Rebecca-Anne Withey: Why medical professionals should mind their language when discussing deafness

Posted on August 10, 2015

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Rebecca Withey

I’ve written about this before… the choice of words medical professionals use when discussing deafness and the impact it has on those who are already deaf.

Yet it seems to be a recurring theme for me lately, with inappropriate comments becoming increasingly prevalent. So my time discussing this topic is not quite over.

A couple of weeks ago I was minding my own business at a soft play centre with my children when a lady approached me. She was a regular there and simply wanted to say hello. She soon realised I was deaf.

To her credit she didn’t scarper but sat down beside me to continue the conversation. But what followed were a string of awkward statements and questions that led me to think there are way too many assumptions about deafness.

She raised her voice and spoke in the direction of my ears, indicating her elderly Father was the same. She said it must be terribly hard for me but at least it wasn’t as bad as being blind (!)

She then asked about my son and when I told her he was hearing she responded overly pleased for me, “oh that’s brilliant!”

I tried to tell her that it wouldn’t matter if he was deaf as having deaf parents and there being such a large deaf community where we live it wouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. But her face drew a blank.

And that’s not the first time this has happened. I often meet new mums at play groups and a lot of the time they seem fascinated by my deafness and desperate to know if my children are the same.

They respond far too positively for my liking if I say they can hear. It’s kind of offensive to me. Would it be quite so bad if they were deaf?

Yet of course deafness would seem like such a catastrophe to them, they’re hearing and have never known anything different. They only see the things we can’t do like, erm, hear!

They don’t see the cultural significance, the language, the community we belong to. They frankly have no idea. And it isn’t a surprise.

Not when audiologists send out letters like this to mums with new babies, urging them to get their hearing assessed to rule out any permanent hearing impairment. 


Of course it’s better to know if your child is deaf and to be prepared but the phrasing of that sentence is just doom and gloom.

Rule it out? – like its something to be feared. Impairment? What happens if parents discover their child does have some kind of deafness? They can’t rule it out and their child is now ‘impaired.’ They’ll feel like the worst parents in the world with no positive prospects for their poor deaf child. 

This is where my loyalty to my deafness comes in. I refuse to be ashamed of it or see myself as unable to achieve because of it and I feel very protective towards any parent offered apologies or sympathy simply for having a child who is deaf.

So if there are any parents out there who have recently discovered their child has a deafness, I’m speaking to you now.

Your child’s deafness does not summarise your whole child. It’s a quirk they’ll have, a characteristic that shapes them and makes them who they are. You’ll get to know them as they grow and form your own way of communicating whether that’s with speech, sign or both. 

It’s your child. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad and most definitely do not accept strangers ‘sympathy.’ If they say sorry – ask them what for? You have a beautiful child whose senses are going to be marvellously heightened, they will have a unique way of seeing the world and most definitely will not be excluded from it. 

There will be challenges – that’s life. But take it from me, deafness is not the end of the world. They will still live, love, laugh and its up to you to show them that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to stand out. Everything happens for a reason. So give it time and you’ll discover yours. 

I know that without my deafness I wouldn’t be half as resilient or determined and I would never have achieved all of the things I have. I wouldn’t be quite so open minded or accepting of people’s differences or disabilities because I know first hand that behind appearances we are all the same.

Audiologists, professionals or just general hearing people haven’t had the life experience with deafness that I have. They see it on an audiogram and view it as an impairment, something we’ve lost. Yet I and the deaf community refuse to dwell on what we don’t have and instead we celebrate what we do.

This is what separates the medical model from the cultural model of deafness. It’s all about perspective. We could sit around saying its hard and see ourselves asimpaired and therefore unable to do anything worthwhile with our life. Or we can grab life by the horns, accept our deafness and the unique view it gives us and just enjoy our days.

We are all different in one way or another. And we don’t need anyone trying to make us feel less than or as though we’re a sufferer. Life deals you a hand and you deal with it.

So if people speak of deafness as a terrible, terrible thing, I say let them. If they panic at the prospect of your child being deaf and try helplessly to “correct it” I say leave them be.

I refuse to waste any more energy assuring people that actually being deaf isn’t quite so bad. That it doesn’t mean I have “bad ears” or “less than satisfactory hearing. ” Or that I’m a bad or less than satisfactory person.

Instead, I’m just going to show them.  After all it’s true that actions speak louder than words. They will see as I live my life that I’m here and I’m deaf and its okay.

Rebecca-Anne Withey is an actress, sign singer and tutor of performing arts. A black country girl at heart, she now resides in Derby where she works in both performance art and holistic therapies. She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

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