Emily Howlett: We shouldn’t be reduced to a single label

Posted on March 3, 2017

I am having an existential crisis, and it’s all because I went to the zoo.

They have a new butterfly house, and inside its tropical, flowery, fluttery wonderfulness, among all the insects, lives a pigeon. As you can see from the photo, this is no ordinary pigeon. He is, as the zookeeper explained, a fancy pigeon.


I really liked him. I’ll admit it, I wanted to be him. Just look at his legs! Look at his hair! The closest I could get to being so awesome would be to have a three-hour blow-dry and wear ridiculous leggings.

Which got me thinking… if I was a pigeon, could I ever hope to be a fancy one? Would I want to be a fancy one? I mean, there’s not really anything wrong with the gangs of little guys pecking around town (apart from the fact they’re technically doves, but that’s another story). They’re pretty in a less ostentatious way, but they’re still pretty, and they’ve got endless friends. Or woodpigeons – I like a woodpigeon too – they’re totally business-like, but also somehow fluffy.

Eventually I had to sadly conclude that I’d be a terrible pigeon. Apart from anything else, I wouldn’t hear the cats creeping up behind me. Well, cat. Singular. I wouldn’t last long.

So, I’m not a pigeon. I’m a human. Just about. But what kind of human? We all love the labels and the boxes, and when you’re asked to talk about yourself in any given situation, it’s supposed to be fairly easy to say, “Oh, hello, I’m Emily, from Derby, sorry about that, yes, and I am…”

A mother?

Being a mother is something I am constantly aware of. Whether I am with my little boy or not, I am always his mummy. It’s like a very, very pleasant itch in my brain. Even when I am shopping, or working, I’m checking how all my decisions and actions affect him. I’m totally a mother. But sometimes, like when I drop him off at school and he signs ‘I love you’ (or ‘bring my scooter or else’, same thing really) through the window, the label slips a bit, and I’m not sure if I’m ‘a mother’ or ‘Deaf’.

An actor?

Well, I am an actor. But I’m also a writer, a director, a teacher… Which role should be the defining one? If I call myself a ‘creative’ it seems excessively arty, but then again, some days I want to be a bit excessively arty. Maybe I want to integrate BSL into a piece, but, like, signed really massively so it takes over the stage. Maybe I want to work without an interpreter, just to see how my students navigate communication by themselves. Maybe… oh. Sorry, slipped off into the Deaf things again there.

A businesswoman?

I mean, yeah, I am a businesswoman. I guess. I have a company and I sometimes manage to use words like “spreadsheet” and “budget” without vomiting. But I never wear a suit – aren’t industry go-getters supposed to wear a suit? And, because I’m Deaf, I waste at least half my day hanging on a screen whenever I have to textphone somebody – FYI hearing companies of the world; when we’re on text relay, we can’t interrupt you until you say GA so CUT DOWN ON THE WAFFLE AND THE NEVERENDING RECORDED MESSAGES. Please. Be a bit kinder to the world and the deafies.

Oh. Is that actually what I am?


Just deaf? I mean, my ears don’t work, and I’d always rather use signed language than spoken. It’s easier, and less tiring, and more natural and, of course, prettier. And I’ll always say I’m Deaf, even if I’ve done that thing of accidentally passing off as hearing because I can speak and lip-read like a demon. If I wasn’t Deaf, I’d suddenly be a very different person. But can I be more than that?

I try and find another label, but none of them fit. And, actually, when you come down to it, ‘Deaf’ isn’t even a label created by a Deaf person for Deaf people. It’s just a description. In terms of telling you anything about me, it may as well be ‘saucepan’.

I’m really proud to be Deaf. I truly am. I just don’t want to be thrown into a box labelled “Crap Ears”, along with every other person with hearing loss, as if we don’t have any other defining characteristics. As if we aren’t all some unique magic mix of all the things we do and are.

Fancy pigeons of the world; all I’m saying is; just because your legs are speckly, doesn’t mean all you are is the speckly-legged bird. You’re also the guy with crazy hair, for a start! You’re also the guy who just ate four butterflies right in front of me. Don’t let anybody reduce you down to a single label.

But, also… Maybe don’t eat your friends. You big blue weirdo.

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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