“I feel liberated.” Deaf musician Paul Whittaker on depression, sexuality, and leaving charity Music and the Deaf

Posted on July 7, 2015

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Deaf musician Paul Whittaker is a man with a lot to talk about.

He communicates so rapidly and enthusiastically, about a variety of subjects, that it takes him over an hour to start eating the chocolate shortcake he’s ordered in the cafe where we meet.

Paul comes across as one of the most self-assured people you could imagine, but I soon realise that’s not quite the case. “People look at you and see a confident person – I’m not really.”

Paul is a Deaf musician who is most well-known for setting up the charity Music and the Deaf, but to many people’s surprise, he’s just left the organisation, which is based in Halifax.

I ask him if he misses it.”No. The word I use is that I feel liberated. After 27 years, it’s nice to be my own boss again. I don’t have to follow the party line.”

Was it hard to leave? “You have to be strong enough to shut the door and move on,” he says.

I ask him what he is most proud of about the charity’s work with young Deaf people and music. “I have to look back and remember that we changed the lives of lots of people. Some parents were inspired to change family life.”

Having had the original idea for Music and the Deaf when he was 12, and setting it up in 1988, Paul has spent most of his life building up the charity, and his work led to him being awarded the OBE in 2005.

Paul Whittaker, photographed by Charlie Swinbourne

Paul Whittaker, photographed by Charlie Swinbourne

But things changed for him last year when a series of events triggered the return of depression, which meant he had to take time off work.

First, his father died. Then, when his mother had a stroke and developed dementia, he became her main carer (she has now moved to a care home, and he visits her every day).

Paul first had depression 15 years ago. “It was difficult because my parents didn’t accept depression. Their attitude was ‘get on with it.’ It’s an illness. Society still doesn’t understand and stigmatises depression.”

This time, Paul got counselling through Sign Health after being referred by his GP. But this stopped when his Deaf counsellor was made redundant, and he says he continued his recovery on his own.

He thinks the biggest problem facing Deaf people with depression is finding it hard to access their GPs properly in order to get a referral. “We still need to improve mental health support for Deaf people,” he says. “We also need more Deaf trained counsellors.”

Paul first asked for a counsellor who was also gay. He was unable to find one, but thinks this would have benefited him. His sexuality is something that his friends have known about, but he has never spoken about openly – until now.

“I thought at 13, 14 that I was different. But access to information at that time was very different,” he says. “I couldn’t say ‘I think I’m gay’ – I didn’t know what it meant.”

He remembers feeling emotional when the Olympic diver Tom Daley came out in a YouTube video in December 2013. “Part of me was pleased for him. Another part of me thought ‘shit!’ Because he could be so open.”

Paul says he has always felt ‘different’ on various levels. “I’m Deaf, I’m gay, I’m a musician, I’m a Christian. I’ve got different labels, and really they shouldn’t matter, but they do,” he says.

“The labels don’t matter to me, but society likes to label and pigeonhole people. Sadly.”

It’s clear that Paul now feels a sense of freedom and liberation from talking openly about depression and sexuality in particular. “I don’t want to hide anymore. Being open encourages other people to follow. It’s better than living a lie.”

He adds: “With what I’ve been through in recent years, it’s time to say this is me – if you don’t like it, that’s your problem!”

He now hopes to work as a motivational speaker, talking about deafness, depression, dementia and music.

He will also take the opportunity to perform music again, and is already working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on a project, performing around the world.

For now, he is having some downtime, keeping fit by swimming every day for up to 90 minutes and taking time off before developing his new career.

Just before we leave, he tells me how much he’s enjoying this new stage of his life: “I’m the most relaxed I’ve ever been, because I don’t have to pretend.”

Interview by Charlie Swinbourne, Editor.

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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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