Catherine White: My memories of growing up as a child of Deaf parents in Ireland

Posted on January 29, 2015

There are moments in life that can change you forever.

That moment for me happened in July 1987 at the World Federation of the Deaf Congress in Helsinki, Finland.

A small little man approached me in the middle of thousands of Deaf and hearing people from all over the world and said “You come from a Deaf family don’t you”.

How could he have known? What did I say or do that caused him to say that? I later found out that this gentleman was Lou Fant of Sesame Street fame, who also had Deaf parents. I was stunned and intrigued and decided to follow him!

At this conference, it was the first time I had the opportunity to listen to both Lou Fant and Millie Brother speak about their experiences of being a Child of Deaf Parents (CODA).

Imagine having spent your entire growing up trying to make sense of feeling different but unable to describe how or why. This was the moment that changed me. I felt like I “fitted into something that made sense”.

At that time, I had moved from my home town in Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland to look for new opportunities in London.

For me growing up, “I was a minority, within a minority. I grew up surrounded by a Deaf way of life by having Deaf parents, Deaf Uncle, Deaf Aunt, five Deaf first cousins, plus a Deaf lodger in both homes.

Catherine White (left) with CODA Performer Sherry Hicks (Half n Half) at the CoBerlinDA Conference held in Berlin in 2011.

Catherine White (left) with CODA Performer Sherry Hicks (Half n Half) at the CoBerlinDA Conference held in Berlin in 2011.

Not only that, but through the family, I knew a huge network of Deaf people across Ireland.

While growing up, many weekends were spent piling into two cars and travelling to Deaf Clubs and Deaf events around Ireland.

When not travelling, Deaf people travelled from all over Ireland to seek advice from my father Michael White and my Uncle Larry White. They were Advocates before the term was even coined. Both were responsible for setting up the first Independent Deaf Centre outside of Dublin.

As for my family, I am the eldest of six, four brothers and one sister, all of whom are hearing. All of us grew up using sign language in the home and English whilst communicating with the wider world. Three of the family are registered qualified sign language interpreters.

In my part of the world growing up, neighbours were able to do two handed fingerspelling to communicate with my parents. Not just short sentences, but entire conversations that would last for hours.

The neighbours were the ears of my parents and told them of any mischief we got up to such as arriving home at late hours due to a squeaking gate.

All of these experiences formed me. Growing up with Deaf and hearing experiences has been challenging and fascinating.

This fascination grew into a desire to learn more and work within the Deaf Community, which I have done in Ireland, London, Leicester and New Zealand with brief stints in Kosovo, Italy, America and Australia as well as travelling regularly locally, nationally and internationally for work.

After that experience in 1987, I cautiously and very quietly set about telling others about this new CODA experience in Finland.

In London, the Me-Mother-Father-Deaf group was set up and in later years became CODA UK and Ireland of which I was one of the first five Directors.

After the 1987 experience, I quietly dreamed that one day Ireland and England could host an international conference for local CODAs to have a place to share these types of experiences.

This dream becomes a reality in July 2015 when CODA UK and Ireland host the 30th International Conference on behalf of Coda International.

If you’re a CODA and you would like to come along, click here to find out more information:

By Catherine White. As well as Catherine growing up in a Deaf extended family, Catherine is the proud mother of Connor (16) and her latest baby, Kody, a six month old Siberian Husky. After living in London for almost ten years, New Zealand four years, back in Ireland seven years and seven years between Nottingham and Leicester, Catherine and her family are looking forward to returning home to Tralee, Co. Kerry in the South West of Ireland on a permanent basis after the CODA International Conference.

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