To Whom It May Concern,
‘Deaf Awareness Week’ is upon us, so we thought we would take this opportunity to highlight what deaf awareness means to all of us. ‘Deaf Awareness Week’ happens for a reason and we wanted to share with you why we think it is important.
First of all, as a collective group of deaf people, we wanted to educate those who want to learn about what deafness is like for some people and how to overcome what may appear to be issues and barriers. In some cases there have been situations related to deaf awareness (or in many cases the lack of it), which have resulted in life threatening or even life-saving events. Although these situations are rare, they are still happening as a result of misunderstandings caused by peoples’ lack of deaf awareness. That is why it is so vitally important to inform you of the various support, needs, abilities and equipment the deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people have and require.
Most people do not realise there is a deaf person besides them, or in front of them. It is the majority of the time, a hidden disability. People only realise it when it becomes visibly clear. The person may start to sign or their hearing device(s) becomes visible. More often than not, when they do not respond to your pleas of “Excuse me please” – they are assumed ignorant or rude.
For some people ‘Deaf Awareness Week’ has started to lose its impact because it feels like it is the same old beat year after year. Although it is one way of trying to drum it into some people who may not be aware of it or what it represents, for some other deaf people they may know the tune all too well. It naturally gets a little irritating for the deaf when they see no changes taking place in society to raise deaf awareness. There is not much point trying to tell other deaf people what they already know. We feel that we need to teach everyone in our society the importance of deaf awareness, whether you are deaf or hearing and touch their inner souls. Deaf people need to actually feel that changes are taking place within the hearing world and that real steps are being taken to reach equality and inclusion for all, regardless of anyone’s disability or differences.
“What are those in your ears?” is one of the most common questions deaf people are asked, by young children especially. Once again, it is because they are visible. “They are hearing aids – they help people to hear more” we say. An amazed expression inevitably takes over their sweet angelic faces. The children then grow up, knowing that deaf people exist. This is because they have interacted and been friends with them, to some extent. Why is it then, that adults who know there are those living with hearing loss around them, cannot make the adjustments to at least meet deaf people half way and show greater deaf awareness??
We travel just like hearing people do, on public transport. Yet we endure panic attacks whenever tannoy announcements are made. Why is this? Because there are no on-screen displays to relay what was said over the tannoys, for those who cannot understand or for those who misheard and would like confirmation, such as – foreigners who cannot speak our language. Sounds consist of many different layers and hold so much information. Yet we, the deaf, hard of hearing, deafened and the deaf blind miss out on hearing and processing vital travel information like this on an everyday basis.
Subtitles (otherwise known as captions) are a vital tool, not only for deaf people but also for many others who would benefit from them. They are inclusive, educational and also they can be turned off whenever they are not needed. Why do we need to keep asking for them to be provided? Why do we need to keep asking for interpreters, be it a Signer, Lip-speaker or note-taker? Surely we are not asking for too much, to be remembered and considered. To be asked what means of support we would like. To be honest, that precise moment when someone who understands, remembers and is deaf-aware comes out of the blue – it is heaven sent. That elated overwhelming feeling is just indescribable. Only a deaf person would understand what it feels like.
Imagine what it would be like if you resided in a country, whose language was not your own native language (both spoken and written). You feel like an illegal alien seeing and feeling the chaos happening all around you. You can just about hear the hustle and bustle but not understand it due to the intensity. It becomes unbearable having to endure this on a daily basis. Then suddenly after what seems to be an extremely long period of isolation, a friendly, considerate and kind person asks you in your mother tongue, if you need any assistance. For you, that would be a God-given moment. This is what it feels like for us to be deaf in our own society, every day.
What if you were seriously ill in hospital and you desperately want to know what is wrong with you and what is happening to you. But you cannot ask, or be understood by the doctors and medical staff. They try to tell you but you cannot understand them. You feel immense frustration at leaving your health and life in their hands while realising just how fragile it is and how little you have understood about your own health. We believe it is inevitable that a deaf person’s life will one day be taken accidentally due to a misdiagnosis or fate decreed a path that turned by being lost in translation.
Imagine the love and pride you feel for your children. You have the opportunity to meet their school teachers and hear their praises. The school assemblies you are cordially invited to because your child is receiving a certificate or is taking part in a school play. You want to cherish every single moment. For us, we leave feeling disempowered and frustrated because we simply cannot follow or enjoy it to the maximum like everyone else.
Deaf awareness is just not there, in everyday life to support us. Yes, technology is advancing all the time and it is admirable how much more inclusive it has become. Because of it. But, it is up to people like you to want to instil that inclusion. The technology is there for you to use to increase access and promote equality for all of us. You only have to use it.
“Ask, don’t assume”. What do we mean by this? – This is when people assume what they think we need and provide for us accordingly, instead of asking. This needs to change. For instance, it is a common assumption that deaf people all use sign language. This is simply not the case. Although there is a sizeable minority who use Sign Language as their main method of communication, there are many more deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people who do not know sign language and use other methods of communication instead. There are various communication needs that different deaf people require across the broad spectrum, and their level of hearing loss and communication methods relatively vary widely too. Therefore, please, ask us what we would like in place, in terms of communication support, to enable access and to empower us to make us feel equal to everyone else in society. If the right communication support is not in place, this is when we most feel disempowered and disabled.
“Nothing about us, without us”. What do we mean by this? – So many times people will speak on our behalf about what they think we want or need. Without asking, consulting or including us – this for some people would be an insult because for us, we know best what works for us and what we would like in place. For some people, we understand its a form of paternalism. For others, it may actually be about publicity and/or trying to raise funds for their particular cause or charity.
We admire and respect people who empower deaf people to be independent and equal to everyone else. We take our hats off to these people because they understand what it is like to be deaf. This is what we need. They more or less understand to an extent the awareness and insights from being a part of our language and our culture. Good deaf awareness only happens when the empathy, understanding, consideration and support is there and it is truly meant.
So, in order to demonstrate good deaf awareness, we recommend the following simple but effective top communication tips to ease communication with deaf people:
•Make sure you have the person’s attention before you start speaking.
•Places with good lighting (so that you can be lipread) and little or no background noise are best for conversations.
•Face the person so you can be lipread and speak clearly (as you normally would) using plain language, normal lip movements and facial expressions.
•Check whether the person understands what you are saying and, if not, try saying it in a different way.
•Keep your voice down as it’s uncomfortable for a hearing aid user if you shout and it looks aggressive.
•Learn fingerspelling or some basic British Sign Language (BSL).
These tips are very simple, but are likely to lead to much better communication exchanges with a deaf person. For most deaf people, unfortunately their “Deaf Awareness Week” lasts a whole lifetime. For some, it’s a tragic yet progressive or sudden nightmare. To lose sounds and connections gradually or just like that can feel like a living hell. People who are more mindful of others tend not to take anything for granted.
As an example of what it feels like to lose your hearing try this video which stimulates the various hearing loss sensations (by ‘Hear the World‘). Please watch until the very end.
No captions were (ironically) made but we hope that it gives you an insight into how much we rely on captions in our everyday lives. At the doctors and hospitals when they announce our names as we wait nervously in reception for our turn at appointments. On public transport when someone makes an announcement over the public tannoy informing us that a train has been cancelled, diverted or delayed, for instance, and we don’t know about it. The list goes on and it breaches health and safety rules in many aspects.
No one is perfect but all it takes is good manners, common sense, respect, kindness and most of all, education. Knowledge is power. Good deaf awareness (be it in your home or work place) leads to empowerment, inclusion and full access in our society for all deaf, deafened, deaf-blind and hard of hearing people.
Thank you for your time and patience. Please, show us you care by being deaf aware!
~ SJ (Sara Jae)
A collective group of people representing some of the 10 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK.
The Tree House Facebook group and blog