Today, I am a Deaf adult.

Recently, I’ve been reading a new blog over at Becoming Deaf, written by Indi, whose experiences I can identify with. She even has her own ‘things not to say to deaf people’ list, and I suspect she’s been much gentler in her responses than I was in my own lists… I digress. As well as discussing the issue of speech, which I may well take up in a future post, she blogged about being ‘Somewhere Between Deaf and Hearing’ and throws open a question about how people have come to accept their identity. I’ve also been reading Melissa Mostyn-Thomas’ musings over at her Journal on ‘Writing, BSL, my Deaf identity and me’, and with all the stuff I’ve been reading for my dissertation, I’ve got identity themes swirling around.

Identity is a fluid, complex subject at the best of times. Today, I identify as a Deaf adult. With or without the capital ‘D’, I’m deaf. Functionally, I’m missing an average of 90 – 95dB, which makes me profoundly deaf. In non-technical terms, I’d be hard put to it to notice a pneumatic drill or a low-flying aircraft without my hearing-aids. Well, I’d still be able to see them, but you get my drift. I’m D/deaf.

But I didn’t always see myself this way.

A little while ago, someone called me ‘hearing impaired’ to my face. Right to my face. I’ll admit it, I blinked. I looked across to the interpreter to see if I’d lip-read them correctly, but they chickened out and signed ‘deaf people’. Aha, a bit of cultural interpreting there, I fancy, but I know what I saw.

I should say at this point, I am not in any way criticising the phenomenon of cultural interpreting, it is a commonplace, even necessary part of translation; languages are so different that colloquial phrases are often ‘lost in translation’ and culturally sensitive interpreting keeps the meaning. When this person said ‘hearing impaired’ they did mean deaf people in general. It just took me by surprise.

Nobody has called me ‘broken’ to my face in years. Besides, the interpreter in question probably (correctly) guessed that signing ‘hearing impaired’ would get some reaction that the hearing person I was talking to would notice, be it anything from a raised eyebrow to slamming down my pen and screaming “they said what?!”

Then I had a dilemma. To correct or not to correct? “Excuse me, please don’t call me deficient”. In the end, I decided to let it lie. Then I wondered why it was even a big deal. Really, it’s just a phrase. Hearing people often think they’re being politically correct when they use it. It’s used in an official capacity, and is almost commonplace. Why did I even have an urge to correct her in the first place?

I think ‘Hearing Impaired’ came about as an attempt to be a) PC and b) to cover all hearing losses from hard-of-hearing right the way through to profoundly deaf whilst being suitably vague as to not reveal level of actual deafness, in one fell swoop.

The problem with that is, ‘hearing impaired’ effectively says ‘hearing damaged’ (the sign it translates to) ‘hearing deficient’ ‘hearing broken’ ‘a hearing person who HAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEIR HEARING’ ‘hearing abnormal’. Not really the image one wants when one is trying to present deafness as just another spectrum within the bounds of ‘normal’ (See Georges Canguilhem’s book for a fascinating discussion on ‘The Normal and The Pathological’).

To me, my deafness is not what holds me back. What holds me back is society’s inability and sometimes even unwillingness to adapt to it. If there were visual display systems everywhere as a matter of course and all children taught basic sign language (studies have shown that sign language at a young age can improve language uptake, so why not use that instead of bloody phonics?) then the lives of many deaf / HoH / ‘hearing impaired’ people would be improved. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me at all (iffy legs notwithstanding). Plus, ‘deaf’ is, to me anyway, a neutral, factual term, whilst ‘hearing impaired’ says ‘broken hearing person’.

The thing is that until I was about 19, I did see myself as hearing impaired. I’d been told I was hearing impaired all my life, been complimented on my speech, been told that I ‘didn’t need to sign’, congratulated for not doing so, told I was doing ever so well, congratulated for even being able to talk, constantly told that being hearing impaired wasn’t going to hold me back at all because I was so clever. Honestly, there are a few people I’d like to take aside now and have a word with them about messing with kids’ heads.

The problem with the above was that I was still struggling. I was falling behind in school and I couldn’t cope in social situations at all. I can hear voices, certainly well enough to mimic words and be complimented on how well I can do so, but only if the voice is clear, with no distractions, and I can only make sense of the voice if I can see the lips, or have other visual clues such as, say, subtitles. Otherwise it’s just random noise. I can’t understand people if there’s any background noise and group conversations are just impossible, it’s like trying to watch multi-player tennis with an invisible ball.

My point being, I was a very unhappy teenager. Whilst I wasn’t officially diagnosed until 20 or so, I’m willing to bet I was severely clinically depressed from about 13 / 14 onwards. Adults kept telling me I had such a good voice and I was going to do ever so well, and yet I wasn’t.

I struggled socially, had only one good friend, rarely understood anything going on round me, was mocked by my peers and occasionally by teachers, teased to death, pushed around, and didn’t do as well in my exams as I knew I should be doing. The school’s own tests in year 7 (for non-UK, the first year of high school), which weren’t based on the curriculum but on aptitude, put me in the top 3% of the entire year. Literally, I was one of the dozen or so smartest out of 300-odd kids. Why was I still getting ‘D’s and ‘C’s? I just couldn’t understand it at all. I started to think it was my own fault for not trying hard enough. Looking back, the answers are obvious now. Heck only knows how much social information and curriculum I was missing.

What got me through was science fiction and books. I’ve always liked reading; curling up and losing myself in a book, creating a whole other world in my head. I credit my love of reading for my English skills; I certainly didn’t get them from school. By the time I was 14, I was reading Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov. Sci-fi shows such as Babylon 5, Space Precinct, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek TNG, DS9 & Voyager, Farscape, Stargate, any sci-fi show that was subtitled, I watched faithfully. Despite not understanding much of ‘real life’ going on round me, my vocabulary was way ahead of most of my peers. So why wasn’t I doing better in school? You’ve no idea how much I used to beat myself up over this.

As Indi says: “For most of my life, I felt like a broken hearing person… my conversations were mostly guessing games and hard work… People get tired of being asked to repeat themselves all the time, and it really doesn’t take long before you start to internalize that you’re just not trying hard enough, that your communication needs are an inconvenience, that there’s something wrong with you.”

Replace the word ‘people’ with ‘moody teenagers who can sense weakness like sharks sense blood’ and you have my pre-Uni education in a nutshell. Leaving school at 18, I was a shy, socially awkward, nervous hearing-impaired wreck.

My life only began to change when I started Uni, started learning sign language, and started to see myself as ‘D/deaf’. A Deaf person who knew their legal rights, a Deaf person who could adapt to different situations, a Deaf person who could have a conversation in the noisiest, rowdiest places, up to and including next to the speakers in nightclubs. A Deaf person with friends. Friends, plural!

In short, a Deaf person who wasn’t embarrassed, ashamed or afraid to ask for or even demand help.

Is it any wonder I still flinch when someone calls me ‘hearing impaired’? It gives me flashbacks to a time when I really thought it was my own fault for not trying hard enough or not being good enough at lip-reading, at fitting in with a world that for the most part has no idea what it’s like to be deaf.

That’s not to say that I’ve found total acceptance in the signing Deaf world. I was lucky at Uni, but in the years since then I’ve done things like make the mistake of making a joke based on an English pun in front of a Deaf person that I didn’t know well. After I had to explain the joke, which had fallen totally flat, they gave me a look of vague disgust, signed “good English”, and then ignored me for the rest of the night. That hurt. So does being called ‘half-hearing’, ‘oral’, and a sign that translates roughly to ‘speaks well’, but not in a nice way.

Thankfully, I’ve not had to put up with too much of that, and on the rare occasion that it happens, I’ve learned to ignore it, or even make a joke of it. And the truth is, despite all this, I’ve found far more understanding and acceptance within the D/deaf world than I have in the hearing world. Even so, when I picture myself in terms of the hearing and Deaf worlds, I usually see myself in the middle of a Venn diagram, not fully part of either world, yet part of both.

Today, I am a confident Deaf adult. I get on stage and perform sign language poetry, sign songs and occasionally plays. I do presentations for the NDCS. I write, whether it’s short plays or blog posts or a potentially controversial dissertation. I try to educate people on how to communicate with me, how to help me, and what it’s like to be deaf. It’s taken me ten years to get here. It’s taken counselling, some medication, support of friends and family and a lot of hard work.

Here I am.

My name is Donna Williams, aka DeafFirefly, and I am Deaf.

Addendum: And I would like to thank everyone at the University of Central Lancashire, 03-06. I really don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t chosen to study Deaf Studies and Philosophy there, if the other D/deaf students hadn’t accepted me so quickly, and taught me to sign. Choosing to study there was the single most important decision I ever made. It changed my life.

19 thoughts on “Today, I am a Deaf adult.

  1. Liz

    Where to start? I can relate to this so much, because even though I succeeded academically with support teachers etc, socially things have always been a bit of a mess. I didn’t make any hearing friends in school, relying on deaf friends who for one reason or another sort of drifted apart towards my A Levels. I ended my last year of A Levels without any deaf friends at school! Thank god for my deaf sister and friends outside school. And books! 🙂 Like you, books and sci fi and supernatural fantasy are my big passions. This has really made me think about how I define my own deaf identity and what definitions we give to ourselves. It can be hard when you speak and love English language, and also love signing, sign song and BSL. I think I’ve always felt like I’m between two worlds somewhere.

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Thanks for your comment, in a way it’s nice to know it wasn’t just me! I so feel you re academic success / social mess. In the end, I’m just glad I got what I needed academically to get myself to Uni. Am glad you had sister and friends to help you and big props on the books 🙂 It is really hard, I agree, but finally I realised that so long as I am comfortable with myself (not easy to do) and who I am, then that’s most of the battle won. Still a big battle though! I hope I’ve helped with yours. Hugs from a fellow in-betweener / geek.

  2. Rosie Coomber

    Amazing blog as always. Identity is such an interesting and personal experience. You are Donna Williams – you are FAB! x

  3. Indi

    If I could hug this post (or you), I would.

    I, too, have been spending the better part of the last year examining the theme of identity and acceptance – not just Deaf identity, but many different intersections. It’s hard to be in the middle of the Venn Diagram, no matter what the circles are. It’s good to have company.

    “To me, my deafness is not what holds me back. What holds me back is society’s inability and sometimes even unwillingness to adapt to it.” I couldn’t agree more. There is so much misinformation being handed about, reinforced by doctors, policies, so-called PC language, the media… The people that call me “hearing impaired” (cringing) or ask really offensive questions don’t usually *mean* to be rude or insulting. They’re trying to be nice, polite, they don’t know better. It’s not their fault, but it’s certainly not mine either. It seems to me that it wouldn’t really be that hard for the hearing world to adjust a little to make it better for everyone… some general education; captioning available on all videos; sign language taught early on; cultural training for doctors, audiologists, police officers. As deaf people, we learn to make everything easier for the hearing folks we encounter. We work hard to bridge communication gaps. We politely fend off insensitive comments and questions. We often have to fight for basic accessibility. Why is it such a strange concept that hearing people should have to work a little to meet us in the middle??? Why is the burden usually placed on deaf shoulders?

    I apologize for the rant – basically added a whole rambly blog post at the end of yours. I’m very happy to be reading your blog, and thank you very much for reading mine.

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Thanks for the hug, and no worries re the rant, I too know what it’s like to go off on one, have done it a few times on here 🙂 I so agree with everything you’ve said, and try to do my bit to raise awareness, but sometimes it does feel like I’m fighting the tide. Still, gotta try though! Am glad to have your company in the middle of this Venn diagram 🙂

  4. mmostynthomas

    Hi Donna

    Thanks for the pingback to my blog – much appreciated.

    A lot of what you’ve written resonates with me. I got picked on at school too – ironically by deaf peers, but that was more to do with my being a non-conformist geek than anything else. (In my first year, while other girls were into achingly cool ’80s drainpipes I was sporting a vintage navy corduroy pinafore and thick purple tights.)

    In retrospective, the overwhelming sense of tribalism at that school was probably due to everyone else searching for an identity too, and I didn’t really fit anywhere. That I was still struggling to adjust to the drop in my hearing levels at age 11 didn’t help, and made worse by the fact that I didn’t even know. My teachers may or may not have, but they didn’t do anything about it. It was as if they thought, ‘Well, she’s deaf anyway, so what does it matter?’

    But it did. It bothered me that I wasn’t understanding as much as I used to, and that it affected my learning. I did fairly well in my ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, but they could have been so much better had I received a bilingual deaf education.

    Ultimately, it didn’t matter how good my speech was or how well I wrote – I still needed BSL in my life. I am so glad I do now.

  5. deaffirefly Post author

    Hey Melissa,

    You’re very welcome, I identified with a lot of what you wrote.

    Clearly ahead of your time! It’s a good point re tribalism, and I can identify with the feeling of not fitting in anywhere. I’m sorry your teachers were so useless.

    I can get that, I’m still pissed off that my GCSE and A level results weren’t better, I’m convinced I could have achieved more with more support.

    Amen, Sister.

  6. dior1978

    Hi deaffirefly

    I really found your blog interesting. I related with a lot of it even though I’m not deaf. I’m dyslexic and it wasn’t diagnosed until I was 24. I am now almost 34 and I have learnt much about myself since then. I wish I had know long ago because I too felt I could do more but no matter how hard I tried my work never reflected the effort I’d put in. I am very good at visual and hands on projects but anything academic just doesn’t make sense. It’s like I can hear the English and I can almost always understand it and even analyse it but as soon as it comes to writing it down it reads badly and does in no way reflect my intellectual and emotional ability. I too only had 1 friend at school but I would spend most of my time alone in the art it woodwork rooms. I got bullied everyday for the 7 yrs I was at secondary school and this carried on when I got back home. The bullying was usually things of mine being stolen, name calling and being punched and having chemicals thrown at me in the toilets. I always thought it was because I’m not good enough and even to this day I still have to fight to push those thoughts out of my head and believe that I am a good person.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It has helped me see that I’m not alone and that we are all similar in some way or another no matter what we are or where we have come from or what label we give ourselves.

  7. deaffirefly Post author

    Hello Dior,

    Thanks for the response, and I’d like to send some hugs to you. I’m sorry your school experience was so shit, but am glad you’ve been able to discover the dyslexia and learn more about yourself since then. I have learnt far more about myself in the last ten years than I did in seven years of misery. I can identify with the low self-esteem, even now I’m still prone to the occasional depressive spiral and have to tell myself positive thoughts. You are great, thanks for sharing your experiences, and for replying to this post. I’m glad if I’ve helped, and you’re right, we are all similar in one way or another. Amen to that, hugs again.

    1. dior1978

      Thank you for your lovely response. I do hope your positivity like mine and many others keeps on growing. Take care. Dior x big hugs back

  8. John Walker

    Oh gosh, this is creepy. You have my story down to a tee. I spent most of my youth in a book and, believe it or not, books of Issac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke.

    I came to a point about 15 years ago when I realised that no one is going to give me the golden scissors and a red ribbon to declare my entry to the Deaf world. It doesn’t exist. So I decided that this declaration has to come from within and I called it coming out. I allowed myself to be a multifaceted, pluralist, and complex individual and being Deaf was one of them. I often lived by a statement that someone else shared with me, “I was once an imperfect hearing person but now I am a perfect Deaf person.” It helps me to explain why ‘hearing impaired’ does not sit well with who I am.

    I tend to now stop sitting somewhere in-between two worlds because it is too easy to slip into the ‘no mans land’ between them. I felt like I was on the fence and not able to stake my claim in either world for quite a long while. So, I changed my Venn diagram. Instead of sitting in the gap between two circles, I have now placed my name twice, one in each circle. This is what it means to be a bilingual, bicultural person. I am in both worlds. I will never slip back into the ether because that is where I was before; neither here nor there. Well, I am glad you’re here. 😉

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Hey, thanks for this great reply.

      Arthur C Clarke – another great writer, good taste 🙂

      Maybe this blog post is my ‘coming out’? I really like that statement, I might pinch it for my mantra!

      I’m finding your words pretty inspirational, given me some food for thought. I think of myself as bilingual and bicultural, but I’m not sure I’ve been so pro-active with my Venn diagram, maybe something to aim for. Well, I’m glad to be here too, wherever ‘here’ is 🙂

  9. Karen Wikholm

    Hey Donna,

    My Venn diagram doesn’t exist. I have my name above a circle, and all the things that I am goes into it. I’m not entirely sure I believe in labels for myself, but understand that some people (perhaps most) in society feel the need for labels. It helps the world to function and certainly helps the Government to save money (oh you’re able to walk to the toilet from your bathroom? Sorry you’re not disabled enough).

    I was one of those fortunate enough to meet you at uni and shared some of that journey with you. I once made the mistake of ‘helping’ you at the bar in the pub once because the barman had not understood what you’d said, but I never did it again – it was a strong learning lesson for me!!! (I still to this day say that I’d have done the same for a hearing friend :P)

    It’s opened my eyes a little to struggles I didn’t know you’d gone through but I already knew how strong a person you are when we sat next to each other for the first time at uni. Words that come to mind when I think of you are strong, determined, intellectual, someone who communicates in BSL and in English and that English being better than mine even though I studied it at uni with Deaf Studies!

    You’ve obviously brought yourself through a battle, one where the Borg could have won, but with you at the helm they didn’t stand a chance 😉

    It’s a pleasure having you as a friend and a peer. It was also great to see you go through your transformation at uni. As a trainee interpreter/CSW I now aspire to help d/Deaf students in college who are going through the beginning of that phase of their lives. If I can help those students get through college and on to uni or employment then I’ve done my job. I’ve also eradicated the term ‘hearing impaired’ and had it replaced with d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing! 😉 I love my job and I must say that where I work has been very pro-active and they have the right attitude and determination to do it right (not just assume they’re doing it right but finding out what ‘right’ is!

    You’ve been an inspiration to me Donna Williams and I think of you often! I look forward to seeing you on stage one day 🙂

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Wow Karen, thanks for this reply.

      It’s an interesting point re labels, and I feel you re the government, my version is “oh, your English is good? You don’t have any trouble communicating then, say bye bye to ten points.”

      I remember that well, in retrospect maybe I came down on you a little hard lol but glad you took it well, and I’m sure you would have 🙂

      Thank you so much for all that, and I thought you were pretty great as well, you continued signing with me even though you knew I could talk (some don’t, they start to get ‘lazy’, you never did), and your BSL got pretty good too, think we were on a learning curve togetether 🙂 Good times – ice skating hehe.

      Phasers on full! 🙂

      The same to you, and you helped with that transformation. Good on you, I’m really glad you love your work and that you’ve found a good environment to do it.

      Thanks! Same here, I wonder how you’re getting on and glad things seem to be going well for you. Deffo hope to see you in the audience one day! 🙂

  10. rachel bar

    My reaction to your otherwise amazing post. You say:

    “To me, my deafness is not what holds me back. What holds me back is society’s inability and sometimes even unwillingness to adapt to it. If there were visual display systems everywhere as a matter of course and all children taught basic sign language (studies have shown that sign language at a young age can improve language uptake, so why not use that instead of bloody phonics?) then the lives of many deaf / HoH / ‘hearing impaired’ people would be improved”

    I think this is highly unrealistic and too idealistic. When I came to the US my English was pretty basic, and I had to adapt to the spoken language. I was definitely at a huge disatvantage, but the realistic part of me knew that it’s my job to learn because they would not, and if I don’t I will remain isolated.
    Thinking about schools teaching children to sign, brings up the topic of priority. Should class time be spent on learning how to sign or on teaching a foreign language? If one looks at the world coldly and pragmatically, one would simply calculate the number of times one needs to sign in their every day life as opposed to using Spanish (in California or Texas for instance).
    I don’t have the answer to that, but my hunch is that the first happens more seldom.

    1. John David Walker

      While I empathise with your situation as an immigrant in a new country, where you had to learn a new language in order to function. Donna, alternatively, refers to a language of her own country – so the situation is a tad different. If all children learn the local sign language, then Deaf people would face less barriers to communication.

    2. deaffirefly Post author

      Thanks for saying it’s an amazing post 🙂

      I’m not sure what you mean re adapting to spoken language, moving to a new country and new language is always hard, and of course yes always a good idea to adapt to the native language, kudos on your high fluency of English! I agree, it’s a highly idealistic scenario, but I remain hopeful; when I was in America, I regularly came across people who knew the ASL alphabet because they’d learnt it in kindergarten, and I thought that was lovely. Why not, in UK when kids are learning the alphabet, also teach them the BSL alphabet? The action of the sign may well help them remember the letters. Even this simple attempt and addition to the curriculum could raise awareness of sign language etc. It may be a dream, but I can dream 🙂 Re priority, perhaps not as high as for Spanish etc, granted, but I find sometimes people are fascinated by the language and want to learn it, I hope this curiosity would help uptake. I think a GCSE (high school) qualification is currently being developed in BSL, and it’ll be interesting to see how many pupils take it up.

      I was just trying to show what it would be like in my very ideal world, as I say, I remain hopeful 🙂

  11. Pingback: Donna Williams: What I’ve learned from my journey through depression (with BSL translation) | The Limping Chicken

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