I haven’t written much about my deafness on this blog yet. I suppose with the “blogging against disablism” day coming up, it’ll get more inches on here, and i certainly give the impression, i think, if you only know me through my blog, that my deafness is not an important part of my life. That’s true in that i don’t spend every waking minute thinking about it, i’ve been deaf for so long that it just seems normal to me. But it is very important in the sense that its a fairly major part of my identity, but also in how it impacts on my life.

One of the blogs i read regularly is written by a deaf lady over in the USA (*waves hi to BEG*). She, like me, was brought up via the oralist method, and on her “deaf” weblog (where she explores matters pertaining to deafness), she’s been exploring a lot of the implications of that – and in the process, touching off a lot of thoughts in my own head, that i had never really considered.

I’m pretty sure that at this point some of you, at least, are wondering what the “oralist” method is, and how long i’ve been deaf, and any other number of questions that most hearing people have when they meet me for the first time. We don’t exactly know when i became deaf, or why. My grandmother (who was a junior school teacher when she worked) says i reacted normally as a baby to sounds, so i almost certainly wasn’t born deaf. It wasn’t until i was around 3 or 4, when my speech was not developing as it should, that my parents became concerned and took me to the doctor. Of course i had had a hearing test before then (as was standard, and i think now they actually test babies very soon after birth using machinery that wasn’t available then) but because the lady doing the test had hidden the button used to generate the sound through the headsets with her hand, and i had been able to see the tendon on the back of her other hand working when i pressed it (and you got lollipops for doing the test well!)… well, you can guess that i soon learned to co-operate. I was a bright cookie, yes! So that test gave the wrong impression, and as i said, it wasn’t until my parents noticed my speech was not developing properly that i was properly investigated.  They finally discovered the true picture just after my fourth birthday.

Many people don’t realise that deafness can be, and often is, something that is incremental, much like eyesight loss. By that i don’t mean that it is something that is lost slowly (although that can and does happen, particularly old-age-related deafness), more that its not an either/or. Very few deaf people are 100% deaf, many retain some hearing. I’m deaf enough that i can stand next to the speakers in a nightclub with my hearing aids in (and turned off) and be quite happy there. At the same time, i have enough residual hearing that without my hearing aids, i can hear someone speaking loudly directly into my ear. With my hearing aids, i can probably actually hear as much – certainly in the lower register – as a hearing person.

[to explain the register part: deafness isn’t uniform across the register of low to high sounds. Most people – even hearing ones – hear some sounds better than others, and when you have your hearing assessed, different registers are measured, as well as the loudness of sounds. In my case, i hear lower sounds – from deep male voices up to middlerange female voices rather well, but struggle with higher pitch sounds such as a choirboy singing or a flute.]

My difficulties with my hearing (when it comes to oral communcation) have rarely been about actually hearing people. I can usually hear enough to know someone is speaking. I can identify sounds relatively easily. but for those who have not grown up “listening” to the world around them, the part of the brain that processes sound is not as well developed, through underuse, as a hearing persons. For me, a great deal of speech sounds very much like how it feels to a hearing person when someone speaking a foreign language is talking to them: they know someone’s talking to them, but they haven’t got the foggiest idea what is being said.

The way that i cope with this is to effectively put clues together from many different sources. I lipread (only 40% of speech is lipreadable under optimum conditions, and i often have to cope in conditions that are much less than that), i use body language. I use context (it is impossible for me to just “jump” into a conversation in the way that hearing people do), both of the conversation and the actual sentence structure. My brain has to work 20 times as hard to follow a conversation as a hearing person’s does. To understand a sentence that is said.. say.. a stranger on a train that i’ve just gotten onto and sat down taps me on the shoulder and when i turn, they’re speaking to me, their body language is aggressive/assertive. “didn.. yo.. he.. m….yo… itt.. n.. m.. eat”, i lipread. My brain processes, i put together the assertiveness, the situation, i look around quickly, see the bags next to me, and put that together to mean: “didn’t you hear me, you’re sitting in my seat”. I apologise profusely, explain that i’m deaf, and move.

of course, i sometimes get this process painfully wrong, to much humour, and sometimes embarrassment. You gotta have a sense of humour as a deaf person. Its also absolutely exhausting, as you can imagine.

For those who’ve not met me in person, i actually do speak relatively normally. I don’t sound “deaf” (many speaking deaf people sound somewhat nasal), and i don’t use sign language (although i do know it, i’m dreadfully rusty). In a one-on-one situation, in a quiet, well lit room, with a native, non-accented (at least heavily) speaker, i often manage to the point where, if my ears are covered (i wear hearing aids), the other person will not know that i’m deaf, although i usually tell them. I struggle in noisy environments, in groups, anywhere where the conditions are less than optimal.

To most hearing people i appear to be a success story. That’s where the “oralist method” comes in. back in the 70s/80s, those who were responsible for helping hearing parents come to terms with their deaf children promoted the oral method: that is, teaching your child to speak, by whatever means necessary. The use of sign language was not allowed, not advocated, sometimes not even mentioned (my parents didn’t even know it existed till the early 80s when i went to a deaf school) and, in school/institutional environments, often punished. children who had been brought up to use sign language were made to sit on their hands for lessons. Speech lessons were painful, progress slow, often at the expense of other education children could’ve been learning. In my case, i learned to speak well – i took the speech education i was given and ran with it, and i was fortunate in that i did sufficiently well that the speech lessons i did get, didn’t impact on the rest of my education.

BEG goes into a lot of detail about the Oralist Method, the drawbacks of it. I don’t want to repeat a lot of what she’s said here: merely to give those who are interested some of my personal background, so that when i do write about it in future (as i will), the facts are down.  I do want to bring attention to what she’s written though, for those who are interested in deafness, as she’s an extremely thought provoking writer.