Alice Archer: The shame of hearing privilege

Posted on October 28, 2017

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Before I started learning BSL, I didn’t know any people who were Deaf.

I am hearing. I did not come from a Deaf family, I didn’t have friends or co-workers who were Deaf. There were no Deaf people in my life, I know what you may be thinking: why did I learn sign? The short answer is this: to communicate with Deaf people.

The long answer is a little more complex: I have always wanted to learn BSL, if it was an option for me in school I would have taken it.

I remember seeing people signing and thinking “I wish I could communicate with you in your language” and that’s when it started: The shame.

The shame that there was no provision for the hearing community to grow up with the idea of this form of communication as a desirable and accessible language. Growing up I learned snippets of Italian, French and German, but there never was an offer or suggestion of learning BSL at school.

That realisation for me is a shame on the hearing community. A few years ago, several things happened at the same time: I was very unhappy with my life, I had to reduce my working hours and I needed to do something positive and I decided it was time to start on one of my life long goals, learning BSL.

I quickly became entranced, not just with BSL as a language, but with the fact that I could for the first time ever communicate with the BSL users in the Deaf community in their language (even if I still make mistakes a lot of the time).

I quickly made lots of friends in the Deaf community as well as with other hearing learners and interpreters. The friendships I have made through learning BSL are markedly different from those with my hearing friends.

I like to get a lot of practice and will often sign with other hearing learner and interpreter friends. I was signing once with a hearing friend about how I felt sign affected our friendship, how it made it better, stronger, because I felt like we shared something, the language bonded us. And then it hit me again: The shame.

The shame of feeling that I was appropriating the language of a strong, proud community for my own gain, but at the same time wanting to practice in order to benefit my use of the language with Deaf people.

I asked one of my Deaf friends how they felt about BSL learners using BSL with other hearing people and they said “If signing with other hearing people helps you practice your skills and improves your communication with Deaf people, that’s fantastic, but don’t forget why you are learning it.” these words have stayed with me.

BSL has influenced and impacted on my life dramatically. It has given me positivity in myself, helped me to make a lot of new friends and I hope it will go on doing so, but I also feel it has had a negative impact on my relationship with the hearing community.

Hearing friends ask me to perform certain words or phrases in BSL and it makes me uncomfortable, I will not enable parroting of this language without an understanding of the deaf community, I encourage people to learn properly, from a deaf teacher.

I find myself wishing more of my hearing friends could sign, so I could sign more and they could increase their own deaf awareness. I read the articles on how deaf people are treated by hearing people and sadly I see it in real life too: people shouting when they find out someone is deaf, only acknowledging the interpreter, making assumptions based on perceived notions on deafness and hearing.

And it boils up inside me: THE SHAME. The shame of hearing privilege and the fact that most hearing people do not realise it exists.

The ‘inspiration porn’ that happens when a story about a deaf person or sign language hits the mainstream, without the people watching having any understanding of the deaf experience.

The shame I feel for being part of a hearing community where people are encouraged to learn foreign tongues and yet are not encouraged to communicate with the deaf people around us.

This is not new to me though, I live with an invisible, sometimes disabling chronic condition and am constantly met with the attitudes and assumptions of others. I work with people who have other physical disabilities and we talk about how the non-disabled community only seems to be interested when they can see us as inspiring.

What is the point in telling you about my hearing shame? To let you know that it is there. Just as I am aware of my hearing privilege, I want you to be aware of my hearing shame as someone whose only link to the Deaf community is a desire to communicate.

I love learning sign language and being able to communicate with Deaf BSL users in their language, but being a hearing person trying communicate in the Deaf world, there is shame clinging onto that love.

Both my shame and my love drive me to talk about sign with as many people as possible, to encourage hearing people to learn more about Deaf awareness and sign, to meet more Deaf people as possible and let them know I am happy and privileged just to be able to communicate with them.

Alice is a BSL learner who is also hearing. She lives in Bristol and works as an Independent Living Co-ordinator for Action for Blind People. Alice has a background in employment support with people who are Blind and Partially Sighted. She likes sewing and walking dogs.

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