I think most people who read/have read here know that I am deaf; and I have explored some of my feelings about this before. Tonight a TV programme was shown, exploring some of what it feels like to be Deaf, rather than deaf.
Before you all think I’ve completely lost the plot, I should explain: for the Deaf community, there is a key difference between Deaf and deaf. Deaf means linguistically deaf, sign language deaf, culturally deaf. You may have grown up being deaf, learned sign language from your parents, but if not them, from your classmates, your deaf friends, at a deaf school, or later, at a deaf club. Friends are deaf, jokes are done in sign language, gossip in sign language, sorrow in sign language. It is a hidden community, almost, because a Deaf person, in isolation, on the street, looks no different to a hearing person: the linguistic differences are not visible until communication begins. Some of the Deaf may be almost militantly deaf, speak of deaf pride, proud of their language, their culture, their history, fight against things that they see as taking away from their community, such as Cochlear Implants. They celebrate when their children are deaf, as it means they’ll be like them. They see themselves as a linguistic minority, rather than a disabled one, and reject overwhelmingly the medical model, the idea of deafness as a loss. Its not hearing loss, hearing impaired. They reject disability negative language, and focus on pride. They are DEAF. In sign language, it is emphatically signed with two fingers held out from the hand, the rest closed in, and strongly, firmly, proudly placed on the ear, blocking the sound. There is no mistaking it.
This is all in opposition to the deaf, those who see themselves as having a hearing loss, perhaps going deaf as they get older, who wouldn’t dream of doing that funny handwaving in the air and making a spectacle of themselves, who prefer to quietly wear in the ear, invisible hearing aids, who might go to the lengths of attending a class on lipreading, but who would never dream of hiring a lipspeaker to interpret at important events. They focus on being as normal as possible, just a little bit deaf, they can talk and understand what’s going on and they absolutely are not DIFFERENT. They’re not DISABLED. They’re not like those poor mites who can’t talk. Just a bit… you know… hard of hearing. They won’t understand the Deaf community, any more than a hearing person who has had no contact with a Deaf person would; and will almost certainly emphatically reject any kind of association with Deafness.
These are two extremes, and I have deliberately polarised them from each other, almost as a caricature so, in order to demonstrate the differences between them. Its important to realise that Deaf/deafness is a spectrum, and that there are many people at many points along that spectrum, and that each person’s position on the spectrum is right for them: in other words, I’m trying not to criticise anyone for choosing where they lie along this spectrum, to criticise them for the choices they make in their self-identity. I am explaining this purely in order to explain some of the language I use in the rest of this blog post.
What has prompted this post is the programme I saw tonight. Grayson Perry, the artist, has made a series of programmes and artworks exploring the central question of identity, “who are you?” [4 On Demand has the programme here, but this will NOT be available after 4th December 2014, nor if you are outside of the UK]. He explored this through three groups tonight; the others were Northern Irish Loyalists, exploring their attachment to and celebration of Britain, of a Britishness that most people living in Britain today would struggle to recognise, and a group of BBWs (Big Beautiful Women), who are on the same path towards acceptance and equality that – as Perry said – gayness was a decade ago, that women were a century ago. And then there were the Deaf. He interviewed a family; Tomato and Paula, both in their late thirties, from North London, both … many might describe them as being militantly deaf. They have two daughters, both of whom are deaf, but the film showed Perry going with them to the audiologist when their youngest daughter’s hearing was checked over. Perry asked a key question: “how do you feel about the audiology exam, the language that the audiologist has used”, as the audiologist was saying that it was good that their daughter’s hearing had not deteriorated any more. Tomato explained that he felt it was almost abusive, because he remembered his own childhood, of similar exams, of watching his parents anxiously watching him, praying that there had been some improvement in his hearing, and wanting so much to please his parents, reading their body language and the audiologist’s to give a false reading, and the … joy of his parents, reinforcing the message that was given to him: your deafness is bad, a horrible thing. It brought memories back of my own in the same situation: of watching the back of the audiologist’s hand, of wanting so badly to be normal and to make my parents happy and the deep fear and sorrow when I felt that I had let them down.
Later, Tomato showed Perry the home made punk style hearing aid covers from his youth. These, simple metal covers designed to fit over a hearing aid, with a row of spikes protruding from them, like a row of mohican spikes, spoke eloquently to Perry, and to me, for quite different reasons. Tomato, evidently, had chosen to celebrate his deafness in his youth, to play up his hearing aids, to be, almost, ‘in-your-face’ about his deafness and his hearing aids. It spoke eloquently of a pride and a confidence that I could only watch, enviously. I think back to my own formative years, and while I was never into the punk movement, so would never have reached out for the same kind of imagery, I also cannot find an example of any way that I was similarly celebratory about my deafness.
Quite the opposite in fact.
I experienced my deafness through the prism of school. I mixed with other deaf people in deaf clubs for a very short while after leaving school, for perhaps a year or two, and then for around 5 years with people who were more like me – who spoke, who might know sign language but who came from hearing families and sort of straddled both worlds, the hearing and the deaf. And then I left it totally and had no deaf friends at all, no deaf contact. These days, when I think of my experiences with the Deaf, I think of school. And since I had a bad time at school, my thoughts about the Deaf, about the Deaf community, are pretty negative.
But what I was seeing with Tomato and Paula showed me, clearly, that they didn’t see it that way. And I thought about a conversation I had recently with someone who was hearing, but who had Deaf parents, and who had grown up in the Deaf community. I had talked to her about why I chose not to be involved in the Deaf community, about my negative experiences of it. I found it cliqueish, closed minded, unaccepting of anything different from the mainstream (ironically so). I detested that, so I left it. She simply said at the time that she didn’t see it that way, which I accepted – perhaps she instinctively understood that I wasn’t ready to see her world the way she saw it, I don’t know.
But now, having watched that programme, I wonder: have I, in rejecting the Deaf community so wholeheartedly, condemning them all for the actions of a few, dismissing them as being cliqueish, narrowminded, have I done damage to myself?
I don’t mean here, in terms of what I’m potentially missing out on, although that’s an element too. [I certainly know that Deaf Culture can be expressively beautiful and joyous.] I mean: in relating the term DEAF with something so overwhelmingly negative, what message am I sending to myself, about myself? Am I hating on myself, to use the American term, in a way that is doing overwhelming damage to myself? And even more key: if I hate, and am ashamed, and embarrassed about, and feel I have to excuse and make up for my own deafness…. how the hell can I ever expect anyone else not to? How can I expect, demand even, that other people step up to the plate and make the amendments that they SHOULD make, on the basis of equality? And in having such a negative image of the Deaf, am I setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy for when I do encounter Deaf people?
Again, this goes to the heart of a conversation I have had with one of my interpreters, who is turning into a good friend but who is also, slowly (bless her heart), helping me to see that the Deaf world does not have to be the overwhelmingly negative one that I was subjected to for so long. And I suppose tonight is the nex step along the path she’s been dragging me along for the last 3 years: that deaf people are people, that they behave both well and badly, that there are people who are good for you and bad for you, and that to reject someone on the basis of their chosen linguistic style and choice of culture/community, even by dint of just choosing not to interact with that culture even when multiple opportunities are laid in front of you, is wrong. It is disabilist in the worst way. And that’s something I need to stop doing if I am to develop a sense of pride in who I am, deafness, warts n all. If I am going to demand that people accept me as I am, deafness, warts and all. If I am going to demand that people give me the access to make the most of myself, deafness, warts n all.
I’m not sure where I’m going to go from here. But I think even just writing this, realising this, is quite a breakthrough. Perhaps the next step is to stop resisting joining the Deaf community, to reach out, see who’s out there, and to form some healthy, positive friendships with people who are good for me, and where I am good for them. Perhaps from that a new, positive sense of deaf self-identity can grow within me, and merge to join the rest of my identity, to form the whole that is me.