I’ve just got round to watching Brian Duffy’s short film ‘Strangers’. Using dialogues led by a young deaf guy and his parents, it showed its audience just how possible it is for a deaf person to feel like an outsider towards their own hearing family.
Isolated and frustrated, mainly because his parents were poor communicators, the young guy was only actually heard by his parents when a sign language interpreter was present.
We were shown glimpses of how oblivious the Father was to his son’s talents and knowledge of the world, and how his Mother appeared completely unaware of just how much her son was excluded.
The climax of the film came when the son confessed to his Mother that he had no idea which of his Grandmothers had died and felt unable to grieve for someone he did not know. Presumably, because he was not able to communicate with her.
We were then left with his Mother attempting to fill in the missing pieces about his Grandmother with her broken, hesitating sign language. Was it too late to make amends, I wondered. Judging by the smile on the sons face as the film faded, evidently not.
You see, it’s a natural desire to want to communicate freely and easily with our parents and it is sad to think that this can still be an issue in this day and age. But the majority of deaf babies are born to hearing parents, with most having no prior knowledge or experience of sign language or the ‘deaf world’ for that matter.
Take my parents, for example. They were stunned to find that they had not only one but two deaf daughters and with nobody visiting them with information on sign language or support groups, they just cracked on with what they thought was best and my sister and I acquired English as our first and main language.
My sister and I were both able to lip-read and speak clearly enough to chat openly to our parents and it wasn’t until we went to secondary school with a hearing impaired unit that we discovered sign language, hence the beginning of all our private conversations.
It has always been a great comfort knowing we both had each other. Together we would sit in silence on the sofa at distant relatives’ houses; being beckoned to if we wanted a drink and ignored the majority of the time. Our parents would speak and answer questions on our behalf and we pretended to laugh along at jokes we didn’t understand and smile at all the right times.
It appeared that our distant relatives felt that because we were deaf we were unable to participate fully in conversations and that the only option, rather than work around it or make any effort, was to pretend that we weren’t actually there.
My Grandmother on my Father’s side recently confessed that she wished they had made more of an effort with my sister and I when we were younger but never felt able to talk to us because we were deaf. It was only as we grew in confidence and age and moved past the blushing stage every time we misunderstood something that we both began to speak for ourselves.
They then realised, perhaps a little too late, that we were actually interesting people with personalities, hobbies and lives of our own. What was there to be so scared of after all?!
The sad thing in my case is it wasn’t the lack of sign language knowledge that prevented these relatives from communicating with us. It was their own fears and preconceived ideas that held them back from getting to know us.
Luckily my grandparents on my Mother’s side were the total opposite. Unafraid of being misunderstood and happy to repeat themselves countless times if need be, we were able to forge strong loving relationships. They saw us not as ‘the deaf grand daughters’ but as their beloved granddaughters who just happened to be deaf. They saw past our deafness and into us as people.
So upon reflection, both from my experience and Duffy’s film, it appears that the biggest obstacle for any deaf person in a hearing family is not the communication method as such, but the ability to look past the stigma and stereotypes of deafness and for the family to be willing to adapt.
As we first meet a person, whether hearing or deaf, we naturally discover their own communication preferences. Using this we are then able to get to know the unique individual they are, one who most certainly has a voice and a right to be heard.
But I do believe that the desire to communicate effectively and break down those invisible barriers is more important than anything. Because whenever there’s a will, there will be a way.