Exactly a year ago, when I left business journalism to write about mental health, my decision puzzled a lot of people.
"Mental health? Yeah it’s important and all, but isn’t it too ... ‘niche’?"
What they really meant was, mental health is a good subject for blogging. But "journalism"? After all, what is there to write about beyond a bunch of nerves, some chemicals in the brain, and pills? And since I wasn’t trained in science, surely I couldn’t write about all that. What was my plan then?
My plan was to show that mental health sits flush at the intersection of everything from politics to sexuality and economics to race, even though the dominant narrative reduces it to "brain, chemicals, pills". But I soon realised that jargon about "intersectionality" has a way of putting people off (especially people in family WhatsApp groups).
So these days, I send this crude, hand-drawn table to whoever asks me what excites me about mental health ("MH") as a journalist. I mean, just look at that list on the right. Which other subject lets you investigate pretty much everything under the sun?
Because we still don’t look at mental health the way we ought to – as an intersectional issue – and instead paint it as a purely biomedical one, we spend much of our resources chasing the wrong "cures". If a student is stressed and suicidal because of peer pressure, the solution isn’t to put them on anti-depressants. It is to reform the education system.
Of course, it’s much easier to make it the poor kid’s problem – a chemical imbalance in their brain that needs a chemical cure – rather than overhaul ossified systems and structures.
Jaipreet Virdi on why obsessing over ‘cures’ deepens the stigma around disability
In the wider disability rights movement, resisting the ableist language of "cures" is a constant priority. Recently, a few readers of a Dutch translation of my piece on a new prosthetic technology gave me some critical feedback. In my enthusiasm to write about a technology that some amputees had told me made a huge difference to their lives, I didn’t question enough the ableist biases and assumptions that the technology industry often lapses into. As a user/survivor living with a psychosocial disability for large stretches of my life, the feedback hit home. Consistent with The Correspondent’s founding principle that we transparently share our learning curve with the world, I promised to do better.
If you too want to understand and guard against insidious ableism, you can’t do much better than following the work of Jaipreet Virdi. Dr Virdi is a historian of medicine, technology and disability at the University of Delaware. In her Twitter bio, she describes herself as "deaf & forever a radical".
Dr Virdi, who lost her hearing at age four, runs the utterly fabulous Deaf History Series, where she "spotlights unfamiliar histories of deaf/hard-of-hearing people, technologies, and events". And in her just-published book, Hearing Happiness: Deafness cures in History, she draws attention to the "richness of deaf experience" that transcends the constant push for a cure.
In an email interview, Dr Virdi shared with me the main message of the book and why she decided to write it. Do read and share widely:
What does a "historian of medicine, technology and disability" do?
A historian is someone whose career is focused on researching, writing, and teaching an aspect of history; often a historian is trained to specialise in a specific field, geographical or temporal region, or social phenomenon. In my case, I am trained in the history of medicine, technology, with special emphasis on disability issues. To become a historian requires years of training: I have a BA, an MA, and a PhD.
Could you tell us a little bit about the genesis of Hearing Happiness and why the book is important to you?
The book was originally conceived from materials that were not included in my PhD dissertation on the history of 19th century aural surgery (an ear specialty) – materials that addressed the lived realities of deaf people, how they chose amongst medical and/or technological options for “curing” their deafness, and how such decisions impacted their lives and understanding of what it means to be a “normal” citizen. With Hearing Happiness, it was important for me to tell these stories to argue how deafness is on both an audiological and identity spectrum.
The book’s trailer video contains a glimpse of your own story: "For a long time, I never understood I had lost my hearing. I thought the world had changed and everyone simply stopped noticing me." I find this extraordinarily powerful. Could you please expand on it?
I lost my hearing at age four from meningitis. The process of coming to terms with my deafness as a child meant struggling to understand how the world had changed. Why were people not listening to me? Why couldn’t I hear my mom’s voice anymore? Why was it so hard to communicate? I was too young to understand what it meant to be deaf.
The narrative around "fixing" or "curing" disabilities, especially deafness: in your experience, what deeper problem in society is this a symptom of? (Eg, in my experience as a user/survivor, the itch to "cure" mental illness is a symptom of society’s desire to individualise the experience of illness and avoid responsibility.)
Absolutely. This narrative around cures and fixes is essentially rooted in ableism, in that disabled bodies are perceived as non-normal and thus, defective. Thus, if there is a medical or technological solution to restore that non-normal body to normal, then arguably, it is the responsibility – if not obligation – for the disabled individual to accept that cure. The problem with this is that it stigmatises against disability and denies the richness of many disabled people’s lives.
If there were one message you’d like every reader of your book to take home, and one message that you would not want them to infer from the book, what’d those be?
This is not a book about debunking quackery, though it does chronicle many examples of deafness cures that have been marketed to deaf people as well as to their hearing families. What it is, is a book about the richness of deaf experience that has persisted despite the constant push for a cure – a legacy that isn’t just rooted in history, but still present in contemporary biomedicine.
Happening tomorrow: ask us anything
Tomorrow, September 30, I’ll be taking questions from our members with my fellow correspondents Irene, OluTimehin, Eric and Nesrine. We’ll be dialling in from Greece, Nigeria, the US, Egypt and India - phew - and have promised each other 90 minutes of fun. Come talk to us!
For time zone and other information, see this.
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Before I go ...
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Until next week.