At primary school when I was about 6, the boy who sat across the classroom table from me – we’ll call him Tim in case he’s now a lawyer – crawled under the table and bit me on the knee. Like little girls do, I screamed, and Tim got in dreadful trouble. He was then labelled a ‘naughty boy’.
I was frequently absent from school when I was little, attending ENT appointments, seeing doctors for hearing tests and, on two occasions, having operations. The same year that Tim bit me, I had the second operation of my childhood, this time to remove my tonsils and insert grommets, and every child in my class made me a ‘Get Well Soon’ card.
Later on that year, our teacher sat us down and told us that Tim, like me, was struggling with his hearing and that, unlike me, he was going to be wearing a hearing aid to school. We were to treat this just as we would a pair of glasses on any other person and understand that it was to help Tim to hear us better.
It clicked with me many years later that Tim probably bit me that day because he was so immensely bored in the classroom. I’m sure all deaf folks have been in countless situations where, unable to hear anything because of background noise or shocking acoustics, we’ve switched off and gone into our own little world.
Without anyone knowing he was deaf, nobody made any allowances for his hearing. I was seated facing the front of the classroom, like I did all the way through primary school because the teachers all knew I had a hearing problem. Tim sat with his back to the teacher. I bet he never knew what was going on.
This level of acceptance from teachers pretty much ended at primary school, as I went to Grammar School at 11, where I was one of 800 children who sat an entrance exam for 150 available places. When you can be that picky over who enters the school I guess you don’t anticipate making allowances for ‘additional needs’ pupils and I didn’t want to make a big deal of my hearing loss. Sitting at the front of the classroom out of choice and putting your hand up to ask the teacher to repeat themselves isn’t the best way to make friends, I’m sure you’ll agree, so I didn’t tell people. By the time I hit the crucial GCSE years I had fallen behind with subjects I’d excelled at before and listening exhausted me, so my consultant suggested some hearing aids.
Right from the start, I hated them. They had iridescent glitter in the moulds, which had seemed a good idea at the time, but turned them into more of a beacon than a fashion statement. I spent the first day asking, “What’s that noise?” repeatedly and couldn’t get used to hearing noises that I hadn’t before. They were beige coloured analogue aids, they whistled for no apparent reason and my Physics teacher actually told me off one day for making a ‘ridiculous noise’ until I explained I wasn’t making it intentionally. Given that I got a reaction like that from a teacher, I didn’t stand a chance with my fellow pupils.
I understand now that seeing someone wearing hearing aids when you have no idea they might be deaf is quite shocking. When you add that to the fact that 15 year olds don’t tend to mince their words, the reaction of some of my classmates left a lot to be desired.
I often wore my hair up for school, as we had to for any lessons where long hair might get caught in PE apparatus, design technology equipment, food tech ingredients or Bunsen burners. Being known for keeping ‘potato peel’ behind my ears was not going to get me a boyfriend, so surprisingly enough I gave up on my aids fairly swiftly.
Giving up on hearing aids meant giving up on the support from the Local Authority I’d had since I got them, which came in the form of a lady who came every half term to see how I was getting on. She would talk to me about any problems I had, such as being seated at the back of an exam hall with 149 other students because your surname starts with ‘B’. Nothing panics you quite like an invigilator shouting “And remember, whatever you do, don’t (muffled noise). Right, time starts now!”
Mrs Support Lady produced discreet little cards for me, printed with the equivalent of “I’m deaf, please seat me at the front and shout at me” the idea being that I would flash them at the invigilator as I walked in. In principle, they were a fantastic idea but in practice, it was even worse than sitting me at the back, as the invigilators were all retired teachers with little tolerance for the less-than-able. Having an ancient teacher shout, “Is that a mobile phone in your pocket Miss Barraclough?” as you try to show them a special card isn’t the best start to a two hour exam. I was never entirely convinced that some teachers believed my story – they were so paranoid of us cheating in exams that they could very well have thought my aids were a means of communicating with some genius outside the exam hall with a big textbook and a microphone.
In addition to the cards, my support lady was able to dish out tellings-off to teachers who were less than nice to me about my inability to hear them. My Year 10 Chemistry teacher was one of these people, who should’ve known better because she was also my form teacher. If she’d have spent less time telling me to tuck my shirt in and more time taking note of my needs I may have been a doctor by now. As it was, she thought she could sit me at the front of the classroom and I would instantly be cured of my afflictions.
I missed a crucial Chemistry test one day, due to an ENT appointment strangely enough, and had to re-sit it the following day sat in the corridor outside the classroom. It transpired that the rest of my class spent the lesson going through the test answers, having already been given their marks. When I finished my paper, I went inside and the teacher marked it there and then, telling me I’d achieved 78%, which was pretty good for me, especially given I’d been on my own with nobody else’s answers to copy (come off it, we’ve all done it). Instead of congratulating me on my success, she turned to me and said, “That’s very good for you, are you sure you weren’t listening through the wall?” This was a 100 year old building, with solid, two-foot deep walls and the acoustic quality of a biscuit tin, was she taking the piss? Aware that my reaction could land me in detention, I was careful with my words and asked her, “I struggle to hear you when I’m sat right in front of you, how do you expect me to listen through a wall?”
The big mistake I made when I gave up wearing my hearing aids was to tell Mrs Support that I no longer used them, as my admission meant she could no longer help me. The Local Authority in all its wisdom obviously felt that you should only receive support if you wore the equipment given to you, regardless of its suitability.
The fact that I could hear the pupils sat behind me better than I could my teacher didn’t matter, I was now on my own. I fought to take my GCSE French Listening exam in a room on my own and wearing headphones, rather than in a classroom of 30 students with one tape player at the front. It occurred to me at this point that nobody had ever asked for this kind of treatment before, as there was no protocol in place. They had to get an off duty History teacher – who also doubled up as a PE teacher and was in his gym kit – to sit and press pause and play for the hour-long exam. I cannot believe that over 100 years of educating children, the school had never come across one pupil who didn’t hear perfectly. I achieved an A in GCSE French, so it must have made a difference. By comparison, no allowances were made for me at A Level and I got a D.
As amusing as much of this sounds eleven years later, it has had a positive impact on my approach to hearing loss now: I try really hard not to hide it and don’t stand for any crap when it comes to what I need. It isn’t an ‘additional need’ to expect to understand what people are saying and it takes such minor adjustments to enable someone who is deaf to communicate more easily.
If I could have my little cards in my pocket now, then they would say, “I have a hearing problem and will struggle to understand what you’re saying if I can’t see your mouth when you’re talking. Please don’t cover your mouth with your hand. If I can’t hear you, I’ll bite”
That’d make them speak up.
Georgina lives with her husband in West Yorkshire, where she works as a local government manager. She has been deaf all her life and suffered a further loss in both ears in 2012. She loves going to ballet lessons, reading, listening to music and spending time with family and friends, often over a good bottle of wine. In her spare time she is learning about photography.
The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, training and consultancy Deafworks, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.