5 things I tend to avoid… because I’m deaf

Well, dear Limping Chicken readers, I have a confession to make. Most people would say I’m a chilled out person. And I am, most of the time… But there are certain places and things that I reaaaally don’t like. So I either avoid them or I suffer through them. Intrigued? Read on – these are the top 5 things I tend to avoid, because of being deaf.

  1. Lifts. When I was 12 years old, a (deaf) friend and I got stuck – for all of 3 minutes- in a lift in British Home Stores. Regardless of it being such a short time to be stuck between floors, the fearful realisation that we were trapped in a steel box and neither of us could hear what was going on was enough to stay with me for life. Nowadays I’m happy to go in a lift with other people but if I’m alone? I’ll take the stairs, thanks.
  2. Drive-throughs. They were bad enough when you had to lipread staff from an awkward head position, but seeing as most restaurant drive throughs take orders through intercoms now there is absolutely no way you’ll find me there. This is also the same for car parks with barriers where you need to press a button or call a system to enter… erm, hello? is anyone there? Was that a voice speaking or my hearing aid buzzing….?!
  3. Dark places. My family love teasing me with the memory of how I screamed the place down at the Black Country museum during a trip down to the pitch black mines. In my defence, I was only five. But truth be told I’d probably react the same way now. I won’t eat in dark restaurants and I always decline eye masks or dimmed lighting during (rare) spa treatments or the like. Darkness makes me feel vulnerable. 
  4. Waiting areas. These kind of places are unavoidable, yet they’re such a pain in the neck for deaf lipreaders. “Take a seat” receptionists say. They don’t add “and remain on edge, hyper vigilant, in case anyone of us calls you over.” From doctors surgeries and pharmacies to shopping tills and hotel desks, having to wait to be called is a nightmare. Did they call me just now or was that a cough? 
  5. Electronic toys. For my children, I must add. It doesn’t matter how ‘educational’ or ‘fun’ that a speaking, singing toy claims to be… I won’t be buying them. For one thing, I’m never really sure if they’re working. And secondly, I have no idea what they’re saying! *Suspicious Mum alert*… So I try to steer my kiddies away from the beeping, singing, noisy electronics, as much as I can. We can make plenty of noise ourselves, without the help of any techy toys – believe me!

So there it is, my little list. What are your bug-bears? Do you avoid anywhere in particular because of your deafness? Or do certain things really push your buttons? Go on, do tell… 

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Why deafness isn’t a barrier to enjoying music… and how to encourage accessible sessions for deaf people 

As I’ve discovered on my own journey, being deaf doesn’t mean you can’t have a relationship with music.

I actually believe a persons affinity with music does not depend on their ability to hear sound. Music in its simplest form is vibration. Vibrations are heard but they can also be felt, and they can also be seen.

So really, music is most certainly not exclusively for hearing people. But as traditional music or dance classes stand, deaf people – and deaf children in particular – are not being given a fair chance to access these. 

And even now it still surprises people when I tell them I work with music, given how profoundly deaf my ears are. Sooooo deaf that I wouldn’t hear my own voice screaming – and believe me, I’ve tried 😉

But this is where I hope we can continue to break down misconceptions. Despite my ears, music makes a lot of sense to me. And my daughter, who is also Deaf seems to have inherited the same inner rhythm. 

My family joke that all the Withey women are born dancers, and it seems that to some extent it must be true. Rhythm is in our blood, if not in our ears. 

So throughout my musical career, I’ve developed a system that has seen deaf adults and children discover and develop a love for music.  

I remember teaching a signed song workshop and a young boy, a native BSL user, sat arms crossed in the front row. He didn’t seem very happy to be there. 

I asked him what was wrong and he told me that there was no way he could take part because he was ‘too deaf.’ Not like the others, he added. 

On the other side of him were a trio of deaf children who didn’t use sign language and were warbling Katy Perry’s “Firewooooooork” at the tops of their voices. The BSL boy had no idea what the trio were singing, he couldn’t hear it, he couldn’t feel it and he couldn’t see it. So he concluded that music was definitely not for him.
On I went with the workshop. Now in the sessions I deliver, I always use my very trusty, and very heavy boombox. (Note to self: I really need to get a trolley to lug it to sessions in future…)

It’s loud and clear enough that those with hearing aids can pick up its sound, and its powerful enough that you can feel its vibrations pound. 

The first task in my session was to retell a lyrical story. Participants can use their voices or they can use BSL – whatever they fancy. And I noticed the young BSL boy coming out of his shell. He had a story to tell and he wanted to express himself. 

Working on a basic beat to accompany the lyrics, the young guy came and sat beside me so he could feel the “booms” from the speaker. He continued to sign his short verses, stamping his feet whenever he felt the “booms” as he watched the visual metronome from my hands indicating the pace of the piece. 

At the end of the session small groups were invited to stand up and perform their pieces if they wished. This young BSL boy who was initially sulky and reluctant to take part asked me if he could perform solo. He took centre stage – alone! – and revelled in it. 

This little success story showed me that deaf kids are still being made to feel that unless they can sing with their voice box, they’re not really singing at all. But when they’re given the opportunity to express themselves in a supportive environment using their preferred language, they can truly shine. 

There are countless ways to make musical teaching more accessible. Here are a few ideas that have worked for me… 

  1. If you’re playing music – get the best equipment. No playing from iphones or laptops or through tiny speakers. Live instruments are great for visually and physically learning rhythms and amplified speakers are best for feeling vibrations and super sonic sound!
  2. Explore basic beats and demonstrate these physically. Offer participants the chance to copy and create their own. Use claps, stamps, head nods, dance moves, pounding of the fists. Encourage the exploration of pace and basic beats before moving onto syncopated rhythms.
  3. BE the music. If participants cannot hear or feel the songs, you will have to show them how it looks. This means visually demonstrating the songs beat, mood, and lyrical rhythm. If you’re focusing on the storytelling then your task is to infuse a visual meaning along with the musical structure of the vocals. No easy task, but definitely not impossible. 
  4. Project lyrics for students to see. Projecting these while demonstrating the rhythm of the vocals (by lipspeaking or singing) can help those who use speech/hearing aids to pinpoint where the lyrics are in the music. You can also use visual projection for BSL users and not giving out handouts leaves everyone handsfree! 
  5. Finally, get to know who you are working with. Find out what works for them. They might offer you insight themselves! Make room in the session for exploration and freedom and most importantly – let go of all assumptions. 

During my University Studies, my dissertation argued that rhythm is innate and it’s acquisition is not dependent on sound. I have met enough deaf and hearing people to support my belief that it’s not deafness that is a barrier to being musical, it’s deeper than that. It’s something in your soul. (Oh gosh, I’m going all corny again 😜)

Given the right environment and opportunities to access musical training, Deaf people can succeed in this field. Even if – like me – they can’t audibly distinguish a flute from a clarinet. It might mean doing things differently, but whatever works! 

I’m thrilled to see organisations such as the NDCS with their Raising the Bar initiative, celebrating and supporting young deaf musical artists. I hope opportunities for deaf young musicians and performers can eventually be mainstreamed and not such an rarity. 

And as for the tone deaf, two left feet, not-a-musical-bone-in-my-body folk, well there’s plenty of other careers to choose from ☺️

 

 

 

 

Valentine ponderings… 

Roses are red, violets are blue… I’ll always have a spare hearing aid battery for you.

Ahhh Valentines. Love it or hate it you can’t miss it. Whilst my youthful Valentines were spent sending cards to my current school crush in the hope he would finally declare his undying love for me in return… nowadays the hubby and I are happy enough with a takeout pizza and Netflix binge once the kids have gone to bed. Rock n roll eh? 

But anyway, I was recently chatting to my big sis, Emma, about our dating disasters whilst growing up. Amidst the giggles we realised that although both of us are deaf, she has only had relationships with hearing men whereas I have only dated deaf guys. Weird right? 

Is it any different? I wondered. She asked the same. So we chatted about it. 

Straightaway I pointed out how at least with deaf guys I don’t have to teach them how to communicate with me… Emma laughed as she relayed how her fella still fails to understand her “silent lipspeaking” in public and she resorts instead to speaking loudly. 

But on the other hand, at least she always has a makeshift interpreter at hand. Got a problem? Get your fella to ring, Em! It’s always quicker than using Typetalk and there’s no risk the other person will hang up either… And of course, there’s no menu-ordering-anxiety at a restaurant if you have a hearing partner to order for you. 

When I dine out – aside from pointing to the food items on the menu – my husband and I normally help each other, winding each other up if one of us understands the hearingie better than the other. “You’re heaaaaaring” we taunt. “PIP faaaaail.” 

But saying that, I am usually the ‘designated lipreader.’ I’ll get dragged into random conversations with hearingies all because my Mr Richards has passed the buck to me (thanks, dear) and then he wonders why hearing folk assume he is quiet and reserved – when hes actually quite the opposite! 

Likewise my sister and her partner have their own in-jokes, funny memories and wind ups. Her fella chuckles at her countless attempts to correctly pronounce magician, and at the time she thought he said he wanted some nipples instead of some nibbles (GASPS! How dare he?!) 

In return she mocks his podgy fingers that cramp when he tries to sign and imitates his Brummie accent. Ah, true love eh! 😍

In one way she is lucky as I know in my sisters household if she runs out of toilet paper while on the throne she can yell “Maaaaaaaaaark!’ and he has no choice to but to come to her aid. 

Whereas if the same happens to me I have to hope the hubby has his phone nearby so I can FaceTime. And pray he’s not too absorbed in the latest episode of Lethal Weapon. “You called me? I didn’t see my phone flashing, sorry!” he exclaims. Yeah, right. 

Admittedly both my sister and I use the Deaf Card with our other halves. If we’re annoyed or in a hump, we can ignore them… and their calls. On purpose. “Oh, you wanted something? Too late, I didn’t  hear you – my hearing aid is off/out/broken/ignoring you too.” 😉

So actually, I don’t think having a deaf or hearing partner is all that different at all. Relationships are unique, bonkers and ultimately fun to be in. And you’re blessed if you’re in a good one, regardless if you’re a deaf/deaf couple like me and Mr Richards or a deaf/hearing one like my big sis & her Mark. 

Which leaves me to say, Happy Valentines lovely readers. Whether you spend it with a beau or not, I hope the day brings you laughter, fun and plenty of nibbles. Pahahaha. 

Finding my deaf voice 

I didn’t write the above quote. I wish I did. I found it on the Internet a while back (author unknown) and it’s become a favourite of mine. 

It’s important to me because I recognise that there are aspects of me that aren’t really deemed ‘normal’ by society. And I’ve become aware of the penchant most people have to want to fit in… to blend… to look (for want of a better word) ‘normal.’

But being a deaf, hearing aid wearer and sign language user, I’m automatically in a minority group. And I tend to stand out in certain “Hearing-y” groups. So over the years I figured hey, why not just accept the deaf-rences about myself and get on with it? (Ha! Difference Deaf-rence, see what I did there 😉)

Yet I have something to confess. One of my ‘deaf-rences’ was actually quite a tricky one for me to accept. It was…. drumroll please… my voice. 

You see, growing up in mainstream schools and being constantly oral meant that I was unknowingly trying too hard to sound ‘hearing.’ 

I had speech therapy, speaking practice and even -as a teenager at boarding school -elocution lessons. (Note to readers: my Black Country accent still exists very proudly 😜)

Answering the register in class, reading out loud, asking the teacher for the phonic ear at the end of every blooming class… I used to worry about whether I was pronouncing words correctly and I had to make extra effort with the high pitched consonants I couldn’t hear; the shushes the ch-ch the t-t-t sounds.

(And who knew that Charlotte is pronounced with a Sh but chocolate is a Ch!? It took me a few years… Awks!)

I remember the horror I felt the day that someone said I sounded deaf. I can’t recall what it was in reference to but I remember feeling absolutely gutted

The speech therapists always used to say “your speech is really good.” They didn’t add “…for a deaf person.”

And then a few years later when I was working on Grange Hill some director exclaimed “you don’t sound that deaf you just sound like you’ve got a bit of a cold!” 

I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted. 

When I asked teachers and family members what I sounded like, they all said the same… “you speak so well, it’s very clear!” Yet in my head I was thinking “for a deaf person, right?”

I took it hard. I still felt hearing. I was surrounded by hearing people, hearing culture, hearing-y life. But I didn’t sound like them. I wanted to be the same. I didn’t know it at the time but I was fighting an impossible battle. And the day I lipread a school girl tell her friend that “Beckie speaks weird” my confidence plummeted even more. 

I hated speaking in public in class, so much that I used to shake if I had to. My hearing friends would always order food for me if we went out to the cinema or for a bite to eat. I suppose in that stage of my life I didn’t want to be ‘outed’ by my voice as a deafie. I hadn’t found who I was. 

I recently watched the channel 4 documentary on Mary Hare School “Life and Deaf” and noticed how the issues of clear speech and confidence in speaking were highlighted there too. 

In the programme there were twin girls who were preparing for University. Both with very good, clear, fluent speech. But one in particular lacked confidence when it came to asking for things in public. She was at a shoe store, and wanted to try some shoes on in her size. But she didn’t want to ask the assistant so she got her hearing sister to speak for her. 

Watching this I know that a lot of my deaf friends were like whhhaaaat she speaks really well, she should just go and ask! At least she has clear speech! 

But I could relate. The ironic thing is even if you’re a deaf person with clear speech, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re confident at using your voice. 

Sometimes it’s not your voice in question that’s the issue but it’s your concern as to whether you will understand the response. So your mind figures it’s better not to even ask… it’s a “no fireworks, no disasters” kind of thinking. 

But assertiveness and acceptance of your deaf-rences does come with time. And I have every faith that the girl in question will find her way. But as she mentioned her insecurity about telling strangers she was deaf and asking them to repeat themselves, I’m guessing a little part of her hasn’t accepted her uniqueness just yet. 

I saw a lot of myself in that girl (hence this blog!) and it reminded me of how much I’ve changed. Even when I returned to my secondary school for an awards night 3 months after I started at a deaf school, my head of year commented to my Mum how much I had appeared to grow in confidence. All because I said “hello” to him without being spoken to first. 

It was mixing with deaf peers and finding a deaf community that got the ball rolling on my journey to self-acceptance. I accepted that my speech, although clear, would never be like a hearing persons, so what’s the use in trying to be or in hiding away? 

It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy. But bit by bit I said “duck it” (or something along those lines) to all of my hang ups about sounding deaf and I found the voice that I hid away for too long.  

I never did approach that girl at school who said I spoke weird. At the time I was too mortified to even consider a comeback. But if I could turn back time … “me, weird? At least I’m not boring…” 

Ha. Childish, moi? 😉

The importance of deaf history 

Deaf History. Its a topic that I was never fortunate enough to study formally, yet it’s one that has always spurred my imagination. Contemplating past deaf lives makes me feel connected somehow to a heritage, to a way of being. 

A deaf film festival once showed a black and white film by the BDA of a 1930s deaf gathering and I was enthralled. The peculiar smart day time clothes, the traditional social dancing, and -of course- the unmistakable animated facial expressions and old fashioned signing. This was the deaf world in days gone by.

My Father in law is typically grassroots deaf. He’s 82 Years young with a fun sense of humour and he signs like nobody else I know. There’s lip pattern, fingerspelling and bsl signs with the odd old fashioned sign or London signing slang. 

Contrastingly, most of my deaf friends nowadays sign in a more generalised way. Borrowing signs from across regions, you can tell that todays generation of deafies are the travellers

And that’s absolutely fine. 

But I recently worked on a project meeting quite a few of the older deaf generations at deaf clubs, and I was completely charmed not only by their life stories but also by the whole Community feeling present at the OAP groups. 

May I introduce to you, a delightful couple, Bob and Irene Habberley of Sandwell Deaf Community Association. 

Both deaf, they had first gone to the deaf club for different reasons.   Irene was a young factory worker, good at her sewing machinist job. Her boss encouraged her to visit a deaf centre to source more deaf workers and it was there she encountered the deaf community for the first time. Bob was an unhappy divorcee who was looking to fulfil a part of himself that he always felt was missing. A social worker recommended he take up some voluntary work at his local deaf centre. 

Growing up in the 30s, Irene recounted how back then she didn’t know any sign language and hid behind her Mother when she first met a group of deaf signers. Bob said how he had been raised as though he was hearing, because nobody knew any different. And as a result he is predominantly oral with mostly SSE signs which he didn’t learn until he was in his mid 40s. 

Seeing them now, however, I can’t imagine them not ever being part of the deaf community. They volunteer to bring people to the deaf centre, which they attend weekly. Irene acts as a guide for a deaf-blind lady and Bob is a valued member and secretary for Dudley Deaf Club, also in the West Midlands. 

From the moment I walked in the deaf centre in Sandwell they were offering tea and introducing me to other deaf people in the room. This welcoming, nurturing nature of their generation is so comforting. They take younger deaf folk under their wing and they look after them, as though you would a member of family. 

And that’s the key really. Back in those days (as I’ve been told) your deaf friends were your only link to the Deaf world. There was no See Hear, no BSL Zone, no Facebook deaf groups. You made a date to see your deaf friends somewhere and you all went. No texting or tweeting beforehand. 

My Father in law was sent to a deaf boarding school and as it was during war time he was evacuated to the Welsh countryside and didn’t return home for several years. Not even at Christmas. As a result, his deaf friends were all he had. They were his family

And this feeling of connectedness to my new deaf friends is one that stays with me even after I’ve said my fond farewells to Bob and Irene. 

You see, these people I met at the deaf centre join together several times a week to participate in various activities. Indoor games such as dominoes and cards, chess, badminton, bingo. (Bingo is quite the craze, in case you didn’t know!) And each person I spoke to communicated differently to the next. Some were grassroots BSL, others were oral/sse, another bunch used West Midlands slang and old fashioned sayings. But nobody really cared! 

There was no BSL police putting the oral folk down, no SSE smarty pants making others feel foolish… they were as varied as a Family gets. And that’s one part of deaf history I love. 

Because to me, these people are living deaf history in motion. They’ve gone through decades, been called deaf and dumb, experienced bullying, encountered discrimination, received harsh discipline for using sign language, they’ve witnessed huge political changes. Yet through it all they’ve never forgotten each other. And, most importantly never turned on each other. 

There’s a lovely quote that says without history there would be no future. And it’s only by delving into deaf history and the tales of real deaf people from years ago that I can come to appreciate all I have as a deaf person living in 2018. 

Deaf pride, deafhood, deaf rights; these were all born out of the struggles of our deaf ancestors. And whilst I know we may not be blood relatives to the deaf generations of the past, their actions leave a direct legacy for us all the same. 

With thanks to Irene and Bob for reminding me of the unity that being deaf brings. 

The All Dance project and the influence of sign language 

I’ve been very fortunate lately working with a brilliant group of people who happen to have learning disabilities. For eight weeks we’ve been working hard to choreograph a dance piece to perform at Deda (Derby Dance Centre.) This is all part of the All Dance project which promotes Dance as an inclusive activity. 

It was my first time working with those who have learning disabilities and for my group it was the first time they had encountered deafness and sign language. 

The first time I met the group they seemed oblivious to my sign language interpreter and the fact that I was deaf so the following week we decided to highlight my access needs too. I re-introduced myself with voice and sign and explained that the interpreter was there because I couldn’t hear them and I explained how they’d have to tap or wave if they needed my attention. They took all of this in their stride and off we went with the sessions. 

Whenever I arrived each week, the group would turn and wave to me as I entered. One gentleman who was visually impaired would make a point of waving his arms so I knew he was speaking and another lady proudly showed me the makaton signs she knew. She fingerspelled her own name to me and very sweetly showed all of the other group members how to sign their names too. 

A warm and friendly elderly gentleman, who was wheelchair bound would often stop me throughout the class to do a “thumbs up” or a “high five.” He would look at me with his cheeky smile and we would both laugh, as though we were sharing a secret language. We seemed to have found a way of communicating that didn’t rely on hearing, it was tactile and visual.  

A staff member mentioned she noticed how well the group had responded to sign language / having a deaf person present. Gradually I began to notice how my presence affected them too. 

There was one young lady who was immobile, unable to speak or move anything except her head. No matter where I was in the room – if I was signing – her gaze would find me and her eyes would be transfixed on the signs. 

I worked closely with another lady who was also immobile but she had speech and movement in her arms. She confessed to me how she had never signed before but she loved learning it. She often sang loudly along to songs during the session and her hands would naturally imitate the rhythm. She too was learning to communicate visually. 

Then there was the gentleman with – what I feel was – the saddest background story of all. He had wandered into a session one day by accident and for some reason marched straight up to me and pointed to a chain he had around his neck. 

Using my voice I asked him if he was okay. He responded frustratingly, shouting “no, no, no, no” and started throwing his right arm forward. A staff member quickly came over and she explained that this man had been neglected as a child and thus had no language as well as learning disabilities. She translated that the chain he pointed to was related to a bowling tournament he took part in. It seemed he was just trying to tell me about it. 

So I started to sign. Simple, universal type signs. He followed my lead and started to gesture something else. Bit by bit we began to understand each other. He pointed at a garden sculpture outside of a man and as I signed “man” he copied me. The staff member was shocked and said that perhaps they needed to do some signing with him. 

I have no idea if they followed through on that. 

But as each week passed, this gentleman would often step into my session and take a seat. He just watched us work, watched me sign. And whenever I glanced over at him he would gesture at his bowling chain and do a thumbs up when he knew I understood him. 

Some weeks the care staff wouldn’t allow other people to watch the dance session so I would see him peering through the window trying to get a glimpse of what we were doing. 

It seemed to me that nobody really knew how to communicate fully with this gentleman. And you know what the worst thing is? It wasn’t until the end of the project that someone conveyed to me that actually this man is deaf. No wonder he was so drawn to sign language. 

Throughout these 8 weeks I’ve seen first hand that the benefits of sign language aren’t exclusively for deaf people. Those without a spoken language benefit. Those who have physical disabilities but want to learn another language can enjoy doing so too. And from what I’ve seen, most people know how to communicate visually even if they don’t know any formal BSL. 

Dance can be for everyone, and sign language most definitely can be too. I’m so glad I had the chance to work on All Dance, and I’d like to think that me being deaf actually enhanced the participants experience. 

I’ve learnt so much from my time with the group; how to have confidence in my voice and how I communicate, how others with varying abilities experience movement and ultimately how to think outside the box and encourage a conpletely sensory experience of Dance. 

Dance for all. All for Dance. However you phrase it we’re all in it together. Disabilities, abilities and all. Here’s to many more inclusive arts projects…

What you should know about my sign language interpreter 

I’ve had some veeeerrry irritating experiences regarding BSL interpreters and how people respond to me working with one. The comments, the questions, the behaviours. Honestly, I could write a book. 

At times it’s been so crazily annoying that I’ve pondered sending people a report of guidelines to read before they meet me a BSL interpreter.

I would call this imaginary report  “what you need to know about my sign language interpreter,” and the guidelines would be something along the lines of… 

  1. First of all, my BSL interpreter is called just that, an interpreter. Please do not call them a signer,  translator or worse – my helper. Interpreting is a professional vocation which takes many years of study and life experience – there’s a difference between someone who interprets and someone who signs, capisce? 
  2. BSL interpreters act as my voice or my ears – but not my brain. The words they speak are actually mine. So before you tell them how fabulous/awful their presentation was, remember it’s my content you’re referring to. They’re the messenger. Don’t shoot them. And if the work was good I’ll take the credit please 😉
  3. Interpreting is a demanding, highly skilled job so please do not expect them to work in impossible situations. Long, noisy hours without a break is not only harsh on them but actually effects the quality of the interpretation. They aren’t being diva’s when they request an hourly break – it’s not a crafty cigarette they want. It’s a much needed eye break and brain rest! 
  4. A lot of the time, I don’t know much about my interpreter. We aren’t best buddies and we don’t answer each other’s questions. It’s a professional relationship. You’re speaking to me through them, not about me to them. They don’t answer for me and sometimes don’t know me at all. So be sure to remember that before you pull them to one side and ask about my personal life. And if they do know me well, they wouldn’t dish any dirt to you. Nosy. 
  5. BSL interpreters are in great demand. So please don’t leave bookings until the last minute or expect me to “bring a signer” at the drop of a hat. And don’t say “oh I know a girl who can help you, she can sign!” when it’s an important meeting and the girl in question is about twelve years old. Do you research, give me notice and contact reputable agencies or freelancers only. 
  6. You can’t tell interpreters not to tell me certain things. If you’ve said something outloud, they’ll sign it. They provide access to everything, including any awkward/embarrassing/inappropriate comments. So watch what you’re saying, interpreters don’t come with an edit option I’m afraid. 
  7. And finally, whilst my interpreter is extremely adept at interpreting they are not superhuman. I can’t see them if you stand in front of them (!!!!!) and they can’t understand you if you’re mumbling. Accents and mannerisms affect how you sound to others. So if they ask you to repeat yourself or move out of my sight line it’s for a very good reason. So stay calm, be patient, and move aside – please. 

Ah. If only I could get that report published. 😉

A deaf or hearing Christmas? Have a happy one 😊

There are pine needles all over my living room floor. And we have technicolour lights draping from our roof. Yes, it can only mean one thing – it’s Christmas. 😀

I love chatting to people and finding out what their Christmas traditions are. Deaf or hearing, most of us are traditionalists at Christmas time. We usually do the same things year after year. It brings feelings of comfort, peace, and familiarity. 

My hearing family usually spend Christmas Eve at home before they attend a Christingle service at their local church. For them, christmas goes hand in hand with singing carols & playing music. It all seems to evoke feelings of bittersweet nostalgia. 

They then spend the night with close friends, indulging in a cheeky chinese takeaway & a few drinks before dropping off on the sofa at home, a Christmas concert on the telly. 

My husband’s deaf family and friends do things a little differently. 

They don’t bother with church and there aren’t any Christmas carols in their plans. Instead they hold annual gatherings on Christmas Eve at a Family pub where deaf families across the city can meet, eat, drink and be merry. 

Instead of the intimate setting my hearing family enjoy, this deaf gathering is loud, busy and extremely jolly. Oh, and it goes on for hours. 

So when my husband and I had our own children, we had to explore what our own traditions would be. The tricky thing being (as I’ve said before,) whilst I have one foot in the hearing and deaf worlds, my husband is a whopping great big capital D Deaf. 

Church service without an interpreter? Forget it. Pretend to lip-sync carols that he’s never seen before? I don’t think so. Spend the night surrounded by hearing people who can’t sign? Not happening. 

But we’ve found ways to satisfy all of our Christmassy needs. For the  children too. 😉

Instead of dreading the visit to see a bearded non-deaf-aware Santa, we now make a special appointment to visit the Signing Santa at the gorgeous Kedleston Hall. He signs, the location is magical, and his beard is real. Even my husband believes in Santa when he sees this one. 

We’ve also found a local event by a deaf children’s society that does Christmas sign songs. And I’ve worked -for the first time-  with a hearing singer to produce some signed song Christmas videos! The amount of BSL carols online is abysmal, so I’m excited to share songs that my kiddies can get involved with too. 

Browsing Facebook, we’ve found deaf clubs that still hold Christmas parties for children and many families travel hundreds of miles to enjoy these occasions together. 

Our son also has his first nativity this year (he’s a sheep!) and the school have provided us with a script, sign language access and the best seats in the church to watch the production. Result. 

So, thinking about it, deaf and hearing people don’t do things massively different at Christmas time – it’s just a matter of providing access. And let’s not forget as a deaf community we’re all individuals with unique tastes. 

While some of us may relish in the cheesy signed songs and the #so this is christmaaaaaaas# feeling, there will also be deaf people (like my hubby) who are happiest just signing away to family & friends, having a few bevvies & Yule logs without Slade blaring in the background. 
So it’ll be a signed carol service at an accessible church this Christmas Eve before we join the deaf families for food & fun. However you’re celebrating Christmas, I hope it’s a truly happy one for you and your family. 

All together now! #I’m dreaming of a whiiiiiite Christmas…#  😀

Merry Christmas.

Rebecca 


 

The greatest barrier in society – in my opinion

I was having my lunch with some arts professionals and we were discussing what forthcoming projects we had lined up. I was the only deaf person present and I was interested to hear (lipread, rather 😉) what was everyone was doing. 

One lady said she had a ‘dilemma’ as she had been offered the chance to deliver workshops for people with learning disabilities – but she didn’t want to take the work. 

Why? We all asked her. “I’m not trained in this area,” she confessed. “And although the organisers have said they will offer me all the training I need… well..” and then she turned to me and said 

“No offence, but I’m not interested in working with special needs. It’s just not interesting.”

I was stumped. First of all, why was she looking at me? Did she assume deaf people had learning disabilities or were experts on the topic? 

And secondly, what an awfully closed minded comment to make. But funnily enough, a lot of her hearing colleagues seemed to agree with her. 

“I’d be the same,” they muttered. “I never know how to behave around them plus they don’t understand me.” 

“Learning disabilities – I haven’t got a clue! They scare me!” Someone else piped up. 

“Don’t they all use makaton?” Another person asked. 

In the end, the lady in question had resolved her dilemma and decided to turn down this uninteresting and frightening prospect of working with people who were different to herself. 

Fast forward a week and I was presenting at a carers forum and discussing what the greatest barriers in society were for disabled people. I thought back to my lunch break with those arts professionals and formed my own answer. 

In my opinion, the greatest barriers in our society are assumptions. 

When people assume they know about something or they form a generalised opinion without any life experience to back it up, they are practising ignorance. 

When we assume, we put people or things in a box and we don’t dare question the possibilities, the capabilities, the opportunities that may unfold. We live with our eyes half open. 

I’ve been a victim of assumptions many times. And my clearest memory of this happened when I was 15 years old. 

I was chatting to a careers advisor at school and she was asking me questions, trying to forge a career path for me. 

She began by asking me what I wanted to do. Well, at that time, I was obsessed with Pop Idol and the a*teens (a Swedish teen ABBA group) so I sheepishly confessed what I really wanted to do was sing. I practised every day after school and honestly, it brought me so much joy. 

But she shot me down. 

“You can’t be a singer, you’re deaf.” 

I went on to say that I quite liked acting and I was rather good at dancing too so I would be happy with something along those lines… 

Acting? My voice couldn’t be strong enough, she said. And dancing would never be a feasible career. 

All she could see as I sat in front of her was my deafness. She was blinded by the assumptions she had already formed around deafness and deaf people’s capabilities. 

She didn’t see my dogged determination. How absolutely crazy I was about music and lyrics. How I spent more time at dance classes than at friends houses after school. She had no idea. 

So thank goodness I didn’t listen to her. 

I’ve learnt several times that people continue to make assumptions about deafness. And it’s important that we too don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions about other people. How else will we know who they really are if we don’t ask? If we don’t delve straight in, eyes wide open, and find out. 

So, earlier this year, when I was asked to work on a dance project with a group of people with severe learning disabilities, I found myself challenging my own assumptions.

Initially I worried about how I may communicate with those who are visually impaired. Would I be able to project my voice enough? Would those who struggled with cognition actually understand me?  Could I – a deaf person – do this job? 

I thought back to the arts professionals again and I remembered the words of that careers advisor. And I said to myself, you know what, scrap those fears and assumptions. Maybe it’s time to work outside of my own comfort zone.  Maybe I’ll learn something? So I took the job. Fears, worries and all. 

I walked into the first day of the dance job with plenty of worries, but I felt completely ready to quash the preconceptions I had about being a deaf person working with a group of people who were another kind of different. 

It’s been five months now and I can honestly say I’m the fortunate one for having worked with this unique dance group who are very much all individuals. They have varying needs, alternate communication methods and very different abilities. 

If I’d have believed other people’s assumptions, I would never have accepted this work and thus not had the pleasure to work with some truly lovely people. 

The same can be said about deafness. The more we can remove the social stigma of being deaf or having access needs, the more we can eliminate false assumptions which imply our abilities are capped and that our life pathway is one-size-fits-all for all deaf people. 

If you don’t know about something please Ask. Enquire. Find out. Bombard me with questions! Whatever you do, do not assume. 

The divide between deaf and hearing worlds in the media… 

Growing up Deaf, I was warned by hearing friends that “most deaf people have a chip on their shoulder; they don’t like hearing people.”

As I delved further into the Deaf world, I saw another side to this argument. One that said “Hearing people will never understand us. Deaf people are always excluded.”

It’s an interesting thing, witnessing the interplays between the Deaf and hearing worlds. And I’ve noticed the brave pioneers that dare to build bridges between both. But judging by recent debates, I feel the divide between the hearing and deaf world still exists- however subtle it may be.

There are ongoing debates in the media world regarding the casting of deaf roles. Is it okay for hearing actors to play deaf characters? Or should these be for Deaf actors who can use their innate life experience to portray deafness authentically?

In addition to this there have been discussions about hearing professionals taking work that could/should be Deaf-led and how Deaf people are still being made to feel second best when it comes to working alongside hearing professionals.

A director friend of mine, John, contacted me a while ago and we start chatting about some issues that have been on our minds. John is a highly esteemed director, deaf and a sign language user. He works daily alongside hearing professionals, mostly in film and television. He had been upset by attitudes towards him and how he was expected to act ‘continually grateful’ towards his hearing colleagues for what he perceived to be his given right: clear access.

Rather than being valued as someone who is fluent in both sign language and English, John has had to hand over his ASL to English translation work to his hearing co-workers. “It’s because they’re hearing, they’re expected to have a better grasp of the English language than I am.”

In return, John is made to feel overly obliged to express his thanks for any communication support he receives, when this is actually is his right as a sign language user and not “some gift.” Delving into this further, John coined the term ‘hearing fragility’ in response to these conflicting attitudes.

He explained, “I don’t know if ‘hearing fragility’ is an appropriate phrase, since the social justice definition of the word fragility came from the issues of the black community, but it’s a place to start this conversation, at least.”

He continued, “sometimes I come across hearing directors who are not fluent in sign language or knowledgeable about deaf issues, but they’ve directed deaf actors and they feel entitled to say I’ve done all of this for the deaf community, where’s my thanks? Why are deaf people angry with me?”

This defensive response to accusations of oppressiveness is exactly why the term fragility has been used. It implies that the fine line between being supportive of and taking advantage of the deaf community is at risk of being crossed.

For example… The American TV series Switched at Birth won countless awards for featuring a major Deaf storyline, but there was incredible dissent amongst the American Deaf community who felt the portrayal was inaccurate and, at times, disrespectful.

Whilst the creators of this show may have had an ASL consultant, they did not have any Deaf creatives on their team. Perhaps if they hired someone like John who is a native sign language user and lives, breathes, and eats Deaf issues, they could have handled certain topics differently and maybe (just a thought!) they might have cast more real-life ASL users…

This feeling of being misrepresented can happen in a wide range of settings, not just in television. But as John pointed out, “I feel its important to address the influence arts and media has because this is the area that impacts the entire world. Film and TV are some of the greatest mind changers of the world and I think we need to start there – and see how we can change things in terms of mentalities in this area.”

But how do we know when someone genuinely cares about the deaf community and when they’re just… well, using us?

John feels “it comes down to their actual reasons for wanting to work with sign language or feature deaf issues.  For example, if I find a theatre director wants to work with sign language merely for its aesthetics without utilising the language or deaf characters, that strikes me as being an audism mindset right away.” 

With the increase of music videos featuring harshly edited ‘mumble jumble’ sign language, it is understandable that deaf people are insulted by the misuse of their language. Is sign language just a novelty to the mainstream world?

The trouble is most of the time when a production features a Deaf character or deaf issues, the creative team involved don’t have any deaf experience. They aren’t aware of the cultural implications of creating deaf roles and the huge responsibility that holds. We therefore need more Deaf consultants and creatives who are able to drive this process through.

Usually its sign language interpreters or sign language consultants that get hired to offer insight into deafness but they don’t have deaf perspective. As John agreed, “Deaf people should be valued for what they know better than hearing people – being Deaf or using sign language.”

Even at Edinburgh’s fringe festival, a highly acclaimed show was labelled as ‘accessible to sign language users’ but the gestures used were incomprehensible. If the producers on that show worked with a Deaf person or a team of deaf people while devising the work, they might have actually produced an accessible piece. Throwing in a few random signs is never going to work. 

However, a production in Leicester by theatre company Scuffed Shoes had the initiative to invite a group of Deaf people to an open rehearsal as they were using sign language for the first time. Here the deaf attendees had the chance to say whether or not they understood the piece. Their feedback was incredibly insightful and extremely helpful. Even though the deaf group weren’t artists, their knowledge of Deaf matters and sign language meant their views were invaluable when creating accessible work.

I am in no way implying deaf people are better than hearing people, but we are better at portraying and representing deafness because that is part and parcel of who we are.

I don’t believe all deaf people have a chip on their shoulder. It’s not that we dislike hearing people. We are just incredibly frustrated. We want to be represented truthfully and we yearn – most of all – to have our voices heard. 

We don’t want people – who haven’t walked in our Deaf shoes – to speak for us.

One of my bug bears is BSL interpreters or communicators referring to their work as ‘helping’ deaf people. John felt the same mentioning, “the classic stereotype is that hearing people are supposed to be the ones to help deaf people for their entire lives, and that deaf people are viewed as dependents.”

This hints at the whole power play that Deaf professionals are trying to avoid. We don’t want to feel as though we are inferior to hearing colleagues or – worse still – that we have to justify ourselves. We may work differently and have separate skill sets, that is absolutely fine. The trick is to play to our strengths and use access support where necessary. Access is not a luxury to be thankful for, its a basic right. So less of the helping – its facilitating communication, thank you.

Saying that, I do feel that we can and many of us do work alongside hearing professionals on an equal platform. If we are valued and given the chance to express our opinions, you will find we aren’t just a feisty bunch of signers who are impossible to please. We actually speak sense 😉

The deaf world and the hearing world are undoubtedly different. We cant pretend to play Hearing, just as no hearing person can ever Be Deaf. Let us share with you our valuable insights and the unique perspective that being deaf brings. It is our world, after all. Perhaps when the majority of the mainstream population begin to appreciate that, then the rift between us will begin to heal.