Emily Howlett: Being ‘slightly different’ seems a lot harder than being ‘really different’

Posted on October 17, 2016


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When I was much younger, and dinosaurs roamed the planet, I wore hearing aids. Although I never achieved any really workable levels of hearing, it was enough that I learned to speak, learned the cues for lip-reading and learned that music by 90s boyband 5ive was the epitome of cool.

Then I got older. Gradually I reached a point where the hearing aids didn’t work at all – I was just too deaf. So, I abandoned them. I went from ‘Profoundly Deaf’ to ‘we won’t even call you for appointments to tell you how deaf you are anymore’.

This is not a bad thing.

Becoming ‘big D’ Deaf wasn’t easy. I had a WHOLE identity, language and community to discover. Within that world I met wonderful, amazing, welcoming Deaf and hearing people, and I met a bunch of morons too. C’est la vie.

Being Deaf is a huge part of my life, and it’s also nothing at all. It’s just part of the way I am wired; like hating pandas and being really bad at navigating, even to the end of my own driveway. It’s something that I have to account for, and it’s something that the rest of the world has to adjust to. Other people, upon learning I am Deaf, often take more time and care to talk to me, or will use sign language, or will happily book an interpreter, or even, sometimes, run away because they don’t know how to deal with me.

That’s fine. These are all situations in which I know what is going on. Situations in which everyone has noticed I am Deaf, and adjusted accordingly. But it’s not as if I ever carry a flashing neon sign above my head reminding people to do this.

Which is becoming problematic. Which is annoying.

The root cause of the change is this; I went and got a cochlear implant. Good or bad, put your politics and personal feelings aside, if you will. That’s a whole other conversation, and let’s not detract from this one just yet.

So, I got the CI. I had all the rehabilitation and, bloody hell, it’s hard work. And SO long. Years and years of gradual improvement, but only if you put a ton of effort in. To gain even the slightest benefit from the device means hours and hours of practise, listening, trying to learn to hear with a brain that doesn’t even really understand what sound is, nevermind an electronically processed version. (NB Turns out 5ive aren’t cool anymore.)

And it’s so worthwhile. For me, for so many personal reasons, the small amount of extra environmental feedback I get from wearing the CI is life-changing. I’m not saying everyone should do this, or would feel the same about it, but for me it has been a Good Thing.

Except, now some of the hearing people don’t really know what to do with me anymore.

I speak well. If I am in a situation with little background noise and/or only one or two people to concentrate on, I can follow pretty much everything they say. I can lip-read so goddamn well that if my life was a movie I’d totally catch the bad guys by deciphering a grainy CCTV video.

In short, when I am not tired, and people are looking at me, I sometimes accidentally pass myself off as hearing. And the Real Hearing People are confused by this.

I recently ran a weekend of workshops; four 3 hour workshops in two days, plus a presentation evening and two hours of teaching. I love it; being busy with creative people is my favourite ever thing after Ribena.

But I was tired. And there was no interpreter. You know how workshops start; you go round the room and everyone says who they are. If there’s no interpreter, diligently fingerspelling out the names, I just don’t know who they are. Across a room is too far away, and names are hard because there’s absolutely no preceding clue or context.

So, in my workshops, people are also instantly given a sign name. Someone who might actually be called Faith, or Diana, or Cheesetring, will be known to me as ‘lipstick pout’ sign. Forever. Or until I get into a one-to-one situation where their new sign name won’t function, which literally never happens. Sign names for the win.

But then you have to tell other people about the workshop. Or you’re supposed to find the participants on social media and… you don’t know the names of anyone who was there.


Not insurmountable, but it does lead to comments like, “There’s no way you’d run a whole workshop and not know people’s names”.

Well, maybe not. If you’re hearing. If you’re Deaf, it’s pretty standard. But people DON’T KNOW THIS. There are so many things they don’t know, about how we invisibly adapt to live in a hearing world, and that’s not their fault. But I can’t explain this stuff anymore, because they think I am one of them. They just don’t believe it; it’s like The Honey Monster telling them, actually, sugar is bad, dudes.

Since the CI, apparently I am now supposed to be able to hear a Deputy Head yelling at me from the other end of a corridor, when I have my back to them, and accept that ‘ignoring’ them means a verbal warning. (Never going to happen, don’t worry.)

I find myself signing less when I am not with Deaf people – whereas before I would always sign, even if I was speaking at the same time. For my own comfort, and because why the hell not? But now, I drop my hands and use my voice, because so many people are asking “Why are you doing that, I can hear you” or “That’s really distracting”. Funny how, when I had no CI, my signing was never commented on.

Thing is, I genuinely think I’m not going to make decisions about my identity because of any of this. I say I’m happy to carry on disturbing people, and being my own version of Deaf, but then why am I already signing less? Why am I saying sorry to people when I didn’t hear them, which I’ve never done before?

Turns out that being Really Different is ok. Being Slightly Different is harder to figure out.

Emily Howlett is a regular writer for this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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