I have always wondered this. As individuals, do we have to belong to a particular group in order to create our identities? Or is identity something we create for ourselves – through our experiences, likes and dislikes, what we choose and don’t choose? A lot of questions to answer for one person. It seems like belonging, too, is a particularly difficult question for a deaf person. What happens when you’re not sure if you’re part of the deaf community or if you’re part of the hearing world? Can you be both? Is there a space in-between, inhabited by people like myself, my sister and some of my friends? My answer – yes there is. That space in-between is more common, especially with people who may have been mainstreamed, or people who have a hearing family. It isn’t an exclusive place to be – I’ve always thought it was just different. It can be difficult because you are always trying to work out what your deaf identity is. At least that is true for me.
I accept that my BSL is not of ‘native’ proficiency, though I use total communication with my sister (lipreading, speech, sign and so on) and my deaf friends. It doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the contested ground of oralism, the issues around cochlear implantation at an early age, or how important it is to preserve Deaf history, culture and language. I’ve always found myself coming back to my deaf identity, and the deaf identity of other D/deaf people. It’s a fascination and a place that I’ve come to know well. Both my degrees (Sociology and Women’s Studies), ended with me doing research involving access for deaf people, and deaf women’s autobiography. I didn’t necessarily know any other deaf people on Campus at University (I only met one deaf person). What was I looking for? It might have been a sense of belonging, or of similarity. Recognising my own experiences with those of other deaf people. You might ask, as a hearing person – why is this so important? As someone who grew up without mixing much with the deaf community, why is embracing Deaf culture and identity so important to me?
The first time I was at University, I was quite lonely. My partner lived in Edinburgh (just two hours train journey from York) and my family in London (again, two hours away by train). So I became very independent and grew to understand myself better. It wasn’t that I was surrounded by unfriendly people – quite the contrary! Everyone was friendly. Its just that I couldn’t always join in – I couldn’t pop out with them to the cinema because there were hardly any subtitled showings, and the same for going to the theatre. At that point, I was definitely not a party animal – still introverted and more interested in arts, culture and film than partying (though there is definitely nothing wrong with that!). I loved my course more than anything – Sociology at York was (and is) very innovative. So I did feel that this balanced out how lonely I felt. This explains my research focus on deaf people – by the time the third year rolled around, I knew the importance, more than ever, of access within all parts of society for deaf people.
Doing my MA was much better. The Women’s Studies department at York is a very special and unique place. I did feel that I belonged there. Maybe by this point, my identity had changed – and part of this was because of Feminism and blogging. Feminism gave me something more to fight for. It gave me the strength to understand things about society and about life that I didn’t feel were right. When I was at York this second time, it gave me something else – a deeper understanding of myself and of the nuances of intersectionality. Feminism has had a fraught relationship with intersectionality – with including women of colour, disabled women and other important experiences of the world. Identity is important to that understanding of feminism. It is about privilege, recognising that privilege and listening to people that know their experiences best.
That brings me to another important thought. Belonging is not so much about what group you belong to. It is more about shared experience, and you can find shared experience within all parts of society. Oppression and lack of access apply to many people. Many people are excluded from many things. It is just the specifics of that lack of access and oppression that might be different. I find it important to embrace BSL and Deaf culture and history because as a deaf person, my history is part of that dialogue. I can’t escape it; there is still so much to do – access is still something I have to push for in all areas of my life. It is also enriching and powerful, and it can be the thing that is missing from the picture. History and culture show people how far we have come, and how far there is to go.
Deaf identity is, then, not always about where you belong. At least not so much for me. It is an understanding and appreciation of culture and language, of access and shared experience. It isn’t one or the other – the deaf world or the hearing world – it is the best and worst of both. Being between worlds is difficult to accept, in the first place. I’ve struggled with it for a long time. Yet now, it seems like a comfortable place, full of possibilities, still with much to fight for, but also much to gain.
That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong. ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald.