AJW Smith: Longing for Belonging

Posted on February 24, 2012

Belonging. It’s a psychological need. We need to know that we fit in. We want to be valued. We want to be part of the action. We feel good when others notice and appreciate us.

For four decades I’ve wanted to belong. I’ve wanted to feel part of the world that I interact with every day. I’ve wanted to ignore the fact that I am different – that I am deaf.

Why? Because all the people I met, knew and loved were hearing. I’m one of the 90% of deaf children born into a hearing family. And as I grew up and became an adult, I never stopped trying to fit in with the hearing people I knew.

And it broke my heart when I recently realised no matter how hard I tried, I will always be treated as an outsider by the hearing world. Not deliberately nor maliciously excluded. But through casual thoughtlessness; through things trivial to them but so vital for me as a deaf person.

One example is when somebody turns their head while talking so I can no longer read their lips. In a group, people are constantly moving their heads looking at different people which stops me following the conversation and ensures that I cannot contribute to the ebb and flow of group banter.

Another example is when juicy gossip is being shared, I am ignored as I cannot hear what is whispered. In my paranoid moments I wonder if they are they talking about me, knowing that they are safe from me overhearing them.

And there’s the disappointment of seeing everybody have a good laugh at a joke and I’ve missed the punchline. Usually when I asked for it to be repeated, I’m told that there’s no point as I’ve missed the moment. But that is not as bad as the burning embarrassment when everybody laughs at me and treats me as stupid because I misheard.

I put up with it because I needed to belong to a tribe. I needed my hearing friends to think of me that “he’s one of us”.

But last year, an evening spent with hearing friends made me realise how different I am and how I could never be “one of them”. My hearing has got worse so I was wearing a listening device that amplifies people’s voices.

One friend shared something important but I didn’t hear it. So I asked him to repeat it. Reluctantly he did, but I still didn’t hear. I really wanted to know what it was, so instead of pretending I had heard, I asked him to repeat it a third time a bit louder. He glared at me and mumbled something.

“Sorry, but can you say it again more clearly for me please?”

I noticed that he bristled with resentment at this fourth request. In turn, I was beginning to get angry – I can’t change my hearing levels but he can change his voice volume. Why wouldn’t he speak up? For the fourth time he said something and I still didn’t catch it.

By now I felt very uncomfortable.What was so offensive about my sincere efforts to understand him? So this time I pretended I heard, and with a sign of relief the group moved on with their conversation leaving me behind, baffled and frustrated.

Later I worked out why my friend was annoyed. The other hearing people in the group heard what he said. But if one of them had asked him to repeat himself, it would have been an admission that they weren’t paying attention to what he was talking about. It would have communicated that he wasn’t important, that they can’t be bothered to listen to what he was saying first time round.

Subconsciously my friend was offended because, to him, being asked to repeat himself made him feel unimportant. And I was offended because his irritation at repeating himself sent the message that I was unimportant.

I realised that hearing people are psychologically shaped in a different way from deaf people. They experience the world differently. Most of them lack the empathy to understand me because they don’t know of the difficulties and discrimination I’ve endured as a deaf person. This is why for the second half of my life I’m going to seek belonging in the deaf world. I hope to make new deaf friends who understand what the world is like when you cannot hear properly.

But at this moment in time I don’t belong anywhere.

It’s a lonely place being stuck between two worlds, the hearing and the deaf. I’ve started learning sign language but I’m not good enough yet to have a proper conversation. Recently I attended a deaf social event but felt like an outsider, not able to follow the blur of hands, just as I’m not able to follow the buzz of voices at a hearing social event.

But while I cannot improve my hearing to hear the buzz of voices, I know I can improve my BSL to follow the blur of hands. I have hope that I will find a place where I can fit in, participate and be understood. A deaf tribe that I can belong to.

AJW Smith is blessed by being married to a wonderful wife and having two children who he is very proud of (all hearing). He is cursed by being a loyal supporter of Leeds United. He can be found on Twitter as @AJWSmith

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