The Question: Can relationships between deaf and hearing people work? (BSL)

Posted on October 11, 2015

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I grew up in a Deaf family, and since I was young, I’ve met deaf people who are in relationships with other deaf people, and deaf people who are in relationships with hearing people.

I’ve seen relationships that work, and don’t work, that stayed together, and sadly (or not so sadly in some cases) broke up.

To watch this article in BSL, signed by Nicholas Padden from BSL learning website Signworld, click play below. Scroll down to continue reading in English.

I’ve met Deaf people who swear they’d never go out with a hearing person (which seems a tad discriminatory – we wouldn’t like it if a hearing person said they’d never date a Deafie, would we?) while others are more flexible, saying it depends more on the individual.

Of course, it shouldn’t really matter who a Deaf person gets together with – it should be about their connection with that person, not how much that person can hear.

LIMPING-THINKERBut in reality, the success of any relationship comes down to communication, and this is the particular challenge facing couples where one is deaf and one hearing.

Is that hearing person deaf aware? Can they sign?

Will they remember to communicate clearly even when they’re stressed, or they’re in a group, or when the initial spark dies down and they’re arguing about who should have done the washing up?

Of course, the deaf person bears just as much responsibility for this.

Will they also remember to communicate clearly, to repeat things that aren’t understood?

To not get annoyed when their partner forgets the right sign? To not close their eyes in the middle of an argument, shutting the other person out?

It could be that the couple develop a great understanding with each other, but then there’s the next steps.

How well will they get on with each other’s family and friends?

I’ve seen hearing partners get incredibly frustrated when they’re introduced to their Deaf partner’s friends – and find that they’re the ones left out, in a sea of signing hands, struggling to know what people are saying, all night.

I can’t say I particularly sympathise with this, because it’s a situation so many Deaf people find themselves in – but on the other hand, you could argue that hearing people aren’t used to coping with this (while us Deafies have had a lifetime’s experience).

Of course, this goes for the Deaf partner too – being left out in a group of hearing people when they meet their partner’s friends.

You can get a situation where both the deaf and hearing person struggle when they’re mixing with each other’s social circle, even though they get on perfectly well when it’s just the two of them.

At that stage, what can happen is that one or both of them start becoming reluctant to mix with the other’s friends.

It starts with avoiding nights out, or social events, and the other partner is then left with a choice. Do they stay at home with their boyfriend or girlfriend, or go out with their friends on their own?

If they do stop spending time with each other’s friends, that clearly doesn’t bode well for the long-term prospects for their relationship.

So we’ve discussed friends. Now let’s talk about meeting each other’s families.

This is something that scares people even when they can communicate easily. But it can be much more complex in deaf-hearing relationships.

Some Deaf people come from Deaf families, so in those cases, the question is whether the hearing person can communicate easily with their partner’s Deaf family members.

There’s also the question of whether they’re comfortable in a room full of Deaf people. Will they feel relaxed enough to be themselves, when they’re not sure how to communicate and they’re worried they might be misunderstood?

Other Deaf people come from hearing families, which is easier for the hearing partner.

But then one scenario that can come up is them getting on a little too well with the hearing family, so that the Deaf person feels left out with their own relatives.

Then you’ve got the flip side – the Deaf person going to meet the hearing person’s family.

They might love their partner but find that their potential father in law is the least deaf aware person on earth. They might feel embarrassed when they’re misunderstood, or when they misunderstand something.

I could go into a whole other area – of what happens when children arrive.

But maybe it’s enough to say that all of the above still applies – except it takes even more work, with the distraction of a child, to keep the understanding in the relationship going.

I’m aware that I’m putting a picture forward of a series of huge obstacles to a deaf-hearing relationship working, but never fear – here’s the good news.

Deaf-hearing relationships can work.

But it takes work. And perseverance.

It requires mutual respect for each other’s communication needs and cultural backgrounds.

It takes making an effort – consistently – with each other’s family and friends. And accepting that communication with everyone in each other’s social circle might not ever be perfect, but you’ll make the best of it.

For the hearing person, it might mean going to sign language classes, or becoming more deaf aware.

For the Deaf person, it might mean doing more lipreading than they’d like to, and mixing with hearing people more than they did before.

Of course, it also takes something else.

Love, even when they initial spark has died down.

So if you’re considering getting into – or are in – a deaf-hearing relationship (or maybe I should call it a mixed audiological relationship?) I hope I haven’t got you down with this particular question.

If you want it enough, and work hard at it, it can, and will work.

Good luck.

So, what do you think? Are the prospects good for deaf relationships with hearing people? Tell us about your experiences and opinions below.

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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