Rebecca-Anne Withey: What’s the greatest barrier facing deaf people?

Posted on December 11, 2017



I was having my lunch with some arts professionals and we were discussing what forthcoming projects we had lined up. I was the only deaf person present and I was interested to hear (lipread, rather) what was everyone was doing.

One lady said she had a ‘dilemma’ as she had been offered the chance to deliver workshops for people with learning disabilities – but she didn’t want to take the work.

Why? We all asked her. “I’m not trained in this area,” she confessed. “And although the organisers have said they will offer me all the training I need… well…” and then she turned to me and said:

“No offence, but I’m not interested in working with special needs. It’s just not interesting.”

I was stumped. First of all, why was she looking at me? Did she assume deaf people had learning disabilities or were experts on the topic?

And secondly, what an awfully closed minded comment to make. But funnily enough, a lot of her hearing colleagues seemed to agree with her.

“I’d be the same,” they muttered. “I never know how to behave around them plus they don’t understand me.”

“Learning disabilities – I haven’t got a clue! They scare me!” Someone else piped up.

“Don’t they all use makaton?” Another person asked.

In the end, the lady in question had resolved her dilemma and decided to turn down this uninteresting and frightening prospect of working with people who were different to herself.

Fast forward a week and I was presenting at a carers forum and discussing what the greatest barriers in society were for disabled people. I thought back to my lunch break with those arts professionals and formed my own answer.

In my opinion, the greatest barriers in our society are assumptions. 

When people assume they know about something or they form a generalised opinion without any life experience to back it up, they are practising ignorance.

When we assume, we put people or things in a box and we don’t dare question the possibilities, the capabilities, the opportunities that may unfold. We live with our eyes half open.

I’ve been a victim of assumptions many times. And my clearest memory of this happened when I was 15 years old.

I was chatting to a careers advisor at school and she was asking me questions, trying to forge a career path for me.

She began by asking me what I wanted to do. Well, at that time, I was obsessed with Pop Idol and the a*teens (a Swedish teen ABBA group) so I sheepishly confessed what I really wanted to do was sing. I practised every day after school and honestly, it brought me so much joy.

But she shot me down.

“You can’t be a singer, you’re deaf.”

I went on to say that I quite liked acting and I was rather good at dancing too so I would be happy with something along those lines…

Acting? My voice couldn’t be strong enough, she said. And dancing would never be a feasible career.

All she could see as I sat in front of her was my deafness. She was blinded by the assumptions she had already formed around deafness and deaf people’s capabilities.

She didn’t see my dogged determination. How absolutely crazy I was about music and lyrics. How I spent more time at dance classes than at friends houses after school. She had no idea.

So thank goodness I didn’t listen to her.

I’ve learnt several times that people continue to make assumptions about deafness. And it’s important that we too don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions about other people. How else will we know who they really are if we don’t ask? If we don’t delve straight in, eyes wide open, and find out.

So, earlier this year, when I was asked to work on a dance project with a group of people with severe learning disabilities, I found myself challenging my own assumptions.

Initially I worried about how I may communicate with those who are visually impaired. Would I be able to project my voice enough? Would those who struggled with cognition actually understand me?  Could I – a deaf person – do this job?

I thought back to the arts professionals again and I remembered the words of that careers advisor. And I said to myself, you know what, scrap those fears and assumptions. Maybe it’s time to work outside of my own comfort zone.  Maybe I’ll learn something? So I took the job. Fears, worries and all.

I walked into the first day of the dance job with plenty of worries, but I felt completely ready to quash the preconceptions I had about being a deaf person working with a group of people who were another kind of different. 

It’s been five months now and I can honestly say I’m the fortunate one for having worked with this unique dance group who are very much all individuals. They have varying needs, alternate communication methods and very different abilities.

If I’d have believed other people’s assumptions, I would never have accepted this work and thus not had the pleasure to work with some truly lovely people.

The same can be said about deafness. The more we can remove the social stigma of being deaf or having access needs, the more we can eliminate false assumptions which imply our abilities are capped and that our life pathway is one-size-fits-all for all deaf people.

If you don’t know about something please Ask. Enquire. Find out. Bombard me with questions! Whatever you do, do not assume.

Rebecca-Anne Withey is a freelance writer with a background in Performing Arts & Holistic health. Read more of Rebecca’s articles for us here.

She is also profoundly deaf, a sign language user and pretty great lipreader. 

Her holistic practices and qualifications include Mindfulness, Professional Relaxation Therapy, Crystal Therapy and Reiki. 

She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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