Reema Patel: Growing up deaf in a hearing world

Posted on March 21, 2015

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My deafness is relatively invisible, although significant (moderate to severe hearing nerve loss).

I have clear speech, I can lip-read well (except for in dark or in particularly noisy places), and I come across as a fairly gregarious person – which means that I am ‘coming out’ as deaf all of the time; and watching the reactions of those to whom I come out to all of the time.

Watching this shift in assumptions, attitudes and behaviours is now something of a hobby of mine – it’s been an education in attitudes towards deaf people, and especially an education in how we change our expectations of someone based on what we know about them – their ‘limitations’.

I suppose what I learned from this ‘people-watching’ is the biggest obstacle to achievement that many young deaf people have to overcome is an external one; rather than the physical obstacle of deafness itself.

It’s the perception other people have that deaf people are less likely to be successful.

I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon society, governments and parents of deaf children to challenge this perception – firstly by providing the support to children that allows them to challenge the perception for themselves, secondly, by providing a supportive environment that affirms their self-worth and self-confidence, and thirdly by providing the right sort of funding to open doors to access for deaf (and other disabled) people.

I think that my parents were always conscious of the judgments that people make at first glance upon learning others are deaf – which was why they never told people that I was deaf, unless they absolutely had to, and always encouraged me to hide the fact.

My parents frowned upon my desire to have short hair as a child – because my hearing aids would be visible.

Part of this desire to keep my deafness invisible stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a British Asian Hindu family and community. It was and is, in many ways, a wonderfully exciting and entrepreneurial environment for any child – deaf or otherwise, to grow up in. Many in my community were starting up new businesses or building existing ones; and at the time were redefining and embracing their cultural identity in Britain. I will always feel proud to be a part of it.

But it is also (unfortunately) an environment which stigmatizes disability – and stigmatizes deafness. There are, I think, many complex reasons for such stigmatization.

One is that the cultural bonds that tie people together are predominantly visual and aural – many rituals and practices centre around music, dance and recitation.

I won’t ever forget going to a house for a social event and watching a blind girl (about 9 or 10 years old) pick up a small statue of a Hindu god and try to feel her fingers around it. Somebody snapped at her and took it away from her immediately, because it is widely regarded as a sin to touch statues in that way. I think that blind and deaf people share one thing in common in navigating, participating and feeling a part of such cultures; it is that much harder to do so.

A second reason is that, generally, liberal attitudes towards disability often come with greater awareness, education, and more time to reflect/think – the sort of education that many migrant communities don’t often have access to.

The third reason is that (in my personal opinion – many will disagree) Hinduism has in practice rarely concerned itself with equality, social change and progressivism. The residue of teachings about the caste-system promote attitudes of ‘knowing one’s place’ in society, of accepting the difficult hand life has dealt one for punishment for sins in your previous life (and so on).

I am happy to say that these attitudes are now slowly changing. They can often lead to an insidious form of social conservativism and stigmatization. And with such stigmatization comes a chipping away at self-confidence.

When I was growing up I never thought I was deaf – certainly not in the way that I thought I was Asian, or British. That was not a noun or an adjective I ever attributed to myself. I just thought I was a bit different.

So you can imagine my frustration at myself when I was never able to achieve the grades that my peers did at German, Latin, French – or indeed any subject that required good hearing; or my frustration when responding to calls across a sports field in the middle of a game of netball or lacrosse was near on impossible.

I never realized that this was perfectly natural for someone in my situation. My benchmark for achievement was always the benchmark of my peers; all of whom were not deaf.

Do I feel like I missed out on not growing up in a deaf community? Yes and no.

Now I look back upon it, I would have liked to have grown up learning and signing BSL as well as speaking Gujarati and English. But then I realized that I haven’t exactly had it rough. I went to a fantastic Church of England school, with extremely supportive but firm teachers, a library to die for- which I think was really critical to my development; and grew up with a very attentive family who did the best they knew how to do.

I watched the recent BBC television show ‘Deaf Teens: Hearing World’ which was just as much an education about the deaf world for me, I suspect, as for many hearing viewers. I loved it because of how positive it was – it showed that family support and confidence (whatever form that takes) is what is really critical for raising deaf children.

I never did subscribe to the school of thought (if it exists) which said that raising deaf kids well was for deaf parents only. I also don’t subscribe to the school of thought that says that deaf parents shouldn’t wish for deaf children; or can’t raise non-deaf children. I have always thought that good parenting is about building self-confidence in children; and about having the sense of security in oneself to in turn bring up children with that sense of security.

I genuinely think that the question of what makes a good parent simply comes down to the love and attention you are willing to provide and the sort of confidence you have in yourself to provide that love and attention. Anything else is just peripheral.

The earliest years are the most essential years in the development of a child. Children learn quickly and respond rapidly to the environment that they grow up in – and this is no different for deaf children.

I was around four years old when my early teachers began to realize that I couldn’t and wouldn’t speak English and was falling way behind my peers in development. I was taken to a paediatrician where I was diagnosed as deaf for the first time.

I vividly remember teaching my own grandmother to learn to write English at age 10. By around 15 I was obsessively reading Plato, Kant, Byron and Dickens. Then a very kind gentleman let me stumble my way into Girton College, Cambridge. (I recall wearing a completely inadvisable bright pink wool sweater and jeans to that interview…)

The same kind gentleman (probably the most conservative person I have ever met) proudly watched me stumble out at the age of 20 with a double first-class degree in Philosophy and; more importantly, the kind of pig-headed self-belief that only a place like Cambridge could cultivate. I spent a couple of years as a local government manager and now am studying law.

Nowadays sometimes friends; often ex-colleagues, put me in touch with people whose children are deaf.

Often what they want to ask me is, ‘How? How did you do it?’

My answer to them was that it wasn’t me. Like most kids, I just kept going and doing the best I could with what I had. That’s all you can do – that’s all that deaf and non-deaf kids do, really. I think it wasn’t quite so much just me – but also the world I grew up in.

It is for this reason that I firmly believe people wrongly spend more time criticizing the NHS than appreciating it and those who work for it. My hearing aids, provided by the NHS, have been a lifeline. They are an extension of my body and have enabled me to participate in an active economic and political life that would not have been possible without them.

Yes, I was a deaf teen, but the hearing world for me isn’t quite as unsupportive as traditional deaf communities expect it to be. My only criticism of the BBC television programme is that it didn’t quite communicate that message. Having said that, the programme was right that the hearing world has the potential to be much more supportive (there is always room for progress); and much of that is about challenging stereotypes and assumptions.

This is where the existence of a deaf community is critical to representing the needs of deaf children and parents in public life. But I do think it is important that collaborative action recognizes that a campaign for deaf equality is not a campaign against the hearing world – but rather, about a discourse with the hearing world on how to support children and parents better.

A lot of this support is about breaking down assumptions and prejudices. But some of this support requires (the present government, I expect, will hate to hear this) putting their money where their mouth is. I grew up in a world that promised exactly that. I don’t want to live the rest of my life in a hearing world that reneged on this promise.

Reema Patel is a twenty something deaf British Asian law student at City University. Her obsessions include reading and writing fiction; picking at obscure legal cases, social and political activism; being a School Governor; music (the bits of it she can hear/feel are quite nice) and spending far too much time people-watching on the South Bank in London. She tweets as @ReemaSPatel.

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