Writing some of the essays for my book has been harder than I expected. In the past few years, so much has happened that has made me question the way I see my identity as a deaf person, and as someone who believes in inclusion (which, in practice, can be messy and incomplete). It has been complicated to fully express the nuances of my experiences as a deaf person.
My ‘deaf identity’ probably looks straightforward to most. I grew up in a hearing family, went to a mainstream primary without an HIU (hearing impaired unit, with support teachers), occasionally supported by an in-class teacher of the deaf. I followed this by going to a large London secondary with an HIU, mixed with mainstream peers, and thrived academically (but experienced the mainstream effect of friendship problems, anxiety, and some loneliness). With a deaf sister, I didn’t feel like my deafness itself was a problem, but that there were a lot of access and communication barriers within society, education, and services. Since my deafness became worse after I had acquired language (as did my sister’s – we have profound sensorineural progressive loss), I was already an English speaker and writer/reader – and obviously, a voracious reader, encouraged by our parents! British sign language (BSL), the fingerspelling alphabet, and the idea of a deaf community came a little later.
I mixed with other deaf children and adult role models through our local NDCS (National Deaf Children’s Society), so was lucky enough that my sense of identity as a deaf person didn’t include feelings of isolation or a sense of ‘lack’. I could still do the things that I loved to do, and I was encouraged to explore the things that interested me and that I was good at as a child. Looking back, I realise how important these things are when you’re a deaf child. Role models, access to language – either BSL or speech or both, whichever is the easiest for the child to pick up (because they are both valid and complex languages), positive reinforcement and encouragement, and ways for a child to express themselves – these things mean that as we grow up, deaf people have a positive understanding of their own identity. They help you get through the tough things, all the barriers to push through, all the inevitably difficult moments.
This is where the messiness creeps in. I dislike calling myself ‘oral’, because though it’s my most used means of communication, it doesn’t mean that this is how I see myself. Maybe to some deaf people I am ‘oral’, because it’s the way I’ve been brought up. I respect BSL as a language with its own grammar structure, linguistics, and history, and how it has changed over time. I picked up some of it here and there through performing on stage signing songs (at Chickenshed), through informal lessons, and through using it with deaf friends when I was younger. It has always been there. On the periphery. It’s not my prime method of communication, because somehow, I feel a little awkward signing. It depends who I’m with, and how comfortable I feel. I know, deep down, that I have a good grasp of vocabulary, that my receptive skills (‘reading’ sign language) are fair, and that when comfortable, I can get into a flow. And, around seven years ago, I jumped at the chance to learn level 2 formally with my sister (after learning level 1 as part of my AS Levels twelve years ago).
Then there’s how I feel about speaking too. My voice is quiet – mostly because this is just the way my voice is. At school, I developed a complex about it, and as a result, worry about whether or not I’m loud enough in hearing company. In deaf company, it tends not to matter as much, because we use a mix of communication methods – from lipreading, to BSL and SSE (sign supported English) – whatever works, basically. My preference is as open and adaptable as possible. I may not always feel comfortable in my own BSL proficiency, but I still consider it part of my communication repertoire. The truth is, everyone has their own ‘signing voice’ – their own way of signing, and when part of informal company, that’s fine. Maybe as we get older, we grow into feeling more comfortable with who we are, the way we speak, and the way we express ourselves. It matters less what people think of us, so long as we are comfortable with ourselves.
I’ve been burnt, at times, with my contact with some people within the UK deaf community. Most people I know are lovely, and wouldn’t dream of excluding people, or imposing their own views, or demanding that you change your identity to fit in. Mostly, the burning has been psychological, from coming in contact with people who can’t see (or don’t care about) the damage they do to those around them, and leave people dealing with the aftermath. People who are convinced that their way is the best way. As a result, it has been difficult to rebuild my understanding of my personal deaf identity. I’ve always felt that I can adapt, but part of me recoils now from being too involved in deaf politics, or building my whole identity around deaf culture. I find myself considering what it all means to be in the middle, neither here nor there. But humans are such contradictions, and we hold so many contradictory traits, behaviours, and beliefs anyway. We can’t be all one thing, we are things by degrees.
Communication access is the biggest, most important thing, regardless of anything else – this includes subtitling and captioning, speech to text, technology that works (so many current problems with speech recognition apps!), lipspeakers, BSL interpreters. Yet I do understand that the fight for global sign languages to be recognised is hugely important too, because this should lead to better access to interpreters and better training. It should lead to better understanding and deaf awareness. Or, that is the hope. Deaf awareness is more complicated than just – she’s deaf, she signs – or he’s deaf, he lipreads. And deafness is one of those things that has a major psychological and social impact because it’s all about how we communicate with each other, all about being as inclusive as possible, learning how to adapt to the company you’re in. For some, that’s difficult, but it reaps so many rewards, and can improve your communication across the board.
Writing through the contradictions, I’m reminded that sometimes, you don’t have to ‘be’ anything. It is only through our contact with others that we feel we have to quantify who and what we are. The more I go through life, the more I understand that sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Identity isn’t necessarily about the components, but about the whole. Humans are messy and complicated, bits of us might be broken or confusing, and some of us might still be trying to work out who we are. There are always more questions than answers.
‘I have to say that my Deafness is an intrinsic part of me. It is going to be in everything I write. I am also a woman, and that will also be a part of everything I write. I cannot separate myself from either Deafness or my womanhood.’ – Emmanuelle Laborit, 2007