(What you are about to read is saturated with preconceptions, generalizations and stereotypes – it is the word-equivalent of a portrait painted using a 4-inch brush – please allow that this is a writer’s device that I needed to use for this piece and that my personal opinions and feelings are actually drawn and held in rather more depth and detail.)
First impressions are so important. Our survival instincts are tuned to make quick judgments – flight-or-fight, friend-or-foe, dinner-or-diner … and we often allow them to unnecessarily overrule that intelligence we are also endowed with but which takes longer and needs more information before it can properly weigh up a situation.
Deafness seems to be somehow different to just-about any other disability. In the first few seconds of meeting a person with any other disability I can feel sympathy, revulsion, respect, compassion, distaste … you name it. But not deafies. Like bikers, deafies hunt in packs. They have their own culture, their own secret language, they are boisterous, they are assertive … if a hearie sees a crowd of deafies approaching on the street, waving arms and punching shoulders, eyes flicking here and there as they engage in multiple simultaneous conversations then the hearie shrinks into a doorway or attempts to cross to the other side – nobody gets in the way of a gang of deafies!
Deafies are scary.
What other disabled group hangs out together like deafies? Deafies take over bars and pubs, turning them into deafie hangouts. There’s a deafie table at our local McDonald’s – it’s not got a label on it but everybody knows that it’s not a place where hearies sit. They produce their own plays and concerts. They have festivals. They even have websites where they discuss all sorts of stuff – other disabled groups have websites too but they mostly discuss strategies for living with their disability – deaf websites discuss and argue about anything and everything – which reminds me of something else – deafies never agree about anything!
Deafies are like bikers – ‘ordinary’ people tend to avoid them – until, that is, they’re forced by circumstances to get to know them and discover that they too are human – but with a strong sense of identity and a culture and set of values that can set them apart from the more run-of-the-mill folk with which they share this planet.
I’m lucky – I’ve got to know deafies – but it took time and intelligence and some real effort not only from me but also on the part of my deaf friends. The communication barrier is an obvious issue – I’m not a visual person, so I struggle with BSL (sometimes it’s more practical to text the person sitting across from me than even to finger-spell) and I’ll always be on the outside looking in but, thanks to their efforts, for me, they’re no longer scary. (I’m not sure though that I could yet cope with a bunch of deaf bikers!)
Of course, being deaf doesn’t necessarily make me like them as individuals – some deaf people are utterly obnoxious! But then again, so are one or two hearies…
Paul Gribbin is a semi-retired mainframe computer programmer who lives in the East Midlands. When he’s not computing he enjoys short walks – nothing over five miles please – accompanied by various dogs and grown-up children; these always seem to end up at tea-shops and pubs. He also likes reading (mostly science fiction) and during his brief acting career he once appeared as 4th Pleb in a school production of Julius Caesar.
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.