Exploring and re-evaluating my deaf identity

LabelYesterday, I suddenly realised something. The user name on my blog, DeafStudent, really is wrong. I’m not a deaf student.

I’m a student who happens to be deaf.

I know that some of you may be thinking, ‘big deal, so what?’, but its actually quite important. For me, my primary associative identity is the student part, not the deaf part. I’m a student, I’m aspiring to be someone in my field, a published author, a respected lecturer, I’m all of that. I have other identities too, other labels that society likes to slap on people – my gender, my skin colour, my sexuality, my marital status.

In all of that, being deaf is just another label for me. It represents what I struggle with, what I cannot do. It is very much a negative association, never a positive. I do what I do, achieve what I have, despite my deafness. It is a thing to be battled against. A war to be fought. And by the way, I’m not by any means suggesting it should be this way for everyone. Many people are very proud to be deaf, to champion Deaf culture and language – and more power to them. This blog post is about my thoughts, about my expression of my identity, and right now, I’m struggling to figure something out – when I get like this, I write. So bear with me.

I watched My Song yesterday, for the first time. It’s a wonderful, well acted & written, short drama from 2011 exploring deaf identity and language, portraying a teenage deaf girl, Ellen, learning BSL, making her first steps into the deaf world and the reactions – both negative and positive – to those steps, from the hearing people around her, to the deaf people she encounters. I’m really glad that the writer & director chose NOT to portray the deaf reaction as being all fluffybunny, welcoming and warm, because the deaf world certainly isn’t like that – it’s made up of people, just as the hearing world is, and some of those people are going to be welcoming and positive, and some will be negative and repudiatory. I’m not ashamed to say that the drama had me in tears and deeply moved me – I associated strongly with Ellen, and it stirred up a lot of stuff from when I was younger that I obviously still, 20 years later, have not successfully dealt with.

My story is long, and detailing it here is inappropriate but what has become very clear to me over the last twenty four hours is how much I felt the deaf world rejected me when I was much younger. I’ve always told myself – and others – that I decided not to be involved with the deaf community because I found it to be cliqueish, exclusive and bullying. These were all traits that I had met at school (yes, a deaf school) and I’ve always told myself I decided those traits had no room in my life any more, and I went my own way. So much is true, but what I’m now realising is that the deaf community rejected me just as much, back then. I effectively disappeared, and not one person cared to find out if I was okay, what had happened.

In short, for me, there was no Ben to chase after me to make sure I was okay.

Perhaps, given this, that it is no real surprise that I have rejected any deaf identity as much as I have, and instead, associated far more with other elements of myself. I see my deafness as something I should apologise for, apologise for the inconvenience of it. That’s something else that got stirred up from ‘My Song’, seeing Ellen being forced to’get used to’ the new man her mother is dating, instead of, as she plaintively says, ‘maybe he could get used to me!‘. There doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to tell the new guy what her needs are, to make it clear that she finds his accent difficult, that it’s not personal. Always, for Ellen, her deafness is the problem, the inconvenience, the issue that people have to deal with if they want to spend time with her. She so clearly sees that in the people around her, and their failure to take her need to communicate a different way, to explore a different identity, that I think exploring her deaf identity was bound to happen. That much was so familiar from my own life, and to a certain extent, still is. At uni, in other parts of my life, I spend time apologising for my needs, apologising for costing people more, apologising for being a problem, an inconvenience.

So what is the lesson in all this? That I should start to associate more with my deaf identity? Maybe. Going to uni has forced me to reassociate with sign language, at least. When I first got there, I was determined to use notetakers only, and electronic notetakers at that. It was one of my key support people – someone who is now a damned good friend as well – who gently pointed out that even the fastest typist wasn’t going to keep up with the speed of exchanges in seminars and that maybe I should consider sign language translation? I knew I couldn’t work with BSL (I have to work hard to translate BSL back into regular English, as it’s not my first language) and instead she worked with me to develop something suited to both my needs and the complexities of the subject I study, something close to SEE. So I have been growing closer to sign, once again, in the last couple of years.

Beyond that though… The last two weeks have been eye opening to me for one simple reason: I have not been wearing my hearing aid. At all. I used to wear two: difficulties in my right meant I had to stop wearing an aid in that ear and it seems now the only option I have for that ear is a CI. In the last two weeks, I’ve had a bad ear infection in the left, and wearing my aid has been impossible. This is probably the longest time I have gone without hearing aids since I was a small child. What has been incredibly surprising to me is how well I have actually coped without it. I miss moving through a world with sound, I miss hearing things around me, even simple things like my partner moving around downstairs – there’s a comfort in that, to know I’m not alone in the house. And certainly my (hearing) partner misses my hearing aid – misses the ease of communication that they have with me when the aid is in, and misses having long chats with me. I struggle more without it. I do recognise that. But I also cope an awful lot better without it than I thought I would.

Sure, some of that is due to the presence of my support team at uni. I assisted the University with a review, for example, last week, where external assessors came in and questioned a range of students as to their experience at the university and the particular department that we study in. I was one of those, there as a representative of my particular field, not as a disabled representative. There were two sessions for this and the Uni paid for me to have an interpreter for both, and as a result, I was able to fully engage with the process and support my department as much as I possibly could.

But at the same time, I also went through things alone, with no communication support. I took part in supporting the local election count last Thursday evening, moving ballot boxes. There was no question of me not doing it because of my deafness, and their only pause was to think about possible problems – the working environment meant that particular roles would have been more difficult for me, but I think if I had insisted on doing them the electoral staff would have supported me. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, talked to a huge range of people, and although I was conscious of my deafness, even more so because I had no aid, it’s almost like something shifted in me. Yes, the problem was my ears, but it’s not my fault. Yes, they have to take the time to deal with stuff they wouldn’t otherwise, but… as my father-in-law likes to pithily say, “shit happens”. Yes, they had a problem to deal with. SO FUCKING WHAT. (excuse my language).

I stopped being apologist, that night, stopped apologising for being a problem, and moved into being something far better: Me. I interacted with people, smiled, thanked them. No matter that they had to repeat themselves several times, that didn’t matter: what mattered was that I was friendly, curious, enquiring, pleasant, and grateful. Not for their being willing to repeat things, but for being willing to engage with ME, not the deaf label. I made sure they walked away with a smile, thinking “what a nice person!” rather than “god, that was awkward. I hope I never meet a deaf person again.” And I did the same thing again at the postgraduate meeting the following day, having a MUCH better experience than I had the previous time, where no one spoke to me.

Removing my aid had a very powerful effect. It meant I had to stop pretending to being hearing. I had to stop pretending to be someone who “isn’t really deaf, you just don’t hear very well“; stop mimicing hearing people, as I do so very, very well, in order to make them feel better. And in so doing, I made contact with the deaf part of me, and formed a bond with my deaf identity, started to move towards greater acceptance of myself, who I am – warts n all – and think about how I can be positive about my disability, make it work for me, instead of against me. How I can make it so that I bring something different to the table, something that is unique to me, instead of pretending to be the same as everyone else. In short, developing a healthier relationship with my deafness, with the deaf label. Working with it, instead of thrusting it out there in front of me, using it to push people away.

Deaf identity doesn’t have to mean going to deaf clubs, mixing with deaf people, learning deaf culture. Sure, it can mean that and if that’s the way you choose to go, then more power to you! But it’s not the right path for everyone, and sometimes, it just means accepting who you are, putting your foot down and saying: ‘It stops here. You start meeting me on MY terms. Not yours’.

My name is DeafStudent. I’m a deaf person. I’m a student.

I am me.

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