Jessica Fellowes: ‘Being deaf was my superpower…then the pandemic hit’

Lip-reading in a strange new world of face masks became near-impossible for bestselling novelist Jessica Fellowes. But, she reveals here, she’s risen to the challenge all her life.

If I’m being truly honest, most of the time I fail to remember that there’s anything wrong with me. I expect you’re the same. Until you go to a party, you forget that you’re hopeless at small talk. Or you lie in bed late on Sunday mornings, blissfully unaware of your webbed feet, or the need to wear glasses. And who among us hasn’t been reminded with a jolt that we are 20 years older than we feel when we accidentally walk past a mirror?

I was born deaf, but it wasn’t diagnosed until I was two years old, when my parents were  puzzled as to why their usually well-behaved child was occasionally very stubborn, not responding to calls in the park or standing very close to the television.

Jessica Fellowes
‘The day I got my new hearing aids, the world changed,’ says Jessica. Image: Getty Images/Leonardo Cendamo

Every morning, in spite of the fact I am not 86 and won’t be for four decades yet, I wake up and reach for my hearing aids as my first and most instinctive action. I have worn them since I was two, when they were attached to long wires and a box that hung around my neck. When I go out, my checklist is: phone, bank card, spare batteries. The Duracell Bunny’s got nothing on me. My hearing aids do their job spectacularly well, especially since I started wearing the digital version 15 years ago. They are finely tuned to my own particular hearing deficiencies – raising the volume on the pitches I find hardest to hear (the lowest and highest ends of the scale) and cleverly lowering the volume on the background noise I don’t need to hear. Which means I can function pretty well as a human being.

So the truth is: I forgot I was deaf until the pandemic arrived and everyone started wearing face masks. My hearing aids might be good, but I still rely heavily on lip-reading – possibly more than I should. That’s how I’ve done it since I was young.

I learned to lip-read through sheer necessity, by gradually matching sounds with movements once I had the hearing aids. As I was only just then beginning to talk, my parents spent a year pronouncing every word very deliberately and slowly, so that I could hear all the elements of each syllable (deaf people often sound drunk when they talk because they miss out the beginning and ends of words, which tend to be said more quietly, or contain more silent letters).

In fact, I’m now so good at lip-reading that it’s given me my only superpower: I can tell what accent someone is talking in even when the sound is off. It’s a useless superpower but it’s all mine.

The problem with masks is that the people wearing them are usually in a fairly noisy environment – a pub or supermarket – and I don’t know what their voices are like, so I can’t tune in. I can hear my husband Simon’s voice very well because I know all the nuances, so I can fill in any gaps quickly. But an unfamiliar voice or accent takes time to adjust to. That’s when I use lip-reading to help me out. Which is impossible if they are wearing a cloth around half of their face.

I have been reduced to total helplessness in shops lately, relying on my ten-year-old son to tell me what has been said. It has been a shock to remember that the thing that is wrong with me, that I think is pretty great, is in fact a disability after all.

hearing aids illustration
Illustration: Chloe Sharp

Yes, you read that part correctly: I think my deafness is pretty great. And, yes, technically it is a disability but I’ve never seen it that way. For one thing, it’s hidden. I’ve never been stared at in the street, nor had anyone point at me. I wasn’t bullied for it at school – my mother was an actress in a well-known TV show at the time [Georgina Melville in Doctor at the Top], which was deemed a much better target.

There are also many upsides. I take my hearing aids out at night and nothing disturbs my sleep: not snoring, radios, whining dogs or storms (I slept through the Great Storm of 1987). In fact, peace is mine whenever I need it. Baby screaming on the train? No problem. Loud talker in the office? De nada.

Lip-reading has its benefits, too, as my husband discovered in our early days, when I asked him after a dinner about something he had told the person sitting next to him about me. Across the table and at least four people along, he’d thought he was safe, not realising that what I couldn’t hear, I could see.

More profoundly, I think my deafness has given me a resilience and thoughtfulness that makes me a better person. Since I was a child, I have always been aware that someone may be suffering a difficulty that is not necessarily visible. It has cautioned me to be kind. It is that nudge that reminds me to be patient when someone is fumbling with their ticket at the barrier. There is such a thing as luck, I firmly believe, and it is not fairly shared out.

One thing I can say for certain is that my hearing has, paradoxically, taught me how to listen. After all, the greater part of communication is done silently. It’s less listening than watching, and that I can do. Undistracted by the noise, perhaps, I see what people are telling me unconsciously.

There was the woman in Colorado, US, whose job it was to look after me for one stop of a public-speaking tour. We had a fractious afternoon on my arrival – delayed luggage, traffic, hunger – and the next morning when she picked me up for the airport, she said little. I could have put it down to her not liking me much, or being short-tempered. But there was something in the way she held her posture as she told me about which terminal we were headed for that prompted me to ask if she was OK. Shocked, she turned to me: ‘How did you know?’ She had just received terrible news.

Before digital hearing aids, I was a lot more deaf. I couldn’t swear to being a better person then. I went on two dates with one man about a year apart, and I got the new aids in that time. He said: ‘It’s like going out with a different person.’ ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Before, every reply you gave was a complete non sequitur to whatever I’d just said.’

Mind you, it could work in my favour. I ran out of batteries and had no spares on another date, so the man had to whisper everything directly into my ear, which made us close rather quickly…

There have been mishaps, of course. The colleague who admitted that he had thought me rude and standoffish when I first started work because I apparently ignored him every time he said hello. The countless people at supermarket tills who must think me ill-tempered or stupid because I miss their good-humoured comments or simple requests for a loyalty card. In restaurants, waiters rattle off the specials while I stare at my companion, waiting for them to repeat the dishes in the voice I know I can hear. Parties, with their background noise and new voices, can be exhausting.

Why, friends ask, do you not simply let everyone know that you are hard of hearing straight away? And my answer is that although this defect is a part of me and not one I would change, it is not the whole of me. As soon as you mention it, however, it becomes the front and centre aspect of my personality that everyone homes in on.

Jessica Fellowes
Jessica aged 10, at home in London

There were many jobs I didn’t get because I mentioned it in the application. In spite of good predicted grades and a spotless school career, I got almost no offers at universities of my choice. I reapplied a year later, leaving out the bit about my hearing, and got offers at every university I applied to. In other words: I don’t recognise the flaw, only the strengths, but there have been times when other people can’t see past it.

That’s the thing about a disability diagnosis: it makes people think about what you can’t do, not what you can. Society disables as much as, if not more than, the physical impediment itself. You see, before I got my digital hearing aids, I didn’t even realise how deaf I was. I didn’t know I was making surreal replies to people’s comments (probably made me more interesting company back then, to be honest). My parents had determined that I should attend a mainstream school – fighting against popular doctrine of the 1970s – and gave me elocution lessons so I could communicate well. I read a lot: it was a pleasant respite from the effort of listening, but it also taught me about all kinds of different worlds.

I pursued the career I wanted, and though there were sometimes frustrations, I never allowed the idea that I was deaf to prevent me from doing anything I wanted to do. On the day I got my new aids, the world changed. Mundane sounds were as fresh and exciting as the latest disco hit. I heard the click of the car indicator, the trill of birds, a mother talking to her child across the road. At last I heard what I’d been missing and it was beautiful – but I still like to be able to turn it off.

Perhaps one day we’ll meet and we won’t be wearing face masks. You won’t notice my hearing aids, and I won’t notice your knock knees. We’ll talk and we’ll listen closely. It will mean more than words can say.

Jessica’s latest novel The Mitford Trial is published by Sphere, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Offer available until 17 January. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.