Ni Gallant: To speak or sign at university – my dilemma

Posted on February 27, 2014

So recently I’ve been debating with myself over what I like to term the ‘to speak or not to speak’ issue.

It started with frustration over my progressive deafness and having ‘good speech’ which makes it inevitable that when meeting people for the first time they don’t immediately realise that I’m Deaf.

They also don’t realise that although they may understand me perfectly that clear understanding certainly doesn’t flow both ways.

I’m always amused that people are so shocked to discover that I’m Deaf (I clearly challenge their stereotypes of deafness), and slightly less amused when they feel the need to challenge it.

“You can’t really be that deaf, I mean,NI  you speak perfectly!”

This has left me with some sort of identity conundrum. So I pose the question… As a Deaf student should I use my voice whenever and wherever possible, or, should I make the choice to sign and rely on an interpreter to voice over and speak for me; leaving no doubt to others that I’m Deaf?

It’s a toughie.

Brought up in mainstream, I will happily gabble away in a mix of speech and sign with my hearing friends and count myself lucky that so many of them have a basic level of BSL.

I have deaf friends who are both oral and BSL users and I’m comfortable in both settings. I’m also used to being used as the communicator between the two groups when we’re all mixed up, oral and signing together.

Yet university poses a different set of challenges.

Firstly there are the students and staff. In a one to one situation I can easily hold my own in a spoken conversation, as long as the other person doesn’t have a strong accent (it sounds awful to explain to some students but accents and different lip patterns are my downfall).

In a group conversation I’m easily lost as people speak over each other, under each other and seemingly finish each other’s sentences. In these situations I use an interpreter, but wherever possible I try and chip in my comments using my own voice – this in itself poses problems.

As many of you will know, using an interpreter leaves you always a few seconds behind the conversation, which is totally understandable, and not too much of a problem until you want to contribute yourself.

I find that whenever I open my mouth to talk I’m almost inevitably interrupting someone who has already started their point without me knowing. I’m not being rude, as many people seem to believe, I simply didn’t have a clue you were talking.

The solution? Well I’m starting to wonder whether signing my contribution and allowing my interpreter to do all that interrupting rude stuff wouldn’t be a whole lot easier.

For me, lectures are the clincher, set in either a lecture hall or a seemingly impossibly long room they’re a nightmare in terms of judging my own voice and leave me nervous and unsure about sharing my contributions.

To me it seems like it should be obvious to everyone (but maybe not…) that being Deaf makes it really hard to know exactly how loud I’m talking.

This leads to awkward situations where I’m either mumbling my answers so that nobody but me can hear, or shouting it so loud that the lecturer looks like they’re in pain. I just want everyone to hear what I’m saying, you know?

After the third or fourth time of being told you’re shouting your head off from the front of the lecture hall your confidence starts to wane. It’s only natural, but it seems unfair that I worry about contributing just because of my embarrassment at other’s lack of deaf awareness.

The simple answer, as my Deaf friends tell me, is to shut up and turn on the signing.

Yet for me this doesn’t seem like the perfect solution. I worry that the interpreter will not interpret my meaning exactly how I meant it. Or that they’ll say something totally different to what I signed – you know, just for fun?

How am I meant to know? I won’t be able to hear them… To me it takes a lot of courage, and faith in a person, to put your voice and opinion into their hands (or mouth).

I’ve made a point over the last month of asking a few of my friends how they view the ‘to speak or not to speak’ dilemma and their answers vary wildly. Many like me tailor their use of an interpreter to suit the situation.

Others believe that if you have a voice you should use it. The majority, however, seem to stand in the “I’m Deaf, of course I just sign” camp – even though they could, if they so wished, use their own voice.

I’d be interested to hear the views of ‘grown up’ Deafies. Those who use interpreters regularly and rely on them entirely; and those who use an interpreter to receive information but prefer to use their own voice.

Is there a simple answer in the ‘to speak or not to speak’ debate? What do you think?


Ni Gallant is a Contributing Editor for the Limping Chicken and a deaf teen who is at university. She was on the NDCS Youth Advisory Board and she also runs a Youth Group for Worcestershire deaf teens called “Deafinity.” She writes a blog ( about life from a deaf teenager’s perspective and says that “somehow what I said resonates with other young people – so I carried on!”

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