John Walker: A journey to becoming Deaf: Lesson 1 (BSL)

Posted on November 18, 2015

You might have seen the documentary, Found, a few months ago. I am one of the three contributors with Joanne and Emily.

To watch John sign his article in BSL, click play below:

I learned something from this experience; I realised that many people are at different points in their journey to explore their Deaf identity. Is there something I can explain here to enable people to think about their own process?

I thought, perhaps, I could describe my own processes, which might mirror other people’s experiences. To be honest, everyone’s journey will be different.

There may be different lessons or different stories, but the same milestones. What is important is that we spend time learning about what is happening around us.

Age 19

I asked for an appointment with audiology, a big place in London, eventually I was invited into the consultation room with a guy who had a fancy moustache and sleeve clasps. I was not even asked why I was there. He immediately went for my hearing aids, examined them, checked them, and then looked at me quite puzzled.

“Your aids are fine!”

“That is not why I am here,” I replied. “I wanted to see if there was anything better for me.”

He sat back and looked at me as if it was a ridiculous question. “You have the most powerful hearing aid available,” he retorted. “What more do you want?”

That last question took me for a spin. I wanted to be included in society, I wanted a good career, I wanted a partner … I rolled out the list in my mind. None of that list can be answered by this guy.

I knew I was wasting his time and mine.


I read something about the ‘power of the clinic’ (from a French philosopher called Foucault). How we look up to them and seek their guidance in all that is wrong with our lives.

We want our ills cured, but in return for asking, we also have to buy into their industry. They have taken my time, my family time, shaped my studies, as I incorporated the ‘whistling’ and ‘drooping hearing aids’ into my identity.

With my auxiliary aids, I am shaped by their industry: their technical twiddling of their sounds in the aids became the sounds I heard.

My response to ‘what more do you want?’ was simple, ‘everything’. This man knew it was an impossible question because it was impossible to answer.

I realised the question was loaded with expectations of what he thought I should be asking of him. The power of the clinic is not just about their authority, but also who I am to them. The patient. A subject.

He put his hands in my ears, without my permission, and chose to remove my hearing aids … without asking why I was there in the first place.

This was the start of my journey to decide whether I wanted to support this gentleman’s industry.

Age 19 #2

In those days, I spent most of my time at Friends for Young Deaf people (FYD) and their fantastic training programme. I loved every minute of it. (There is a book out about this organisation’s excellent work)

In the leadership training weekend, we were given a task. We were asked to build a bridge out of lego between two tables, one metre apart. There was a group of us and one person was appointed as a leader. The team was intentionally mixed with different communication preferences for this nearly impossible task – but we HAD to make it work.

I assumed the sign language user would know nothing, they were deaf after all. And the hearing person in the team would be the most knowledgeable person, because they could hear.

I thought, like a pecking order of hearing aid users, that hearing people would be at the top of the knowledge tree and signers at the bottom. Wasn’t that how the world worked?

So I asked, “what do you know about bridge building?” There was a blank look from the hearing team member. “Anything?”

“I have never played with lego before.”

I looked at my team mates and scratched my head, puzzled. This person might be able to hear, but …

At that moment, the sign language user shared her love of engineering, bridge design and understanding one’s materials; she had books on it. Until now, I was looking in the wrong direction.

“This tasks is impossible,’ she said. And she was right. “But lets give this a damn good try.” I appointed her as the team expert and supported her ideas by motivating the team and making sure everyone understood her instructions.


The ‘power of the clinic’ is here too. It is assumed that the hierarchy of needs and the hierarchy of abilities are the same. ‘The route to a cure is also the route to powerfulness.’

It is what brings about the idea of being ‘normal’ and normalisation, because it is assumed that a hearing person would have a better life than a deaf person, and even more than a sign language person.

But it is not about that at all, it is about what we do with our skills.

One should not underestimate that someone, whose language is not prevalent in daily life, actually works the hardest to communicate their ideas, build their knowledge and perfect their skills. Those skills are not always afforded to hearing people who have communication provided on a metaphorical plate.

I learned that I will never automatically look to a hearing person as a source of knowledge, just because they can hear. Just because that is what the ‘hearing industry’ expect me to do.

John Walker is a Teaching Fellow at University of Sussex and PhD student in Social Geography. Deaf, and sign language user by informed choice. He writes a blog on topics related to the Bourdieusian principle, by the title “Deaf Capital” . It is concerned with the ‘value’ that people place on the Deaf community or the cultural elements of deaf lives that can be askew or misconstrued. Follow him on twitter as @chereme

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