‘What’s wrong? She’s deaf not daft.’
My mother’s friend, Mrs T, was admonishing a passer-by on Victoria Station as the children waited for their train. The woman wrought this mother’s wrath by staring at the noisy party preparing to return to their boarding school in Sussex. The group including my sister were all deaf. Only the chaperones and teachers could hear. My mother, unlike her friend, never challenged gawkers – I’d been told to stare back so I did. At eight years old I relished breaking rules that, somehow, didn’t apply here.
Before television was widely available, few people understood the Deaf, often referring to them as ‘deaf and dumb’ regardless of whether they used their voices. The noisy rabble on the platform should have put paid to that misconception. Hearing and deaf siblings were causing an equal measure of commotion, their joy equal as they faced each other, touched arms for attention, waved hands at their mothers. Of course, their speech was different – some would say odd – as was their body language. After all, they had never heard the words they used. Some shouted. Others were quieter. But they were never dumb.
Years later several people referred to my bravery, even imprudence, at having babies. Wasn’t I being rash, risking bringing a deaf child into the world? Few recognized the difference between the born deaf and the deafened. My sister was in the latter group. It was not genetics but the meningitis as a baby that left her profoundly deaf. Another myth is that all deaf children can be helped with hearing aids but for the profoundly deaf there is nothing. Also, in 1953 no-one could foresee the cochlear implant.
It was three years before her diagnosis, with my mother repeatedly dismissed as neurotic. Even now some deaf children are misdiagnosed with learning or behavioural difficulties. Their other senses and curiosity enable behaviour which gives the impression they can hear.
In wartime, the tentacles of conscription extended into the heart of schools for the deaf, with young men and women snatched from their vocation. Teacher of the Deaf was not a reserved occupation. Even today, charities must campaign to retain funding; such is the invisibility of deafness.
Our local authority, Hertfordshire, refused to fund her boarding school until she was seven, despite professional advice that language and learning opportunities were being lost. Specialist teaching from three was available privately at Mill Hall with Mary Corbishley. An ‘oral’ school for the deaf, the children were taught to speak and lipread. Sign language was forbidden although children with deaf parents often signed at home.
As a baby, I didn’t have to be told that my sister couldn’t hear. Somehow I knew and, from an early age, would smile and wave to get her attention, crawl over, tug her clothes and point.
Family entertainment was visual. Radio and music didn’t feature. We played card and board games. Ice shows and circuses were ‘in’; pantomimes with oral banter and jokes, were ‘out’. ‘Signed’ performances with a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter are now available but not then. On cinema trips, we sat in the back row mouthing parts of the storyline at intervals during the film. Likewise with explaining who’s who and what’s happening on television. But the Deaf never get the whole story, only disjointed snapshots.
Family events were difficult. There was the uncle who shouted behind her back, moustachioed and bearded uncles, who mumbled behind their hair, the aunt with a hare lip and cousins, who weren’t taught to get her attention, face her, wait and speak slowly and clearly. She sat always on the periphery, isolated and unable to join in fast-running debates. We always left early.
At thirteen, my sister gained a place at Mary Hare Grammar School for the Deaf again an oral environment. She was a Queen’s Guide and camped one year with her hearing peers from Harpenden. Excelling at sport, she later played weekly fixtures in the Harpenden Ladies Hockey team. A brilliant tennis player, she always made the semi-final or final in the local tennis club championships.
On leaving school, she trained on the comptometer. Highly intelligent, she could only do repetitive boring jobs with no use of the phone or face-to-face contact. Isolated and frustrated she battled depression, a common problem for deaf youngsters.
Fiercely independent, she bought a scooter, passed her driving test and then the advanced driving diploma. Her success featured in the local paper, the banner headline ‘Young person overcomes disability’. Later she learnt to drive. People asked me, should she drive? Wasn’t it dangerous? ‘Well,’ I said, ‘hearing drivers with music blaring out of their in-car entertainment can’t hear an ambulance or car horn either.’ I still have to repeat this analogy.
The stance on signing has changed with most schools for the deaf using mixed oral and sign methods. The Deaf world has a vibrant network and, as adults, even the oral deaf resort to signing, the main form of deaf communication in the many deaf clubs in the country.
Eventually my sister met her to-be husband, who is ‘deaf without speech’ and uses finger spelling with a smattering of Australian sign language. Far from a language barrier, they communicated well from their first meeting and lead a full life travelling the country to Deaf events and abroad on holiday. They beat us at Scrabble and are certainly not daft.
For important meetings and medical appointments they have a qualified interpreter but clearly they are unusual or lucky, as the charity Action on Hearing Loss is campaigning via Facebook and Twitter for every deaf person to have an interpreter at GP appointments. My mother, a founder member of the National Deaf Chldren’s Society, would be appalled at such lack of progress over seventy years.
Even as recently as 2005, at the time of my sister’s hip replacement, I accompanied her at her admission to the ward, demonstrating her lipreading skills and her notebook and pen to use for difficult or important words. Yet half an hour later a nurse brought her a satellite phone. When the interpreter arrived she expressed little surprise. Eventually I returned to the hospital armed with a guide sheet. This was greeted with immense appreciation, the nurses’ training apparently having missed out this element of communication.
Now attitudes are less biased, although only three years ago, visiting Harpenden for research, someone had an eureka moment and referred to remembering my ‘deaf and dumb sister.’
Unfortunately, some things never change.
Note: The National Deaf Children’s Society have launched a campaign LOOK, SMILE, CHAT, with learning resources and lesson plans to bridge the gap in understanding.