never would’ve done before. Just like that doctor at the biltong shop.
These masks are taking away our voices, our identities, our faces. It creates barriers between us and separates us from one another.
We mishear each other, we misunderstand each other, we don’t see each other any more.
It is now over a year since the masks came. In the beginning, I kept hoping that it will all be over soon. We all kept hoping that. But then the months started rolling by, and now more than a year has passed. We still have to wear masks everywhere we go.
When I go to the stores, I try not to interact with the staff. The less talk there is, the better it is.
That is not a healthy way to live. We were made for connections; we were made for conversations.
Avoiding people is not the ultimate solution.
Now and then, I have to communicate certain things with the staff in the stores. If my mom isn’t with me, I have to find a way to make it work for myself. I’ll show my hearing aids and gently explain that I read lips. I’ll ask them to take off their masks when they speak to me. Most of the time I am met with blank stares. Many of them refuse to take off their masks.
Recently, I was at a PEP Store and I had to post a package for the first time. I wanted to find out how much a bigger package was going to cost, how long the shipping would take, etc. Important things needed to be communicated, so my mom came along. Every time the cashier answered my questions, my mom would take off her mask and repeat her answer to me.
Then… the manager of the store walked up to us. She scolded us with: ‘Keep your masks on!!!’
My mom tried to explain that I read lips, but the manager refused to listen. She again reminded us to keep our masks on, and then turned and walked away.
But then a beautiful thing happened.
The cashier that was helping us, immediately grasped that I needed to see her face. She took off her mask. I was able to communicate with her for the rest of our conversation because she had compassion. She chose to override the rules, the laws, and the regulations. She heard me and she understood me. She chose to see this one person that was standing in front of her, and she helped me send my package.
Our five senses are there to guide us, but maybe it’s time we start developing a sixth sense called compassion. Compassion for one another, strong enough to override our fears and anxiety. Powerful enough to override the laws and regulations of the country. Maybe it is time for us to really listen, and hear each other’s hearts.
© Vicki Fourie
Vicki Fourie is a former Miss Deaf South Africa and Miss Deaf International runner-up. She is a published writer and motivational speaker. She did one year at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in Redding, California. Vicki wears bilateral cochlear implants, speaks like a hearing person, and reads lips. She currently lives in Jeffrey’s Bay, where she has launched a creative writing school called Jbay Creatives. Follow her on Instagram: @fourievicki.