Donna Williams: Today, I am a Deaf adult

Posted on August 23, 2012



Recently, I’ve been reading a new blog over at Becoming Deaf, written by Indi, whose experiences I can identify with. She even has her own ‘things not to say to deaf people’ list, and I suspect she’s been much gentler in her responses than I was in my own lists… I digress.

As well as discussing the issue of speech, which I may well take up in a future post, she blogged about being ‘Somewhere Between Deaf and Hearing’ and throws open a question about how people have come to accept their identity. I’ve also been reading Melissa Mostyn-Thomas’ musings over at her Journal on ‘Writing, BSL, my Deaf identity and me’, and with all the stuff I’ve been reading for my dissertation, I’ve got identity themes swirling around.

Identity is a fluid, complex subject at the best of times. Today, I identify as a Deaf adult. With or without the capital ‘D’, I’m deaf. Functionally, I’m missing an average of 90 – 95dB, which makes me profoundly deaf. In non-technical terms, I’d be hard put to it to notice a pneumatic drill or a low-flying aircraft without my hearing-aids. Well, I’d still be able to see them, but you get my drift. I’m D/deaf.

But I didn’t always see myself this way.

A little while ago, someone called me ‘hearing impaired’ to my face. Right to my face. I’ll admit it, I blinked. I looked across to the interpreter to see if I’d lip-read them correctly, but they chickened out and signed ‘deaf people’. Aha, a bit of cultural interpreting there, I fancy, but I know what I saw.

I should say at this point, I am not in any way criticising the phenomenon of cultural interpreting, it is a commonplace, even necessary part of translation; languages are so different that colloquial phrases are often ‘lost in translation’ and culturally sensitive interpreting keeps the meaning. When this person said ‘hearing impaired’ they did mean deaf people in general. It just took me by surprise.

Nobody has called me ‘broken’ to my face in years. Besides, the interpreter in question probably (correctly) guessed that signing ‘hearing impaired’ would get some reaction that the hearing person I was talking to would notice, be it anything from a raised eyebrow to slamming down my pen and screaming “they said what?!”

Then I had a dilemma. To correct or not to correct? “Excuse me, please don’t call me deficient”. In the end, I decided to let it lie. Then I wondered why it was even a big deal. Really, it’s just a phrase. Hearing people often think they’re being politically correct when they use it. It’s used in an official capacity, and is almost commonplace. Why did I even have an urge to correct her in the first place?

I think ‘Hearing Impaired’ came about as an attempt to be a) PC and b) to cover all hearing losses from hard-of-hearing right the way through to profoundly deaf whilst being suitably vague as to not reveal level of actual deafness, in one fell swoop.

The problem with that is, ‘hearing impaired’ effectively says ‘hearing broken’ (the sign it translates to) ‘hearing deficient’ ‘hearing damaged’ ‘a hearing person who HAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEIR HEARING’ ‘hearing abnormal’. Not really the image one wants when one is trying to present deafness as just another spectrum within the bounds of ‘normal’ (See Georges Canguilhem’s book for a fascinating discussion on ‘The Normal and The Pathological’).

To me, my deafness is not what holds me back. What holds me back is society’s inability and sometimes even unwillingness to adapt to it. If there were visual display systems everywhere as a matter of course and all children taught basic sign language (studies have shown that sign language at a young age can improve language uptake, so why not use that instead of bloody phonics?) then the lives of many deaf / HoH / ‘hearing impaired’ people would be improved. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me at all (iffy legs notwithstanding). Plus, ‘deaf’ is, to me anyway, a neutral, factual term, whilst ‘hearing impaired’ says ‘broken hearing person’.

The thing is that until I was about 19, I did see myself as hearing impaired. I’d been told I was hearing impaired all my life, been complimented on my speech, been told that I ‘didn’t need to sign’, congratulated for not doing so, told I was doing ever so well, congratulated for even being able to talk, constantly told that being hearing impaired wasn’t going to hold me back at all because I was so clever. Honestly, there are a few people I’d like to take aside now and have a word with them about messing with kids’ heads.

The problem with the above was that I was still struggling. I was falling behind in school and I couldn’t cope in social situations at all. I can hear voices, certainly well enough to mimic words and be complimented on how well I can do so, but only if the voice is clear, with no distractions, and I can only make sense of the voice if I can see the lips, or have other visual clues such as, say, subtitles. Otherwise it’s just random noise. I can’t understand people if there’s any background noise and group conversations are just impossible, it’s like trying to watch multi-player tennis with an invisible ball.

My point being, I was a very unhappy teenager. Whilst I wasn’t officially diagnosed until 20 or so, I’m willing to bet I was severely clinically depressed from about 13 / 14 onwards. Adults kept telling me I had such a good voice and I was going to do ever so well, and yet I wasn’t.

I struggled socially, had only one good friend, rarely understood anything going on round me, was mocked by my peers and occasionally by teachers, teased to death, pushed around, and didn’t do as well in my exams as I knew I should be doing. The school’s own tests in year 7 (for non-UK, the first year of high school), which weren’t based on the curriculum but on aptitude, put me in the top 3% of the entire year. Literally, I was one of the dozen or so smartest out of 300-odd kids. Why was I still getting ‘D’s and ‘C’s? I just couldn’t understand it at all. I started to think it was my own fault for not trying hard enough. Looking back, the answers are obvious now. Heck only knows how much social information and curriculum I was missing.

What got me through was science fiction and books. I’ve always liked reading; curling up and losing myself in a book, creating a whole other world in my head. I credit my love of reading for my English skills; I certainly didn’t get them from school. By the time I was 14, I was reading Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov. Sci-fi shows such as Babylon 5, Space Precinct, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek TNG, DS9 & Voyager, Farscape, Stargate, any sci-fi show that was subtitled, I watched faithfully. Despite not understanding much of ‘real life’ going on round me, my vocabulary was way ahead of most of my peers. So why wasn’t I doing better in school? You’ve no idea how much I used to beat myself up over this.

As Indi says: “For most of my life, I felt like a broken hearing person… my conversations were mostly guessing games and hard work… People get tired of being asked to repeat themselves all the time, and it really doesn’t take long before you start to internalize that you’re just not trying hard enough, that your communication needs are an inconvenience, that there’s something wrong with you.”

Replace the word ‘people’ with ‘moody teenagers who can sense weakness like sharks sense blood’ and you have my pre-Uni education in a nutshell. Leaving school at 18, I was a shy, socially awkward, nervous hearing-impaired wreck.

My life only began to change when I started Uni, started learning sign language, and started to see myself as ‘D/deaf’. A Deaf person who knew their legal rights, a Deaf person who could adapt to different situations, a Deaf person who could have a conversation in the noisiest, rowdiest places, up to and including next to the speakers in nightclubs. A Deaf person with friends. Friends, plural!

In short, a Deaf person who wasn’t embarrassed, ashamed or afraid to ask for or even demand help.

Is it any wonder I still flinch when someone calls me ‘hearing impaired’? It gives me flashbacks to a time when I really thought it was my own fault for not trying hard enough or not being good enough at lip-reading, at fitting in with a world that for the most part has no idea what it’s like to be deaf.

That’s not to say that I’ve found total acceptance in the signing Deaf world. I was lucky at Uni, but in the years since then I’ve done things like make the mistake of making a joke based on an English pun in front of a Deaf person that I didn’t know well. After I had to explain the joke, which had fallen totally flat, they gave me a look of vague disgust, signed “good English”, and then ignored me for the rest of the night. That hurt. So does being called ‘half-hearing’, ‘oral’, and a sign that translates roughly to ‘speaks well’, but not in a nice way.

Thankfully, I’ve not had to put up with too much of that, and on the rare occasion that it happens, I’ve learned to ignore it, or even make a joke of it. And the truth is, despite all this, I’ve found far more understanding and acceptance within the D/deaf world than I have in the hearing world. Even so, when I picture myself in terms of the hearing and Deaf worlds, I usually see myself in the middle of a Venn diagram, not fully part of either world, yet part of both.

Today, I am a confident Deaf adult. I get on stage and perform sign language poetry, sign songs and occasionally plays. I do presentations for the NDCS. I write, whether it’s short plays or blog posts or a potentially controversial dissertation. I try to educate people on how to communicate with me, how to help me, and what it’s like to be deaf. It’s taken me ten years to get here. It’s taken counselling, some medication, support of friends and family and a lot of hard work.

Here I am.

My name is Donna Williams, aka DeafFirefly, and I am Deaf.

Addendum: And I would like to thank everyone at the University of Central Lancashire, 03-06. I really don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t chosen to study Deaf Studies and Philosophy there, if the other D/deaf students hadn’t accepted me so quickly, and taught me to sign. Choosing to study there was the single most important decision I ever made. It changed my life.

Donna Williams is a deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. In dull moments, she blogs  and tweets as Deaf Firefly about what she sees as “a silly world from a deaf perspective!”

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancy Deafworks, 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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