Laraine Callow: Should deaf people speak for themselves?

Posted on March 2, 2012

I attended a conference recently and was very interested to see how some of the deaf speakers spoke to the audience as I too have this problem – in fact every deaf professional I know has this dilemma.

Who are you actually speaking to? The deaf members of the audience or the hearing members? Which group should come first? Should you use your voice (will anyone understand you?) Should you use an interpreter? (which can feel awkward if you don’t normally use one and want to speak for yourself)

One presenter spoke for himself in a very confident way – but I looked at the faces in the audience and there were some puzzled looks. Why? The presenter has a ‘deaf’ voice (eg: not easily understood) and spoke quickly (like hearing people do) but of course people then had real difficulty in following what he was saying.

Should he have used a voice over instead? I could see he wanted to impress the hearing audience (his mum has obviously told him he ‘speaks beautifully’ – well she should be able to understand him after 30 odd years – but a first timer might not). How easily we are deceived about ourselves and our skills.

Another speaker spoke and signed for herself. This can be messy – as it is not really possible to do both at the same tempo (something teachers of the deaf never fully understand when they do the same in schools). This is the problem I have. My voice also starts to drop (as the presenter’s did too) so hearing people strain to listen. The voice drops because the signing starts to take over.

Leaving it all to the interpreter is not the answer – it works brilliantly for true BSL users as they are comfortable using their own mode of communication which allows their personality to shine through. For the rest of us, well after 35 years of presenting to the public I still don’t have a game plan. What would help is a supportive audience – someone once put their hand up and asked me to stop signing as they were watching the interpreter. Not helpful.

Maybe the answer is to be more tolerant of deaf diversity and allow each deaf professional to do it their way in a warm and supportive way. Also for us to encourage practical advice and follow through suggestions that feel right to us as deaf professionals.

Laraine Callow MBE is the director of deaf training and consultancy Deafworks (who support this site). She has worked in the commercial, charity and arts fields and in areas such as education and employment on D/deaf issues and access for over 20 years. She trains deaf and hearing people around the UK on skills including management, mentoring and deaf awareness. Find out more about Deafworks by visiting their website. Just click here.

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