“But my patients say I speak clearly.” Anonymous: An open letter to my deaf husband’s ENT consultant (BSL)

Posted on March 26, 2015

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The word ‘deaf’ is a big one. Common themes exist, with different shades for the individual who experiences it. As I write this I also see this connection with the word ‘stress.’

My husband was born severely deaf and over his 53 years, he has become progressively more ‘deaf’.

To watch this article in BSL, signed by Pamela Morgan, click play below.

He is now officially part of the profoundly deaf club. He has been off work for the last 3 months with work related stress, the symptoms of which are also profound and multifaceted, to which I cannot see how the word ‘stress’ on his sick note really does his condition and experience even the slightest justice.

While writing this I am reminded of a world weary, long toothed gentleman I used to work with a long time ago, who in response to my comment of it ‘not being fair’ replied ‘there is no fairness in this world’. I am now of an age where I too am under no illusions, but remain hopeful that our efforts are not completely in vain.

My husband is supportive of my writing this, and if he were fitter, he would be penning this article himself. He experienced, at work, issues around equality and attitudes that are, unfortunately, not uncommon to any person that falls under the generic title of ‘deaf’. This however is not what prompted me to write this.

I feel compelled to write and share my husband’s experience with you due to a growing discomfort I have with not only the regressive tide of these incidents in our ‘modern’, recession hit society, but also because I am in disbelief.

That in this world, we have collectively worked hard at educating; raising awareness, promoting equality and inclusiveness, yet people can so utterly and significantly cease to function according to human decency and the laws that were put in place to protect the most vulnerable of our society, at times when it is most needed.

To disregard a person’s choice or be sensitive to a person’s requirements to enable them to undertake a simple human task like communication.

The tightrope we all walk in terms of our mental health is only truly understood, I believe, by those who have faltered in their own lives and who value and appreciate what it is to be ‘well’.

I am also beginning to believe that it is only by direct, or indirect experience of deafness, (I speak as a CODA, but believe Interpreters and others who work closely with deaf people fit into this latter category) that someone can truly understand the nuances of experience and need.

So, as a previous Limping Chicken article poses; ‘Can Deaf awareness courses really be taught?’ I wonder? As with language attainment, can you only really learn by immersion? Does a simple short course have an impact? Or does it, as is posed in the article, all fall down to one word – empathy?

I am amazed therefore, that a person can spend their whole career working with deafness and still not get it!

Yesterday, we went, along with an Interpreter to an ENT appointment at a local hospital. What followed upon arriving at the consultant’s door was shocking for all those who were present.

However, the absolute incomprehension of the offender is what my husband and I found so astonishing and worrying.

I have decided the only way to explain this is to write an open letter to the person and explain to him his actions and the impact they had on those present. I hope this will be an opportunity to educate not only him, but also potentially his colleagues within his profession and others in this society who bear an indifference to diversity and human rights.

Dear ENT Specialist

I write to you following my husband’s appointment with you yesterday afternoon. I wish to reflect on our experience in your hands.

On being informed your patient was being accompanied by an interpreter, you asked impudently, if it was ‘because he spoke a foreign language?’

When you were informed that she was a Sign Language Interpreter, from that moment on, you disregarded the interpreter, not in your words but in your subtle actions and body language, and you dominated the consultation.

You imposed your ego and self-imposed ideals onto my husband. You took away his choice, his control of the situation. You undermined him.

By your actions you took away my husband’s capability to manage his ability to ‘hear’.

As someone who has spent so long working in the field, I find it sad to learn than someone, as yourself, is unable to understand that it is not just by using our ears that we can ‘hear’.

There are many ways in which we hear and people should be allowed the basic human right to choose their own methods.

In my experience, a Deaf person is often far superior at this.

The irony of the situation was not lost on me, when I realised that you either had not really listened to my husband, or you listened, but chose not to hear.

When after speaking to him directly (which is absolutely correct and proper) and loudly (not an assumption to make as ‘a one approach fits all’), he still, falteringly tried to look in the direction of the interpreter.

You shifted in your chair and raised your voice and asked him directly ‘CAN YOU HEAR ME?’

Faux Pas number one – When talking to a Deaf person have you not heard the old adage: ‘There is no need to shout!’. Due to shock and a mixture of other complex reasons linked to his stress related illness, he did not immediately respond to you.

You turned to the interpreter and proceeded to ask her ‘Can he hear me with those aids on?’,

Faux Pas number two, when communicating with a Deaf person one should never take the ‘does he take sugar’ approach.

Never-mind the fact the role of the Interpreter was totally misunderstood! Nor the other matter of the fact she, the interpreter, is a stranger to my husband and was just booked by an agency to ensure my husband was able to fully access what was to be a crucially important part of his progression to wellness.

I sat and watched this with growing discomfort. I felt unable to intervene, this being due to the fact I am painfully aware of not taking away my husband’s fragile confidence and right to make his own choices when it comes to his communication method and his desire to hear and be heard. This was about him, not about my perception of the situation, nor your inflated ego.

You then increased the volume even more, shouting at my husband asking him again ‘CAN YOU HEAR ME.’

hHe humbly replied, ‘I hear sounds, but I can’t hear what you are saying; the words’. You then proceeded to shout a few questions which he was obviously finding it difficult to respond to, due to being bulldozed over by your absolute style.

In my husband’s words; ‘He wanted me to follow his preferred method of communication, I felt I had no choice. I felt overwhelmed. He immediately made me feel I was being put on a conveyer belt, without giving me an opportunity to talk about why I was there. It was very much open and closed questions, he was in control the whole time and I just felt I couldn’t make any contribution in terms of what I was there for.’

A person’s ability to manage their deafness and ability to live in a world that is hearing, both comfortably and confidently is paramount.

Each individual has a choice and that choice is incredibly important, precious and unique; just as they are. You are merely a source of knowledge, an adviser and an enabler, you are not the judge, the maker, the great redeemer.

At this point, the interpreter, who could see our discomfort, I note on reflection as did your nurse, who looked at me. By this point I was positioned with my hand over my eyes curled up in my chair, then back to the scene unfolding with curiosity.

The interpreter could see my husband was rendered impotent, as was I. She politely suggested that shouting was not helpful. This allowed my husband the freedom to take back his control of the situation.

He promptly told you that the way you were speaking to him, along with his attitude was very much from the 18th century and that you needed to go on a Deaf Awareness course.

Again, you were not listening, or chose not to listen to his experience in that room. You chose your truth, your position.

You replied ‘But I have worked with deaf people and deaf children for 30 years!’

If this was supposed to give some reassurance, it failed. It only added to the shocking situation we had stumbled into. My immediate thoughts were, those poor children having your truth, imposed upon them. Enduring humiliating and patronising consultation sessions and being left with a feeling that they are fundamentally wrong.

You then made the comment, pointing at his aids ‘I thought you were coping’.

Understandably, my husband had to leave the room, feeling overwhelmed. I re-asserted his feelings to you and told you briefly about his ‘stress’ which had been caused by equally insensitive attitudes at his workplace and how you had been most unhelpful.

Explaining the fact you had not listened and had shouted at him, I explained that, as my husband had said, sounds were heard but not words. So shouting did not make sounds into words they just made sounds louder. In fact they make the noise more distorted.

You proceeded to defend yourself again, by telling me in overly animated speech, as if to prove your point; ‘But all my patients say I speak so clearly’!

I am not sure you will ever see the absurdity of this response truly in the eyes of the receiver. Do you possess the ability to empathise with your patients? Or in fact is your defence the fact that you have been doing this for so long, you have lost touch with the human beings you are supposed to be serving?

I ponder whether you are taking the definition to its extreme and can only truly see those who possess all these characteristics as human.

Definition of a Human Being: A man, woman, or child of the species Homo-Sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech and upright stance.

It leaves me wondering how you view your patients. Or, is this not so much about them, but about you?

Yours faithfully

A devoted wife

To those of you who relate to my husband and his experience. My reply to you, is the same as it was to my husband.

You are beautiful just the way you are.

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The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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