The Secret Deafie: “Do you have…sonar?” The questions I got asked by kids when I gave a talk about deafness

Posted on November 10, 2016



The Secret Deafie is our series of anonymous articles by Deaf people about their experiences. Tell us yours by emailing thelimpingchicken@gmail.com and read previous Secret Deafie articles here.

Today’s writer gave a talk to a Beaver Cub group and tells us what the children said…

For a year or so, I was a weekly parent helper at my son’s Beaver Cub group which, while very rewarding, wasn’t the most relaxing way of ‘giving back to the community’ as a volunteer.

Beaver cubs are six-to-eight years old, curious, full of beans, and because staying still doesn’t come naturally to them, rather tricky to lip-read. And, en-masse, they’re fairly resistant to instruction. But they were also huge fun to be around, so I missed the chaotic Beaver nights a great deal when my son moved on, and was delighted to be asked to return as a guest to talk about deafness for their disability awareness badges.

Before I left home, my eight-year-old son gave me some very sage advice: “Don’t waffle, and don’t use big words.”

Well, that instantly put me at my ease. Not. “Big words like…what?” I demanded.

“Context.”

“But it’s an important concept—”

“Don’t say concept, either.”

You understand those words!” I protested, folding my arms indignantly as he gave the world-weary sigh of the child of boundless knowledge.

“Yes, but not everyone’s been brought up learning to read at subtitling speed!” He gave me a perfunctory kiss goodbye. “Say hi to the others for me, and don’t waffle.”

“Thanks darling, we’ve covered that,” I muttered, and got into the car. Not having considered myself a routine waffler, I continued to mutter to myself all the way to the Scout Hut.

When I arrived after an unnerving drive through the twilight, I realised I’d forgotten that the hut, though brightly lit, was about as acoustically-friendly as an echo party in a wind tunnel.

I was also nervous; while happy to answer any questions, I hadn’t exactly had the time to put a talk together. As the boys settled down on the floor in a semi-circle around their flag, I sat facing them, my back to the wall.

Several lads I knew well, and the leader sat down alongside me, introducing me to those who’d joined since my son had left. They settled into a state of obedient silence, but I still felt my palms sweating.

Deafness is just part and parcel of my life. What if they weren’t that interested? And what if I couldn’t think of anything cool to say? I’ve always been one of those people who know exactly how to answer a question…about six hours after it’s been asked.

Calm and urbane as ever, the leader asked if any of them knew what ‘deaf’ meant. There was one wide-eyed ‘huh?’ response amidst the nine little hands that shot into the air. Their fists moved so fast it was like they were each trying to knock a designated satellite out of orbit. They have futures with NASA, I can tell you.

One of the newbies, tiny and almost white-blonde, was selected for the opening gambit: “it means you can’t hear very well.”

“Or at all,” another amended. “Like, you can’t have a conversation if the other person isn’t moving their hands around to speak.”

“And what’s that called?” their leader prompted.

“SIGN LANGUAGE!”

I had to turn down my left aid a little to prevent my Siemens aid doing that auto-cut-out thing it always does when encountering sudden, intimidating volume, but even so, my stage fright eased a notch or four.

The kids went on to ask some fantastic, challenging questions. One lad showed an extraordinary understanding of the difference between a cochlear implant and a bone graft, which gave me renewed hope for the future of the human race (even with the US elections looming). Overall, it was a very heartening experience.

Below, the italics indicate the answers still fighting their way out of my brain (for better or worse) before the next question came along, forcing me to redirect my concentration. The Beavers’ names have numbered to protect the innocent.

4: Is it difficult to lip-read little people? [asked with palm hovering four inches above the ground as if indicating Lilliputians rather than, say, toddlers].

Me: yes, it can be extremely difficult. Very little people don’t stay still for long, and they move their mouths differently, and make up words.

5: What if you’re blind and deaf and you get attacked?

Me: um…er… Fortunately, being deafblind is comparatively rare. I would hope that someone with this condition is well looked-aft—

5: But how do they even talk?

Me: Well, there’s a form of sign-language called tactile sig—

5: Like, is there other stuff you can do like move really fast to make up for not hearing people coming?

Me: compensating abilities, you mean? [Remembering my son’s warnings about no big words, I hastened to follow up.] Well, I’m good at reading body-language and I’m pretty good at lip-reading, so sometimes I know what someone means to say, even if they don’t say it out loud.

5: But what if they don’t say anything when they’re about to atta—

Leader: Yes, thank you! Sam’s made a really important point there about something special she can do. Did any of you notice what that was? Well… it was about lip-reading, which really important to know about if you’re trying to help someone who’s deaf. Can anyone tell me what lip-reading is?

4: It’s looking at someone’s mouth and working out what they’re saying even if there’s no sound.

Me: Yes, that’s absolutely right. Really good. It’s the whole face, though. Expressions and all, not just the lips.

8: Can you lip-read in Australian?

Me: after about ten minutes, when I’ve got used to the accent.

9: I’ve heard that the phrases ‘colourful’ and ‘I love you’ cause real trouble in lip-reading because they look identical on the lips when there’s no sound.

Me: how the hell do I explain this without using the word ‘context’? Um…well… the lip-movements are very similar, but you don’t make them at the same speed. And there aren’t many sentences or situations where the two phrases would be confused, so it’s not too big a danger. Unless you’re talking to an interior designer, not many people will grab you by the shoulders, fix you with a gaze of smouldering passion, and then announce ‘colourful’.

Leader: shall we have a go at lip-reading? Some of you can take turns to say something, and we’ll see if Sam can make out what it is.

Me: [shooting leader expression of acute alarm while turning hearing aids off] Righto…

3: Have I brushed my teeth?

Me: [echoing obediently] Have I brushed my teeth?

10: Are you sure you’ve got your hearing aids off?

I have to admit, having deflected #10’s scepticism, I really enjoyed the awe-struck gasps and wide eyes at this party trick, particularly as they came from the adult helpers as well as the kids as I hit the nail on the lip-reading head time after time.

All the appreciative ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ made me feel like a particularly attractive firework display. And happily, the brushed-teeth example enabled me to demonstrate very easily (without using the word ‘context’) the importance of context. There aren’t many parts of a person’s body one can brush, and since hair/teeth look completely different on the lips, it’s relatively simple as lip-reading challenges go.

I was asked to show my hearing aid, and took it out, talking through the three parts (aid, tubing, mould), explaining how it all fitted together.

2: But what do they do?

I opened my mouth to ask which bit he hadn’t quite got, but there, the session ended. As they leapt to their feet, I felt uplifted. As usual, after ‘badge-earning-time’, the lads expend the pent-up energy from having to sit and focus for half an hour by playing dodgeball or ‘pirates’, which is essentially a music-free version of musical chairs (featuring an adult roaring orders to ‘sit’). Since both these games involve gradual participant elimination, I wasn’t surprised to feel a light tug on my sleeve from one of the early-disqualified lads, who was looking up with wide eyes.

I smiled encouragingly. “Did you want to ask something?”

“Do you have…sonar?”

I fought with a grin, but the grin fought dirty. It was extremely difficult keeping a straight face. “No, no sonar, I’m afraid.”

“Bats have it.”

“Bats have echo-location. Submarines and other military gear have sonar.”

“What’s the difference?”

I opened and closed my mouth a few times and avoided blinding him with science. “Bats don’t go ‘ping’.”

“How do you know bats don’t go ‘ping’?” His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “They might do it, but as you’re really, really, really deaf, you might not hear them.”

“I’m happy to trust Lord David Attenborough’s footage of lots and lots of bats. If he can’t find one that goes ping, I’m reasonably sure there aren’t many to be found.”

He seemed reasonably satisfied with this answer, because devoted his attentions to shoving a bit of grit across the floor with the toe of his school shoe. Then I felt another tug.

“Don’t you want sonar?”

“No.”

“No?” He looked appalled. “But if you had sonar, no one could ever sneak up on you ever again! They wouldn’t dare!”

It was a reasonable question, and I can hear the higher pitches, but I just didn’t want to start explaining the claustrophobic, excruciating world of Tinnitus or Acousma just two minutes before their parents arrived. “True, but if I came equipped with sonar, everyone would know exactly how close I was getting to the biscuit tin.”

“But what if you only heard the sound in your hearing aids, and no one else could hear it? It would be like sort of super-power.”

I compromised. “I’d love sonar, but only if I could turn it off.”

He was called for a second and final round of dodgeball, giving me a moment to contemplate what my super-power would be if I could have one. Once upon a time, before my severe deafness progressed to a profound level, I was much better at lip-reading the more challenging versions of my mother tongue, like Geordie, Californian Surfer, South African or Kiwi. At twenty-two, I was awesome: I could spot a Canadian among a cluster or Americans. I realised that my super-power would be to regain control of that neat little skill.

It was while I was driving home that it occurred to me that I hadn’t considered ‘super-hearing’ as the ‘super power’ I really wanted. Of course I’ve had moments of resentment about being deaf, but those mainly relate to access issues, such as when nurses dart into an outpatients’ waiting room, squeak a name, and then disappear before you can say ‘where did that nurse go?’

Throughout the evening, the kids’ focus was on what I could do, and not what I couldn’t. As a child of the Warnock generation (I was in the first wave of kids with disabilities entering mainstream schooling), the focus was on my limitations and how to accommodate them, not my aptitude.

But these boys had grown up in the Paralympic generation, where the Games have had far better coverage than they’ve ever done. The Beavers are even aware of the Invictus Games, showcasing the athletic achievements of the men and women who’ve lost full physical capacity while in military service.

Some of the Beavers were only three or four when they went to see the 2012 London Paralympics, but could remember at least the marvellous idea of blind football, or wheelchair tennis. Disability is now a visible, more positive part of their lives, and they have a lot of questions to help them understand it better.

I only have one regret about my evening with the Beavers, which is that I didn’t move fast enough to say ‘there’s no such thing as a silly question’ when the little man who’d not quite got to grips with my hearing aids asked, again, how they worked.

I know the parents of most of these lads, and because they (parents and kids alike) know me, these lads were far more free about asking the ‘personal’ / ‘rude’ questions so many parents blush over when their kids are inquisitive about disability. My message is, when met with genuine curiosity about your deafness, tell them as much as you can. When they’re really young, a kid’s urge to educate others (not least their own parents) is huge, and the cultural benefit…immeasurable.

Having arrived for my talk a nervous wreck, I got home buzzing. And given that the route home involved negotiating seven miles of silent, unlit country lane in the pitch black, that’s saying something.

The Secret Deafie is our series of anonymous articles by Deaf people about their experiences. Tell us yours by emailing thelimpingchicken@gmail.com and read previous Secret Deafie articles here.

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