John Walker: My Journey to ‘Capital Deaf’

Posted on March 5, 2013

-1A person I know sent me a private message:

Have you seen this? Just to let you know that this person doesn’t seem to know your background and called you a ‘Capital Deaf’!! Or maybe you are proud of it?

This statement comes from a deaf person. I won’t say much about that person in order to protect their identity, as it wasn’t made in public. The person was referencing to a website, where a blog that I write was quoted.

The person got a bit confused – my blog, ‘Deaf Capital’, is a Bourgeoisien take on the lives of Deaf people, where I have focused on their social, cultural, economic and symbolic capitals. Instead, this individual used ‘Capital Deaf’, which is a reference to deaf people who are members of a cultural linguistic minority, where an upper case ‘d’ is used (ie. Deaf).

This person clearly has a point they wanted to make.

People have felt free to question my identity. I don’t think it is anyone’s liberty to do so. But this attitude is akin to two friends, who are black, wearing starched collars and European clothes, in the Victorian era, where one has decided to return to Africa to rediscover their roots and abandons the coloniser’s clothes. “Or maybe you are proud to be black” is a veiled threat.

But the issuer of this threat doesn’t have any authority over me; in fact I ignored this message for over two months with no skin off my nose. But then I read something about the use of stereotyping and myth to support unfounded perceptions of other people – and how it is important they are challenged. I realised my silence is no longer useful; people need to know how I got here.

I am a culmination of my experiences. I eat, digest and expel them. Somewhere in the middle, their messages are churned into a weird mess until one starts to connect with the other; it creates a jigsaw that builds the ‘I’ in me. The ‘I’ changes everyday and each time I experience something new, I am transformed. I am not a static being, frozen on the landscape – what you see today is a photograph that I will, one day, look back to giggle at my fashion sense and reminisce my memories. Those old photographs are part of me but they do not dictate everything that I am.

So, to help you abandon the myths, I need to provide you with a replacement. It is a set of ten photographs that changed me forever.


I am looking through the window in the door. The room is a Partial Hearing Unit with Lynn, Katie, Donna and Paul. I got told off because I wasn’t paying attention. I was sent out into the adjacent room. I couldn’t bear missing out and my nose is flat against the glass. My teacher, Miss. Wilders, catch my face in the window, and laughs.


It was my final year in the junior school and I had enough. I asked Mrs. Smith for a meeting. I wasn’t sure what a ‘meeting’ was but I couldn’t contain it any more. I sit down and tell her everything that happened in the last four years. I describe the bullying, isolation, exclusion, and frustration while I sat in a class of 30 hearing kids. I challenge the teacher of the deaf: “I have learnt nothing in the last four years?” “Well, you are leaving soon,” she replies defensively, “there is not much I can do.”


I sit in the library. The books were my friend: I was one of the Famous Five, Secret Seven, a Gaul with Asterix and Obelix, and a Prince of Narnia. I look up and see the other students, in this mainstream school, congeal, ribbing each other and falling about in laughter. I knew no matter how much I try, I will never laugh like them.


I am in a car with Damian and another woman (I can’t remember her name), we are driving from Birmingham New Street station to the venue of an ‘initiative training course’ by FYD. It is my first conversation with Deaf sign language user. “What do you do?” I ask. “I study in a university.” There is a moment of silence. “How? You’re deaf.” She is taken aback by my question and answers my naivety. “I have an interpreter and a notetaker.” “What are they?”… And the door of knowledge opened wide.


Anthony invited me to a party, birthday I think. I meet Paula and Fifi, with their friends. Some other people I knew from a drama group. We are all signing to our heart’s content. We are caught by surprise as the sun rose in the sky, “gosh, it is already morning”. We all left the flat and walked through the misty streets of London – for the first time in my life, I lasted the night, which I could never do as a lipreader. I came to a conclusion: lipreading makes me old, grumpy and tired; signing makes me young and free.


A summer night in Bude, Cornwall. I was having a great time in an outward-bound management course; I learnt so much about other people and I revealed myself to them. But as the evening wore on, my fellow team members grouped up remembering their days at Mary Hare, a grammar school for deaf children. I secretly leave and sit on the wall looking out to the sea. I knew at that moment that I will never be ‘one of them’ because I do not have that shared history – they will never see me as their equal. There is no initiation ceremony or a red ribbon for me to cut – the ‘Deaf’ me has to come from within. And wow, that is exciting.


I stand in front of 100 people at the Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Brisbane, Australia. I talk about the empowerment of Deaf young people. I use International Sign to convey my ideas and am successful. I am no longer the single deaf person in a library at school; the world is watching me across all boundaries of language, culture, and politics.


I run back to the hairdressers. “I left my hearing aids here yesterday, have you got them.” I get the blank look. I describe them in detail. “No, sorry, they’ve gone.” “Gone! Who wants to nick a pair of aids?” It has taken me 24 hours to realise that I wasn’t wearing them. I make a promise that I will never ask for a new pair unless I really want them. “Perhaps, they are not important to me anymore,” I thought.

2002 #2

“There are two Deaf people in a mental health hospital without access to nurses, doctors. You should have a contract with Springfield hospital where Deaf patients are referred to them, where staff uses sign language. Why hasn’t it happened?” The Commissioner, Mr. Porter, has done his homework. “In the creation of the new PCT, we have missed this contract and it has been reinstated. By way of apology, we would like to do something more for the Deaf community, what do you need?” “I have a list of things we need.”


I watch a video of BSL and start to analyse the sentence gloss by gloss. At the same time, I write my notes in English. I look at both languages differently and equitably. This newfound awareness sends a shiver up my spine. Through my critical knowledge of British Sign Language, my English develops too. This is what it means to be a bilingual. If I am bilingual, then I must also be Deaf.

The person at the start of this article asked me if “I am proud of it”. My answer is “yes, I am.”

I am proud of that journey that led me to discover the Deaf self and, through my adventures, I have discovered who I really am. I am stronger for being a bilingual, bicultural person; it has given me a choice. That freedom has increased my capital, my self worth.

In that journey, I have had to abandon the people who have restricted my opportunities – the people who sought to control me.The teacher who said “you don’t need the sign language because you are not really deaf” has missed the point. I am not here to define my life around how other people see me. I am here on this planet to define the ‘I, me and myself’, as I see it.

If I don’t fit in your worldview, then that is something you need to deal with, not me.

John Walker is a senior research fellow at University of Brighton. Deaf, and sign language user by informed choice. He writes a blog on topics related to the Bourdieusian principle, by the title “Deaf Capital” . It is concerned with the ‘value’ that people place on the Deaf community or the cultural elements of deaf lives that can be askew or misconstrued. Follow him on twitter as @chereme

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