Silent signs

Ayah Wehbe is a Lebanese-Australian Muslim woman who also lived her whole life with hearing loss....
24-year-old Ayah Wehbe is a Lebanese-Australian Muslim woman, born and raised in Sydney, with an aspiring career in social research, and an honours thesis under her belt. She has also lived her whole life with hearing loss.

Ayah has a steeply severe to profound hearing loss in both ears, in other words, she is hard of hearing and can only hear some sounds.

Being a Muslim woman in today’s society can be difficult, especially for women who wear the hijab, but Ayah says having hearing loss is another level of challenges she has to deal with.

“Most of the time, my difficulties lie more with my hearing loss than my religious or cultural background,” Ayah said. If she does face racism or discrimination, she can’t hear it, she added light-heartedly.

Growing up, Ayah had trouble with her identity, saying it was difficult to figure out who she was. As she constantly faced identity challenges and communication barriers in her life, she never felt like she truly belonged in her Muslim Lebanese community, the Sydney deaf community, or the mainstream Australian society.

“After high school, my journey of self-discovery reached a point where I realised I am happy with who I am and accepted everything about myself.” She said.

Religion played a great role in that acceptance, and she went on to meet many other women along her journey that also felt the same, leading her to start raising awareness for the Muslim deaf community in Sydney. She hopes to help these individuals who like herself, have two separate identities, being Muslim and deaf or hard of hearing, so that they may unite and feel at peace with who they are.

“But this is just one part of the puzzle,” she adds. “As we still have other identities to navigate, and for me personally, this includes my cultural identities of being Australian and Lebanese and being a woman.”

Ayah has her own blog called “Silent Signs”, that she started in 2014, to share the challenges and experiences she faced while growing up as a Lebanese-Australian Muslim woman with hearing loss. It was also to end the “stigma and shame associated with disability,” she says.

Ayah was only in kindergarten when her family received the life-changing news that she had a hearing impairment. Her family are not sure if she was born with it or if she gradually lost her hearing over time, but it was her kindergarten teacher who first noticed Ayah’s condition.

“She told my mum that I am hearing impaired and no one believed her because I was very active as a child and I guess the symptoms were not obvious,” Ayah said.

Her parents enrolled her into the Penshurst Public School, where they provide a hearing support unit, so that Ayah’s education would not be affected. Ayah went on to Kogarah High School, which also has a hearing support unit, and was given access to teacher aides and Auslan (Australian sign language) interpreters that would provide the support that students with hearing impairments may need.

Shannon Carr, one of Ayah’s school learning support officers from Kogarah High School, met Ayah in year eight, and says one of her fondest memories with Ayah was supporting her in their society and culture class.

“Ayah is one of those rare people that you meet and automatically know that she will excel in whatever she chooses to do,” said Shannon. “Having a hearing impairment was never an issue… if anything, it has made Ayah a stronger person.”

Shannon’s role involves supporting a wide range of students with a variety of disabilities including hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, learning difficulties, and Autism.

Zeinab Kabalan, another Lebanese-Australian Muslim woman who is hard of hearing, met Ayah at the Penshurst Public school when she was in kindergarten and Ayah was in year six. Zeinab also went to Kogarah High School, where she too received the same support as Ayah.

Zeinab Kabalan, a friend of Ayah’s, is another Lebanese-Australian Muslim woman who is hard of hearing. Photo: Chanelle Mansour.

“It was really helpful, during primary school I was in the support unit and I was grateful as it boosted my confidence and my speech skills. I always felt comfortable knowing the rest of the students were hard of hearing like me,” said Zeinab.

Zeinab, now 19, works in childcare, and says the staff she works with are aware that she is hard of hearing, and they must be facing her and speak clearly in order for her to be able to understand them.

Both Ayah and Zeinab now have cochlear implants, which gives them artificial hearing. Their hijabs cover their hearing aids, allowing them to have the choice of letting people know they are hard of hearing.

The two women represent a small minority of the Muslim deaf community in Sydney, where Ayah has previously interviewed eight women with shared identities as her, during her honours thesis. Her thesis explores the identity and lived experiences of women with hearing impairment in Sydney who come from an Australian, Lebanese and Muslim background.

“My thesis found that the women in my study experienced challenges and barriers in their personal lives, family and community.” Ayah said. “But the way they define their hearing loss, their communication and language and their family dynamics are all different.”

“Even though we all have a very similar background and we are all women with hearing loss from an Australian-Lebanese Muslim background, our experiences are all different.”

Ayah completed her honours thesis in 2016 at the University of New South Wales, and has presented her honours thesis in many conferences, such as the International Conference on Diversity and Disability Inclusion in Muslim Societies: Experiences. A first of its kind, this conference was organised and hosted by the University of Western Sydney’s Institute for Culture and Society, along with the Australian Catholic University and the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University.

Ayah is currently working at the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW on various research projects about disability, and hopes to expand her honours thesis and focus on Muslim women in Sydney with hearing loss.

She has also worked with a multicultural organisation called Advance Diversity Services on a research project about the accessibility of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for people from ethnic communities in Sydney. “We need more research about Disability from an Islamic and cultural perspective,” she said.

Ayah also dedicates her life to help raise awareness for the Muslim deaf community, as it didn’t exist while she was growing up, which made it all the more difficult for her to find her place in society.

“I met many different deaf and hard of hearing people… but there were many others who also came from a minority background like myself or from a different religious background that made us feel a little different our left out in the general Sydney deaf community which is majorly white or Anglo-Saxon,” she said.

Creating awareness videos, organising social events, hiring interpreters for community events, and holding the first Muslim deaf community stall at the annual NSW Deaf Festival, are some of the things Ayah and her friends have worked on to improve accessibility and awareness not only the Muslim deaf community, but for all.

“That is why I try to be a positive role model for others. Because it was hard to find a role model for an Australian Muslim girl to look up to when I was growing up,” she said.

Ayah and Zeinab both represent a small minority of the Muslim deaf community in Sydney. Photo: Chanelle Mansour


Written by Chanelle Mansour