What does it mean to be deaf, for me, in a hearing world? I’ve thought about it from a political perspective, from an access perspective, from a deaf community perspective, and even from the perspective of hearing people.
But what does it mean to me personally? I can’t really step back from all those issues surrounding deafness, or extricate myself from the culture I am in.
But for me, it is a sensual thing, something that is always part of me, something it took a while to accept as part of ME, but which is wrapped up in my identity nontheless. For me it means smell, sight, touch, connection, lip reading, reading, writing, watching and recognition of other deaf people. Smell, because it is something that affects me very much, my moods and how I recognise things and how comforted I feel. I love perfume, I love the smell of many things, some things synthetic and other things that occur everyday, and at special occasions (xmas has a smell, so does easter and birthdays).
Sight is how I, and most deaf people, access the world. Whether by watching sign language, watching body language, watching lips, watching what is going on in a situation. My eyesight, although I have to wear contacts and glasses now (such is the effect of too much reading…), is very sensitive, even when asleep. I can tell when light changes, and what kind of light it is (like, if the light has been turned off when I am asleep or if the sun is coming up). I love art, and photographs and visual spectacles. I am affected by visual mediums, far more than I am affected by audio.
Yet, for me, I have a family who have brought me up with music. I love music, many different kinds, with many different meanings. I can’t hear anything without my hearing aids, so I flit between a world of silence and a world of sounds. Hearing aids don’t make your hearing “normal” whatever that is. They amplify sounds to a certain extent, so I can hear certain music with what residual hearing I have left. Describing how I “hear” music is difficult. It sounds like music and a voice singing, but I can’t actually hear the exact words. So I look up lyrics all the time (sometimes I’m disappointed, but I still like the sound of some songs despite their rubbish lyrics..). I find it hard with music that is high pitched or doesn’t have a bass line, but it really depends on the song.
But then again, I know I’m not an “exception”. I know deaf people who love music, and they can’t “hear” it, but they feel it, they turn up the volume high to feel vibration through their bodies. Also, seeing music is so exciting – through sign song or through dance or through actual visual displays (on computers or with lights or something). Everyone always seems surprised when I say I love music. They think I’m an exception. How do they know? I think people assume things far too much.
Recently, I have been thinking hard about learning BSL (British Sign Language) properly, so I can begin signing and communicating properly with deaf people whose first language is BSL. Unwittingly, I have cut myself off from the deaf community, from being able to communicate back to them. I find it surprisingly easy to understand what some of my friends who use BSL are saying via sign because they express themselves through facial expressions and their bodies. But I don’t yet have the confidence or fluency to let myself go properly. People think sign language is inferior or not as good as English. I say that is a load of rubbish. English is a language in a sea of many. I love English, I love words and meaning that can be conveyed through it. But it doesn’t make another language any less important or interesting, or expressive.
From ‘Redefining ‘Norms’: D/deaf young people’s transitions to independence’ by Gill Valentine and Tracy Skelton:
‘BSL is a complex visual language that has its own structure and grammar (in which location, movement and orientation are the key grammatical concepts) that differs from oral-aural English (Kyle and Woll, 1983; Kyle and Woll, 1985, Sutton-Spence and Woll, 1998). Rather than acting out words, BSL involves the three- dimensional use of space in which hand shapes and the speed, direction and type of movements, combined with facial and bodily expressions, are used to convey meanings. Unlike verbal languages that are essentially linear, visual languages such as BSL can simultaneously convey different pieces of information and layers of meaning. For example, different hands might be used to make subject and object signs within a signing space which can be employed to indicate location, while facial expressions are being used to show intensity, and head movements used to indicate whether this is positive or negative. As a result, in addition to the sort of changes in message that can occur as a result of errors when one spoken language is interpreted into another spoken language – such as the interpreter using a wrong word or pitching the register incorrectly –there is a further inevitable loss of meaning when a visual language is interpreted into a linear spoken language and the written word (Kyle and Woll,1985; Hale, 1997).’
Touch, again, is something I enjoy – I love different textures and the feel of different fabrics and surfaces. I like mixing different textures and patterns. I love stroking our three cats and feeling them purr like car engines, and lick my hands with their rough tongues (usually when I’m eating chocolate – they seem to love chocolate or cheese..). I like walking around barefoot (I always have, which has had some bad accidents!) and I can feel vibrations of people walking around the house or music playing.
So, I’ve always thought that reading and writing are not necessarily oralist dictates. Writing and reading are visual and physical things. I feel that forcing a deaf person to talk, rather than teaching them to write and read and understand the meanings of things, is far more important than speech. I find speech difficult at times, and find eloquency flows more easily when I write. For signers, sign is their expression, their way of being eloquent. I find it so awful that governments and schools force deaf people to speak, to the detriment of understanding, of reading and writing, of sign language.
Speech isn’t the best way to measure achievement. This is why I am angry at a hearing world that thinks being deaf is just “not hearing” or being “deaf and dumb”. No, we are not dumb if we have sign language and can write and read. The word dumb implies stupidity. It makes me angry. Silence isn’t the worst thing in the world. It is a different experience, not an inferior one.
Yet there are things about the hearing world that I love dearly and will always love. I think both worlds need to meet in the middle somewhere. I wish that difference was accepted, that everyone would recognise that everyone has a different experience. We also have commonalities.
Lip reading is exhausting. That is why I want to learn sign language. I only have my BSL stage one certificate, and even that was years ago. I get headaches and feel frustrated and sometimes very angry that I have to constantly say “what?” or “Pardon?” or “can you repeat that please?”. More and more I keep asking people to use their hands (some of my friends and family can fingerspell and know a few signs), especially when I’m tired.
So this dissertation, all the reading I am doing and have done, are really affecting me in a big way. Its been a journey, and one that I will probably continue for a long time.