A few months ago, I sat at a table in a posh house in south London, opposite a writer, a director and two well-known actors.
This was the first day of their rehearsals, and because there was a short scene involving a deaf character, I had been asked to give them some background on deaf culture and communication.
I arrived during lunch, so before our meeting began, I sat with them informally as they shared backstage stories and gossip. On the surface, this was a great opportunity to break the ice and get to know them, but instead, for me, it quickly turned into an excruciating experience.
I found myself fiddling with a pen; taking my glasses on and off; reading the entire script again from beginning to end. For half an hour, I didn’t say a word, and became increasingly desperate for this group conversation to end. Why?
I couldn’t hear, or lipread, a thing.
The house had wooden floors and high ceilings, straight out of Grand Designs. Easy on the eye perhaps, but this feature made sounds echo around the room. Even though I was beside these people, I couldn’t *quite* hear them through my hearing aids. Then there was the way their conversation went back and forth, so quickly that often, by the time I’d turned to lipread them, someone else had interjected.
As the male actor had the other three in hysterics, I felt like I was listening to an auditory jigsaw with too many missing pieces to see the whole picture. It was as though I’d found myself back in drama club at university (where I could never hear the backstage whispers), or the crowded sixth form at school.
Reverting to type, I grinned gamely as though I found the actor funny too. Could they tell that my eyes weren’t smiling? How did I seem to them, I wondered, as I sat there? Aloof? Uninterested? Shy? Rude? Truth is, I’d have loved to be in on the joke.
Then, salvation. Our meeting started. For the next half hour, I explained some of the quirks of deaf culture, such as why deaf people always congregate in kitchens at parties (yes, really), and how as a deaf person, you can sometimes feel cut off from the hearing world. The last bit being a tad ironic, really.
Now, I understood everything they said. How? Why?
Well, once the meeting had started, I was in control. I was able to direct the context and topic of the conversation, making it far easier to guess any words I missed. If I did miss anything, I simply asked them to repeat themselves (it’s a lot more awkward to do this during a group conversation you are not contributing to).
The way people talk in meetings is different, too. The rhythm of the lunchtime conversation was incredibly varied as stories and jokes were told. Now there was a measured, steady pace to what was said, and I had time to see, and hear, almost everything.
For the first half hour I was in that room, I was a very quiet person. For the second half hour, I was able to be relatively confident and outgoing – the opposite. You could say I was like an auditory Dr Jekll and Mr Hyde.
As I walked away from the meeting, to the tube, I thought about how, as a deaf person, even when you think you know every trick in the book, you still can’t avoid finding yourself in situations that are completely beyond your control.
I also wondered how different life might be, but for those little conversations I can’t quite get. At the very least, I’d have one or two more stories to tell. Possibly involving Daniel Craig. If I heard that right…
Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned My Song, Coming Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.
The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancyDeafworks, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.
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