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Doubt: The Ultimate Enemy

  March 3, 2016   

By Helen Willis, PHD student (in Auditory Neuroscience), University College London

I am totally deaf. However, my enemy is not my disability...it is doubt.

Genesis of Doubt

Doubt is an insidious and multifaceted creature with many guises which lurks in the background in any disabled person’s life. Doubt came into my life at an extremely early age: when I was 19 months old. I suddenly fell seriously ill with acute meningitis. By the time the doctors were able to intervene, my hearing and balance mechanisms were completely obliterated. Doubt then was born as “scientific doubt” – was there any technology available that could give me any hope of being able to interact with the hearing world now that I had no hearing left at all?

The answer was “Yes: the cochlear implant”. However, instead of receding, “scientific doubt” became an even more malicious force. The cochlear implant was brand new technology at the time and a tremendous risk – doctors could only vaguely promise that the cochlear implant would give me some awareness, an “idea” of sound, but whether I would then be able to use this “idea” at all was completely unknown.

At the age of three, I tentatively became the 51st child in the UK to undergo surgery to receive the cochlear implant.

Mercifully, I was fortunate to become one of the success stories. Not only did the cochlear implant enable me to develop my own voice that was clear enough to fool a naïve listener into thinking I was hearing, it also enabled me to interact with the hearing world sufficiently that I could catch up with my hearing peers in language and mathematical skills. Had I finally managed to slay draconian doubt?

Doubt’s Next Manifestation

Alas, the answer was no. From that point onward my bogeyman doubt mutated from “scientific doubt” to “academic doubt”. Intelligence tests confirmed I was bright but all my teachers of the deaf seriously doubted my ability to go far academically, due to the severity of my deafness.

Somewhat ironically, this mutation of academic doubt occurred at the exact same time that I chose to apply to study at the prestigious institution that is Oxford University. Despite my receiving A* grades across the board except in one subject (French, where I received an A grade instead) for my GCSEs, as well as three A grades at A Levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths, my teachers were utterly appalled when I admitted my ambition.

This was the moment that “academic doubt” became particularly potent – my teachers abandoned me and I had to prepare for application alone.

To add insult to injury, when I received the joyous news just before Christmas that I had been successfully accepted into St. John’s College, Oxford University, to read Physiology and Psychology, my teachers declared that I had only gained my place because of my deafness, not because of academic potential and intellect.

The Disease of Doubt

I was deeply hurt by my teachers’ damning evaluation of my ability and right to be at Oxford University. I am aware that this low level of expectation came, in essence, from a good place (in the teachers and practitioners’ attempt to save the disabled from any harrowing disappointment), but the problem intrinsic to low expectation is that it propagates the disease of doubt: by bruising an individual’s self-esteem, a vicious cycle is induced, whereby low opinion sabotages any motivation and self-belief to pursue dreams and realise one’s full potential.

Distressingly, such low expectations are unfortunately pervasive in cultural and educational opinion when it comes to educating the hearing impaired.

I dread to think of how many deaf individuals, and indeed other disabled individuals, have fallen victim to the disease of doubt, and ended up in the wasteland of self doubt – indeed, I have witnessed my own deaf friends lose their battles with doubt with devastating and heart-breaking consequences.

Conquering Doubt?

And therein lies the rub – this should not be the case. The level of academic success that I have managed to achieve is rare. I am exceedingly fortunate to have had incredibly supportive parents, whose belief in me never wavered, so that I was able to prove my teachers wrong repeatedly (by achieving a First Class Honours for my BA, as well as a MSc in Neuroscience, and winning a scholarship from the charity Action On Hearing Loss for a PhD).

So, what is the take-home message of this post?

Never ever underestimate the power of doubt.

Instead of saying to the disabled individual “You cannot do this”, start asking “How can we compensate, adapt, understand, or help so that there is no barrier to achieving your dreams, the full realisation of your potential?”.

Only then can there be any hope of triumphing over the foul beast of doubt.

* Image shown is a model, not the author.