Interview of Dr. Norah Browne
Dr. Norah Browne (1917-2010), a pediatrician in St. John's, is credited with establishing the Newfoundland Hearing Association (NHA), which later became a Provincial Chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (CHHA). A tribute to Dr. Browne is posted on the organizations website at http://www.chha-nl.nl.ca/about-us/history.aspx. A scholarship has been created in her honour.
Interview with Dr. Norah Browne
Interviewer: Okay so were talking about the last time from the 1970s and 80s and your involvement in the disability community, in the 70s. You founded the Hard of Hearing Association.
Norah: Yes I did, yes actually the odd thing was, it was the same week the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association began the National one. I didnt know anything about it at that time and we happened to start at the same time, so it was the same week. We heard about them, I dont know how we heard about them but it was very obvious, we became a member right away, which is lovely because it was part of a national body, it was just beginning to grow. There was one group first of all and very quickly we got more and more groups going all over, every province.
Interviewer: And when was that?
Norah: Well, first it was a group of the association; the association was the National Association and started with the national association and now how about getting groups everywhere. And so we had been the first group because we started already. And so we became their first group and then I did quite a bit of traveling and getting people to start other groups as elsewhere. I didnt do that for very long, we had so many people so enthused, we got all sorts of people to go all over the country and establish new groups.
Interviewer: Were there any women involved in this?
Norah: Quite a few of us actually.
Interviewer: How did you encourage other women?
Norah: Well, I just told them what we were doing and everyone is so excited about it because the hard of hearing then had very little going for them. In a way, [name unclear] was here, she had one absolutely excellent person and is still here and her name, ah, Ive got a memory like a sieve now. Anyway she is still here; she is still working in audiology. And she was absolutely excellent; she helped start other groups in the province.
Interviewer: And now to speak a little bit about the Womens Movement. How has your work improved the lives of other women?
Norah: I think because when I started here 40 years ago as a pediatrician, I got my exams, about 40 years I started working as a pediatrician and there were not really many women working in professions at that time, comparatively few. And less, there were, I think, Im not quite sure how many it was, maybe up to 5 anyway, other women in the province, pediatricians. But they werent doing general work; they were doing more work in the school and that kind of thing which was fine. But there werent many at all for the general population. And so now there were, I knew of only one or two trained audiologists, you know, who do the tests and things in Newfoundland. Two in St. Johns and maybe one or two elsewhere. But only two had been properly trained Sensors and most of the others had just gone and said we work in audiology, without any training. So I think some of them became quite good, as long as they didnt think they knew it all. The ones who knew they didnt know it all, set about trying to know more. And then we got audiology sensor training here in St. Johns, eventually. Of course, we advanced from there; audiologists are good and very well trained.
Interviewer: What was it like for you as a woman working in medicine, a field dominated mostly by men?
Norah: Rather oddly, I had no problem. I qualified in England in 1943, in the War and I came to Newfoundland for 3 months, that was in 1961 as it were, and it was for 3 months. And we were discussing one day, you know how, when I would leave because obviously we had to make some arrangements at least where some of my work was going, so no other audiology specialists, what I was anyway, doctors with training. And I had an accident and fell down some stairs and banged the back of my neck, but happily I didnt destroy my spinal cord. I couldnt move my arm and leg for a short while, I dont know how long, some days I think. So gradually everything came back again. I dont notice any difference in one side or the other at all. But the doctors examined me really well. Anyway, because of all of that I stayed and my job in England had been kept for a year, but I wasnt well enough to go back until the year was over so my job was taken and I stayed here and I married - that was another reason for staying.
Interviewer: So you had no problem really with being a doctor.
Norah: I never had any problem anywhere. There was one doctor who disliked women doctors, for the life of me I cant remember where or when, but there was, I remember that and he just didnt like women doctors, he thought that was wrong and couldnt possibly be good doctors and they should be washing the dishes. I was used to doing both actually. I think that was here actually, but Im really not quite sure, my memory is really not quite as good as it used to be. As I get older, I seem to lose a little memory every year.
Interviewer: In the 70s and the 80s you had founded the Hard of Hearing Association right?
Norah: Yes, it was 1963, I think, it was about 40 years ago.
Interviewer: Can you think of anything specific in the 1970s and 80s that you were involved with, committees?
Norah: I was involved in quite a lot of committees; I cant remember what they were all called. I know I was involved with one for seniors. I think it was the Senior Resource Center; because I was deeply involved with them. That had nothing to do with the Hard of Hearing; it was a general thing and still is. And Im still involved with it, a very minimal bit. In fact, I think tomorrow Im going to an annual luncheon or something or other.
Interviewer: You were always involved with the Hard of Hearing Association throughout your life?
Norah: Oh yes throughout, mainly involved in that. I go to things, like annual meetings and special events. And they come and fetch me.
Interviewer: And did you, were you taking care of the family in a sense, during the 70s and 80s, as well as working?
Norah: The 70s and 80s, I was involved with children, very much so, but not necessarily with the whole family except with if you must extended, you were involved with any member of a family. But I was also doing a lot of teaching, other peoples children, doing what I was doing. I knew I wouldnt last all that time, I was getting on then, well I cant remember exactly. Im almost 89 and so you know I was obviously getting on and I needed to pass it to other people and teach them what I knew and what to do. So I did a lot of that and I traveled over the province doing that and giving lectures and things.
Interviewer: And what were the lectures on?
Norah: Hearing loss and I dont think people realize the enormous amount of it there is. Of course Im not sure what the percentage of people, of population who have hearing loss. But unfortunately its increasing because young children start making awfully noisy music and it actually damages their hearing. And so a lot of young adults now have some degree of hearing loss. The trouble is, that often once its started, it tends to increase even if the causes of it have gone. And I think I get the sense it is now, that something horrific at the age of 40; I would say at least 50% of the population has some degree of hearing loss. It may not worry them at that stage, but once its started, it will go on. Its something theyre trying to work on now in the schools particularly, and in the welfare clinics they are teaching parents about noise and that sort of thing.
Interviewer: So that sounds like a big accomplishment to be teaching others about this. Can you think of anything else that would be an accomplishment for yourself?
Norah: Oh I dont think of it as an accomplishment, it was something I was involved in and felt rather strongly about. Ive been hard of hearing most of my life. I knew it was rather difficult sometimes. I think people are really being taught it now, teachers particularly are being taught about hearing loss and how to recognize it in school and that kind of thing. The trouble about it is, it looks awfully like either mental retardation, or laziness sometimes. So kids get rather short shifted but now thats one of the things they test for, I think at 3 months as part of the usual tests that are done. They test hearing and intelligence and all that sort of thing. And then again when they are 2 years when they test it because you can test it better then because usually help you a bit you know, when they realize what you are doing. And in pre-school here it is tested properly you know, hearing equipment and so forth. No child should ever go into school now hard of hearing without it being dealt with whatever way it needs.
Interviewer: What are some areas of passion that you have around equality issues?
Norah: Male and Female?
Interviewer: Sure, or disability, ethnic, culture, age.
Norah: I think that boys and girls develop at different rates and different things; theyre going through quite a lot of differences. Usually at around puberty, girls go ahead much faster than boys in what they can do. But the boys seem to hang back a bit at the age of, whatever the age is, Im not sure now, between 10 and 12, that sort of age. The boys hang back, the girls progress more quickly, academically very often but also socially. And with the boys, even now expect, Im not really involved now in human relations. Girls seem to grow up socially more quickly than boys I think, it seems to be a natural thing. But by the time theyre 15 and 16, theyre probably young adults almost now, when it used to be 20 or 21. I think, the ages have changed very much because people live longer and theyre very much more capable for a longer time than they used to. And it is possible that at the age of 65, instead of retiring age, it really is far too early for most people now. You mightnt think so now, they often would like to go on working and they have a job where they got to stop but a lot of them would like to go on working. They dont feel ready to retire. Now people will find, whos got other interests, that men particularly, a lot of them dont have any other interests than their work and their family. Women often do, theyre much more likely to anyway, so I think theyre better off than men in a way when they, if they have to retire. Women are luckier than men.
Interviewer: How did you empower other women or help them find their voices in the 70s and the 80s?
Norah: Speaking, you mean. Maybe their voice heard about the things they want and need, is that right? I think by doing it myself, I did a lot of speaking, public speaking in groups that knew I was doing this sort of thing so asked me and it wasnt only womens groups, it was men groups, like the Positive Thinkers Association or Club, they were mostly men, but they asked me to speak and they made me a member. And so we got more women and that kind of thing. I did quite a bit of kind of promoting women because I was able to promote things I knew about, you know, I could talk about things I knew about and so I got it out to quite a lot of people. And I found men on the whole were fairly accepting of it, a few were not, but thats the way still I think.
Interviewer: What do you think are some things that need to change?
Norah: Attitudes, I think that a lot of people are very selfish. I think that, not surprising because its a very competitive world now and for men particularly, because the women are into it as well, almost as much as the men. And you will always get some men who I think understandably still feel rather the old fashioned way, that womens place is in the home you know and not out of it. More and more men are taking part in the domestic side of family life, I think to everyones advantage. I dont know what you think. But I feel that men need to be involved in things that go on at home and instead of just having their breakfast, going out to work, coming home, having a lovely rest while Mom gets the dinner, having dinner and then you know maybe going out to a meeting or something. I think theyre getting more domesticated now and enjoying it too.
Interviewer: What motivated you to step out of the traditional role of a woman in the 70s and the 80s? It might be difficult to pinpoint the 70s and 80s.
Norah: Not really, I was here. I came here in 1961. I worked for 3 months and had an accident and in hospital in Montreal for a long time. And the time it was finished, it had been a year, I had been in Canada a year and my job in England was only being kept for me for a year, so I lost it. So I hadnt much alternative but to stay here and I thought they wanted me back in Corner Brook actually. And I was able to take the pediatrics, the Canadian Pediatrics Exams and I had done enough pediatrics to allow me to do that without any further work. Besides I had already worked for quite awhile in Canada and so I was able to get [certified], so to speak. So I just decided to stay then. And I wanted to come to St. Johns. I had ideas about pediatrics, and I knew that there were pediatricians in St. Johns, I think there were 5, they were all working, except for one who was working with another pediatrician, as assistant. The other, 3, 4 or 5, whichever it was, were working for the government, some government job, probably doing school examinations and that kind of thing. And so it seemed to me they needed join the general company of doctors and pediatricians and do any of the work that they did. I didnt seem to have any trouble with that at all, it was just rather [different] to some of them. But one or two of them approved mightily, one who visits me here still, hes still alive [though] most of them are dead now. Ive survived most of them. Well Im almost 89. And people seem to die before that age, men particularly. The thing I do notice, is medicine is changing a lot of ways, I imagine routine family practice is probably changing, I dont know, but certainly specialties are. They are getting more and more and more specialized and I dont think you can say its a good thing or a bad thing. In some ways its probably a very good thing, you know, you have people who are really top notch in certain areas in medicine. And yet you get too top notch, you forget what the other doctors are doing. I think this half way [point] is probably good.
Interviewer: What work do you think still needs to be done in womens movement, and in the disability community, the hard of hearing?
Norah: I dont think it makes much difference if youre a man or a woman. I think that [medicine] is getting sophisticated enough in this area to be aware that you must examine every infant for a hearing loss and continue to do so, at regular, well the usual routine [examinations] up to school age. And when they get their pre-school exam, that is an absolute must if you got a hearing loss test, or see if they have any hearing loss. And I believe, I believe they checked every year, but I wouldnt be sure if that. I know its checked pretty commonly. And if a child, who started quite well in school begins to do badly, as well as things you look for, one is hearing loss. Its quite common, sometimes only temporary but hearing loss is unfortunately getting more and more common. Partly due to the noise in the modern world and traffic noise is above danger level. Its shocking to think of that and then people have their radio on, TV, very, very loud. Moms working in the kitchen but she wants to listen to a TV program, so its very, very loud. And maybe the others are sitting in that room are getting used to having noises changed and loud, naturally happening, and traffic noise. And an aeroplane engine starting off is far above the danger level.
Interviewer: If you could have one wish for womens equality, what would it be?
Norah: Well, I will say this, men and women are different, they cant treated as equal in everything. But I think equality is to have the chance to do any kind of work they wish to that a man does. And I suppose it still happens, I cant swear to this because I really dont know, but I think that probably youll find that some want to have, say, 10 pediatricians in an area, its unlikely, but there are more men chosen than women, even if there are an equal number of men and women that go into it. I think more men likely were shortlisted. Now thats only what I suspect is happening. But I havent followed it very much in the last 2 or 3 years, there were quite a lot of discrimination in those days. I didnt think about anything at all. And things change so Im not involved, I dont see quite so clearly whats going on, even when people tell you. I think that women probably do not have an equal chance because you will always have times where they said you havent got any children, are you married, have you got any children. Well how do you expect to be able to work and look after your children? Thats quite a common thing to be asked, still I believe. And youll always get some, the majority, who will say well of course women cant do as well as men because theyve got 2 jobs, you cant do it. I think theres less of that now, as far as I can understand. Thats the way it should be I think. I think you want to get a person for any job at all, doctors, nurses, anything you like, who you think is going to be good at that job or best at that job of the people applying. But also who says that they would be capable of doing it despite the fact that they got a family, they can still look after their family, because you can. You may have to choose your jobs a bit that you apply for. But you can have a family and look after them appropriately and do the job, it is possible.
Interviewer: Thats all the questions I had unless you wanted to add something.
Norah: Not really.Interviewer: Thanks very much.