A few days ago, I wrote a blog post on DeafFirefly congratulating Sam on his success on Big Brother, but I have seen some ‘Sam-bashing’ online, from both deaf and hearing people. Let me explain why I think this is unfair.
I’m deaf. I was raised oral and mainstream, words that are fairly innocuous in the hearing world, but in the deaf world they are loaded with meaning; I was brought up to speak, make what use of my residual hearing that I could and generally do my best to fit in with a hearing world that seemed to have little to no idea what it’s like to be deaf. It’s hard work.
It’s fair to say I struggled. A lot.
My hearing aids pick up all noise in the vicinity and make no distinction between voices and random background noise. Group conversations are next to impossible; by the time I’ve worked out who’s talking, the next person is already talking and the topic has changed. I might as well try to catch water with my hands. It is in theory possible, but it takes effort and lots gets spilled and lost. Even if I do manage to grasp the topic, the effort of constantly concentrating on people’s lips gives me eyestrain and headaches.
In short, entering a house full of hearing people whom I’ve never met, who may or may not have their own agendas or worse, strong accents and who, most likely, have never met a deaf person before – never mind interacted with them on a daily basis – is one of my worst nightmares.
Factor in the tall fence around the property and the cameras recording your every move 24 hours a day, with every ‘hilarious’ misunderstanding, embarrassing gaffe and verbal faux pas broadcast for the viewing pleasure of millions of people and you have a scenario that you would have to pay me £100,000 upfront to go into.
So I applauded when I learned that a deaf man was going to enter Big Brother. It still didn’t encourage me to watch, the subtitles would have to improve vastly for that, but I appreciated the enormity of the task he was taking on. I also didn’t think he would last more than a couple of weeks before either being voted out or quitting.
I followed Michelle Hedley’s updates for Limping Chicken with interest, and was impressed when Sam made it past week two. It seemed that for the most part, he relied on his lip-reading and speech skills, and on instructions printed on laminate for the Big Brother ritual humiliations, er, I mean tasks. Whilst I was disappointed he didn’t sign much (or at all), I mentally congratulated him for lasting as long as he did.
He did manage to spread a little deaf awareness whilst he was in the house, telling Callum what it’s like to be deaf, how sometimes it seems like there’s no point in taking part in conversations as it’s so hard to keep up. I so got what he meant, and the more hearing people that appreciate how hard it is, the better.
Sam survived the Big Brother house; he not only survived, he won. Yet I’ve seen so many negative comments about him, from both deaf and hearing people.
The complaint from the hearing fans of BB is that he was quiet, he was ‘wallpaper’, he was boring. What they don’t seem to understand is that he was doing exactly what I would do; avoiding being drawn into any group conflicts or big group conversations for fear of misunderstanding what was really going on and thus looking like a muppet, whilst making friends with people individually in an environment he could manage.
That’s not being wallpaper, that’s deaf survival.
The complaint from the deaf fans of BB is that he doesn’t sign, he doesn’t present as culturally deaf, he speaks and ‘listens’, etc.
In the education system we have in this country, very few deaf children and teenagers are encouraged to sign. I know I wasn’t. I didn’t learn to sign properly until I went to uni, at 19. Hell, I wasn’t even ‘fluent’ until I was about 21. How old is Sam again?
He’s 23. From Llanelli in Wales. I don’t wish to suggest that Llanelli is far from civilisation, but google it. It’s 50 miles from Cardiff, the nearest major city. I can imagine that opportunities to mix with fellow deafies, especially signing ones, are few and far between.
Even if he does stay in the hearing world by choice, he’s demonstrated he knows what it is to be deaf; his survival strategies and that conversation with Callum show his deaf credentials. That’s good enough for me. Whether he signs or not, we have a shared experience of deafness and being left for dead in spoken group conversations.
And, signing or not, he showed the UK’s TV audience several important things:
- Deaf people are not aliens
- Deaf people freak if you make them think you just destroyed all their hearing aid batteries
- Deaf people do not have two heads
- Deaf people cannot be woken by shouting at them – just shake them
- Deaf people can have a nice smile; they don’t bite
- Deaf people can have disagreements; they can bite a little if pushed
- Deaf people can be funny
- Deaf people can be boring
- Deaf people can make really bad jokes
- Deaf people have a hard time keeping up in group conversations
- Deaf people can be romantic
- Deaf people can be lost and insecure
- Deaf people are human
- Deaf people can participate in things if you give them half a chance
- Deaf people can win Orwellian televised popularity contests if you give them half a chance
When asked what he would do with the prize money, he said he would give 25% to charity, 25% to his Mum and hold the rest for his future.
Another thing he’s showed the nation: Deaf people can be kind, smart and have a good head on their shoulders.
Maybe he’s not a BSL poster boy, but he makes a good-looking deaf one.
So I’m feeling the love for Sam. He took on the Big Brother house, a daunting enough prospect for someone who can hear everything going on round them, and won. He actually won.
Many congratulations Sam, and I wish you all the best for the future. You’ll go far.
Donna Williams is a Contributing Editor for Limping Chicken. She 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. She tweets as@DeafFirefly
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