I have just had my sister and brother-in-law staying for a few days in Swanage. What’s new in that, you might say? Well there is no doubt a great difference between your family visitors and mine. Both my sister and her husband are profoundly deaf which means there is nothing that can help them – no hearing aids, cochlear implant – as the nerves are dead.
So here is one myth about deaf people which I wish to dispel – Can’t they wear a hearing aid? No, not all deaf people can use technology.
On Saturday afternoon we visited Durlston Castle, a short walk from the centre of Swanage. It was an enjoyable afternoon which was slightly spoilt by the attitudes of other visitors. When a deaf couple are walking around a visitor attraction they will interact just as hearing people do by talking to each other. The difference is that hearing people can walk and talk all at the same time. Not so the deaf. To speak to each other, they need to stop walking and concentrate their eyes on their partner’s face, lips and hands. It would appear that those on holiday who were visiting Durlston were in a great hurry, impatient to get to where they were going and their inability to get past this couple prompted large sighs of exasperation, exclamations and quite angry facial expressions. No, the deaf couple are not rude. They do not hear people coming up behind them and they do not hear you – you know who you are – say ‘excuse me’ even when you say it for the second time in a loud cross voice. These hearing people lack any iota of deaf awareness and only show themselves up. So next time you come across two people who are holding you up, just take a minute to consider that they might be deaf. My sister is very polite and she says ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ very clearly which is more than any of the hearing people did that afternoon.
Deafness is a hidden disability and there has not been enough Deaf Awareness over the years. My mother was a founder member of the Deaf Children’s Society, now the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) and if she was still alive she would be very disappointed and, dare I say, angry that things are not that much better since her campaigning during and after the Second World War. I am still asked questions which make me hold my breath and count to ten.
Should deaf people drive? Of course. They are more alert than many hearing drivers and those with loud music thumping out of their vehicle are more likely to have an accident, especially as they are singing and closing their eyes revelling in their latest favourite hit.
Surely they all have these implants now? No, there are many older deaf people and they cannot have the Cochlear Implant (CI). These are suitable for some younger children.
Are they deaf and dumb? Most deaf people have healthy vocal chords but many have not been taught how to use them. The connotations of ‘dumb’ are negative and it is more appropriate to say Deaf without Speech now. New terms such as ‘hearing loss’ and hearing impairment’ are sometimes used as the term ‘deaf’ is not accurate for all. Most deaf people would describe themselves as ‘deaf’.
Weren’t you taking a chance having children yourself? My sister’s deafness is due to suffering meningitis at the age of six months. My brother-in-law does have some deaf relations but he married a hearing girl and has two hearing grown up children and three hearing grandchildren. Deaf culture does not see ‘deafness’ as a negative. The deaf world is vibrant and few deaf people would forgo having children.
Does she sign? My sister went to an ‘oral’ school for the deaf where she was taught to speak and lipread. In the 1940s and 1950s signing was frowned on but more recently there has been a move to ‘total communication’ which is the use of all methods, writing down, finger spelling and British Sign Language (BSL) as well as speaking and lipreading. Even deaf adults who were taught orally, eventually learn to sign as this is the best way to communicate with other deaf people. Also signing is a useful skill for times when an interpreter is used, for example in a GP appointment or hospital consultation/operation.
A few pointers now for recognising the deaf and communicating with them.
1. Deaf people do not respond unless they have face to face contact. If someone does not respond, rather than think they are rude, consider they may be deaf.
2. Always face the deaf person and WAIT until they are looking at your directly before speaking.
3. Get the deaf person’s attention before starting to speak by waving to them or touching their arm.
4. Don’t shout.
5 Speak normally but with clear open mouth movements. Speak slowly though and do not let words ‘run together’. Separate the words clearly.
6 If you can’t learn BSL, at least learn some finger spelling so that you can spell out difficult words.
7. Try to use simple language and only essential words while still speaking in sentences. Deaf people cannot follow you if you elaborate your speech.
8. If you see they do not lipread a word, repeat it slower and more clearly. Failing that try another word which may be lipread more easily.
9. Write down information if they cannot lipread or do not understand.
10 Make sure your face is in a good light. Do not have your back to the sun or the window.
I hope this has been useful. Please comment on what is my first Deaf blog.