BDSM & Disabilities

Author: Ryn Gibbs © 1999

used here with permission of the author


Deaf & Dumb: stereotyping disorder, impairment, disability, and handicap
Article written for BDSM Online dot com and reproduced with permission at BDSM Resource Centre .

I can't pretend to be an expert on disability, however, one of the semesters I most enjoyed in my Psychology major was titled "Perception and Perceptual Impairment". I learned the most important and life changing fact about myself during participation in this course: the discovery of my hearing impairment.

The semester course focussed on auditory and visual disorders, impairments, disabilities and handicaps. Since completing my degree, through work with the blind and vision impaired, through a bout of depression, and through my relationship and marriage, I've found the diagnostic tools which define "disorders", "impairments", "disabilities" and "handicaps" apply to physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. This wellbeing may be affected by a continuing and debilitating physical difficulty or might be an environmental factor causing mental distress which is expected to be over in a short period of time.

Disorder, Impairment, Disability and Handicap: What's the difference?
The differences between each were described to me in the following way, and I relate them to myself as I've described in the examples:

A DISORDER is the physical change which causes an impairment. For example, the physical degeneration of my hearing.

An IMPAIRMENT is the measurable reduced function caused by a physical change. For example, an audiogram, or hearing test, measured where my hearing is no longer working.

A DISABILITY is the limitation in performing a function in everyday life. For example, my (intermittent) inability to distinguish between different words in a conversation.

A HANDICAP is the consequence of limitation and disadvantage in every day life which result from disorders, impairments, or disabilities. For example, the disruptions to my family and social relations, and also the stress and fatigue from continuous intense concentration to figure out what's been said in conversations.

To sum up, I suffer from a physiological disorder which means my hearing is degenerating. Without a biopsy of my cochlea (inner ear), which would cause total deafness, it is unlikely I'll ever know the cause. In 1995 I had a hearing test which measured the extent of the impairment caused by the disorder. My disability is a fluctuating inability to make sense of words or entire sentences, which my family sometimes calls selective hearing. My main handicap is increased fatigue during or after a social outing because I concentrate harder to understand the conversation.

My social contact becomes limited when I'm tired, or I become easily exhausted at social gatherings - pubs with much background noise, restaurants with tile floors, and even an open window in the car on the highway are particular handicaps for me, so outings are infrequent. I've even noticed a variable lag in the length of time it takes me to "decipher" words and formulate a response. When I'm very tired, it can be as much as a minute.

The Practicalities
Now, it probably helps to understand that my hearing has been degenerating since I was a child. I was continually being sent off to have eye tests because I sat closer and closer to the TV at home. It never occurred to me as a child to tell my mother that I couldn't hear properly - I hadn't realised it could be any other way. Until I began reading case studies in my psychology class; I was 23. It also never occurred to Mum that it was my ears that were the problem not my eyes. By the way, my vision has always been 20-20.

I also can't remember a time when my head has been truly silent - I have had "ringing in the ears" or tinnitus for as long as I can remember. The tinnitus sometimes "chimes" (one long sustained tone) so loudly in my right ear that I go completely deaf for a few moments, which is quite disorienting. My hearing loss is around 35-40 decibels (dB) in the baritone speech range in my right ear, and an 80 dB high frequency loss in my left.

The high frequency loss in my left ear means I have difficulty with locating the source of sounds and difficulty differentiating sounds when there is background noise (called "attentioning"). The speech range loss in my right makes voices on the telephone sound distant and soft. Because my loss is different in each ear, one ear (mostly) compensates for the other, and at the moment I function without a hearing aid (though, its something I'm considering purchasing more and more often). A very surprising upshot of my hearing impairment is that I've become hypersensitive to some sounds. A counselor at the HEAR Service at the Victorian Deaf Society in Melbourne, Australia, suggested that the reason high-pitched squeals and "loud" sounds hurt my ears is because my tolerance of extreme volume or pitch has diminished with my hearing loss.

One of the major problems with hearing impairment is that its quite different from any other kind of disability; it imposes itself on the person who is trying to communicate with you. Initially, I had some difficulty with this concept. My partner needed to be in close proximity to have himself heard. He needed to make changes in the way he communicated with me, and I needed to be able to remind him to slow down, enunciate or repeat himself.

Deaf & Dumb: Misconceptions
The phrase "Deaf & Dumb" means deaf and mute, however, with language shifts, it has come to mean deaf and stupid. A persistent belief that shouting at someone with a hearing aid will make the message heard is also a disturbingly common myth. Stereotypes of this kind make for increased problems in communication.

Lack of education on how to deal with hearing impaired people, people with assisted hearing (through use of aids, cochlea implants, etc), and the deaf causes me (and, I'm sure, many others) anything from irritation to real distress.

Breaking down barriers: how do I get myself heard?
Its quite simple, really. When in doubt, speak slightly slower and ENUNCIATE! Speaking more clearly will help differentiate the sounds a little better AND will assist the person to whom you are speaking to lip read and concentrate harder.

One of my most persistent problems is asking people to repeat themselves. I am increasingly embarassed when I have to ask them to repeat what they've said two, three or even four times; they are exasperated, I go redder and redder, and everyone is uncomfortable. Its sometimes harder with people I know well, because my hearing works sometimes, and they think I'm just not concentrating. So, patience is another key to helping a hearing impaired or deaf person understand you.

My disability and BDSM
Finally, I hear you say, she's getting to the point! :) When I first began "playing" in a BDSM scene, it was online. Issues of my hearing impairment didn't come up, because my "play" was in the form of text cyber-sex and cyber-submission. Online play was, for me, an excellent way to figure out what some of my kinks might be with the relative safety and anonymity of my PC between me and the rest of the world. When I finally moved to real life, some problems arose when I started being blindfolded.

Until I was blindfolded, I didn't realise how much I relied on visual cues to fill in the "blanks" my ears miss. I don't even think about lip-reading because its second nature. It came as quite a shock when my Dominant murmured an instruction to move in a certain way and I failed to respond because I hadn't understood at all, I had an increasingly irritated and impatient Dom on my hands and I was being punished for not hearing correctly! Many tears and a safeword later (I can't remember who stopped the scene, probably the Dom), we were discussing the implications of my hearing loss on play.

The main problem was being able to confirm what I had heard. This is overcome by repeating back everything that is said with an "I heard..." prefix, or a "..., is that right?" suffix. When I tried this tactic, another handicap was encountered: my inability to reach that elusive sub-space if I was concentrating on getting my hearing to work properly. When I fall into sub-space, I find it extremely difficult to speak, and my deciphering ability tends to drift in and out as my concentration becomes more and more internal or more and more drifty-floaty.

The solution to an inability to concentrate on getting the instructions right? The Dominant being aware of my "better" ear and always targeting his voice close to that ear if he wishes to speak softly AND remembering to enunciate words much more clearly.

The conclusion I reached? For me, its a hard one: ALWAYS communicate with my Dominant. He has to be educated just as much as anyone else!

Awareness, Information, Education, Communication
I've harped on a lot about my own disability. I hope that I've offered some useful information on how a disorder results in a measurable impairment which results in a physical disability which gives rise to handicaps in my day to day functioning. Once I was able to define my problem within these terms, I was able to identify what my handicaps were and to target services which might help me to overcome these handicaps.

Something to keep in mind: some disorders and measurable impairments do not result in a handicap. There are instances where people can function quite well in day-to-day life without the need for aids, whether they are physical, psychological or social. Communication is the key. Be open and honest about your concerns whether you are a person with the disability or the partner of a person with a disability. Disabilities won't necessarily require special treatment, but they will require consideration of safety issues surrounding the disability.

The first few steps are simple: Be aware, Gather information, Get educated, and COMMUNICATE! :)

Disclaimer: I'm not a clinical psychologist and the information herein should not replace advice from a health professional. Should you wish to discuss issues further, please feel free to drop me an email.

Ryn, submissive

© 1999 Ryn Gibbs, written specifically for at the request of the maintainer. Please do not reproduce, report, or make publicly available by such means as (not limited to) FTP, mail server, Web or archive site without explicit permission of the author.






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