Kim Webster: Between deaf and hearing identity: Trying to find out where I fit in

Posted on September 10, 2014

A friend asked me earlier this week, “What does being deaf mean to you?”

Honestly? I replied with a series of ‘cant’s’.

It wouldn’t be too strong to say I hate it, and if someone had turned round to me and said “Hey, I made this magical potion thing that will restore all your hearing and make you a conversational genius”, I would probably bite their arm off.

“Jeez, you should be proud of being deaf! You can communicate really well, you can sign AND speak”, people have said to me throughout my life when we’ve discussed my deafness.

I used to sit there and count what I can’t do:

I can’t hear (obviously) but I also can’t join in group conversations without talking out of turn, talking over someone, laughing inappropriately or creating awkward silences where someone asks me a question and I just nod my head and smile.

Occasionally I go to a hobby group and recently, we were discussing houses and mortgages.

Everyone was laughing, so of course I laughed along thinking,” I’ll just ask my friend after we leave, how funny can mortgages be really?”

All at once, it went quiet and everyone looked at me.

It turned out everyone stopped laughing because this woman disclosed how she only got her house because her mother died of lung cancer. Guess who carried on laughing. Guess who this woman doesn’t talk to anymore.

My current default setting is to just smile and murmur noncommittally.

This makes everyone think I can actually hear them and I’m just a flake who doesn’t know if they want milk or cream. That’s mostly in cafes, not like in Homebase or something.

Then it’s, “Where are the hammers/hoses/candlesticks” and then I just walk in the opposite direction to what they’ve said and moan they’ve given me dodgy directions. Thanks, Homebase. I found the screws eventually.

Deaf Identity. This means nothing to me. Nor does ‘Hearing Identity’.

So, where do I fit in? The question audiologists can’t answer for me. That’s what I am trying to find for myself.

Sometimes I’ll say, “What did you say? I’m profoundly deaf” and that’s when the head-tilting, patronising looks start, the “Oh, you cope really well” comments, and the random hand gestures that are mostly well-meaning as they try to help me keep up with conversation but manage to make me feel like a dependent child.

I went to the dentist a few months ago and explained that I was deaf and needed to lip-read. “Okay,” she said, lifting her mask over face and covering her lips. I took an interpreter after that.

Sometimes I feel like a deaf person on the inside and a hearing person on the outside, and a total pariah to both worlds.

Deaf people will say to me, “Are you deaf or hearing?” and seem wholly surprised when I say “I’m profoundly deaf”. “You don’t sign very well”, “Why don’t you use BSL?” Well. I don’t really have a good answer for those questions, so I blush, dribble and then wave my hands around in an embarrassing mimicry of sign.

Then a situation will crop up where hearing people ask me to repeat the sentence again, and again, and wonder why I can’t pronounce some really simple word that EVERYONE should know how to say, and again I sort of wave my hands around, dribble and squeak an approximation of English.

Especially at work, when I’ve had people walk off because neither of us can understand each other. That’s actually just rude really.

I think more people struggle with their D/deaf identity than is known; it is a thing that needs to take time and patience to understand and form. When a person is a natural introvert or lacking in confidence and self-esteem like I am, it takes a lot to say, “HEY! I’m deaf, slow down, face me and talk normally.”

Writing this has made me realise, I am getting there. I don’t actually hate being deaf. I might struggle with things that hold me back sometimes and I definitely have a propensity for focusing on the negatives (can you tell?) but I do have my deaf identity, it is interwoven with growing up in both worlds, going to mainstream school and having BSL friends, losing most of my residual hearing, marrying a hearing man and having hearing children whilst using a mash of BSL and SSE with them.

The choices of trying to decide whether to have a cochlear implant or not, to continue to use hearing aids or not, or to use total communication at home. Looking at the bright side of being deaf, and learning to accept that I might not always like being deaf, but that’s okay.

I really struggle to hear my daughter talk; she signs, but by virtue of being in a mostly hearing family, tends to speak. I have to ask my husband what she is saying sometimes, and this can be quite deflating.

But then I realise I can miss out on most of the tantrums, the whining, the wonderfully repetitive questions (why is that man there? Why? Why?). The rest of the time we communicate just fine.

Sometimes I find working in a customer-facing role too challenging, with having to speak to and lip-read new people constantly but a couple of years ago I got presented with an accolade for my customer service skills, so I can’t be all-out dreadful.

I might always be the last person to find out what happened after the event, but it does give me some funny stories to tell.

My husband and I, two kids and the dog went to a little café last week. We sat outside drinking a decadent hot chocolate, replete with cream and marshmallows when an elderly couple stood less than two feet from our table.

The man started pointing from the dog to our daughter, whilst the woman just stared at the baby. My husband started laughing, and thinking they were talking to us and had made a joke, I laughed along.

They finally moved on, so I asked my husband what they had been saying. Turns out, they weren’t saying anything and he had got the giggles, and I just laughed in their face.

“What does being deaf mean to you?” For me, it means I’ll always find a way of communicating, a nod and a laugh goes a long way.

It means I can be part of both worlds and experience the richer sides of each. I am proud of how far I’ve come and what my identity is now.

What does it mean to you?

Kim Webster born moderately deaf, and went profoundly deaf in her teens. She’s a mother of two young children who works at Derby County Football Club part time. She enjoys reading, baking programmes and wine.

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