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Living with deafness in a hearing world

09 May 2023

Sarah Lawrence, Deaf Friendly Limited director, helps raise awareness of the inequalities experienced by deaf people every day.

Living with deafness in a hearing world
How can deaf people be embraced into all aspects of everyday life if society doesn’t understand the deaf experience? Image credit: Shutterstock

As a deaf woman brought up in a hearing family, I’ve had a life experience which very few people can relate to.

It’s certainly one that my parents didn’t anticipate for me, when their thriving three-year-old became deaf overnight because of drugs I had to take for mumps.

I woke up a very different little girl to the one they told a bedtime story to the evening before.

Deafness is common

Twelve million people in the UK have some form of diagnoseable deafness.

While we have some shared experiences in a world that prioritises hearing and voice, our lives can also be very different.

It all depends on the people we have in our lives, the people we meet, and the people we work alongside.

The importance of being empowered

I think I’m lucky. After the initial shock, my mum and dad embraced what had happened and set out to give me every ounce of guidance and parenting they could, even if they couldn’t just talk to me.

They were remarkable – I owe them everything.

The most important thing they gave me was belief.

They encouraged me to do everything that other children were doing, and they encouraged me to pursue my dreams.

Wanting to be a marine was quite quickly rebuffed, mind.

My parents empowered me.

By contrast, it’s more common for parents to worry whether their deaf child will even be able to survive in adult life.

Fitting in

How I fit into society is underpinned by two important questions. Firstly, how can deaf people be embraced into all aspects of everyday life if society doesn’t understand the deaf experience of the hearing world?

People think and say they know and understand, but they don’t. Not really, even loved ones.

The second question is: do people care? Do you care?

If you meet someone who’s deaf, do you expect them to fit into your norms, your culture, your ethos?

Or do you try and mould yourself around their communication needs?

Do you adapt?

I’ll always remember a colleague telling me about his 80+ year old in-laws.

Father-in-law now deaf, mother-in-law shouting to him ‘lovingly’ every morning to ask whether he wanted a tea or a coffee.

It’s not possible to shout and smile lovingly at the same time, I don’t think.

Through my colleague teaching them some of my first language, British Sign Language, the mother-in-law started signing to her husband every morning – tea or coffee?

The broad loving smile soon returned.

Problems are such an easy fix sometimes!

Inequality and discrimination from organisations

My daily experience of inequality and discrimination usually arises through a lack of knowledge and understanding.

It can be intentional, but thankfully that’s rare.

I experience it at both an individual and organisation level.

For example, I think the term ‘unintended consequences’ probably came about because of the number of decisions to conduct all business through a call handling centre.

It’s surprisingly hard to get around that. People say:

  • “Get someone to ring for you.”
  • “Put in place a power of attorney.”
  • “We can’t communicate through email because email is not secure.”

Justifying a bad policy doesn’t change the fact that it’s bad, and in this case, discriminatory.

Inequality and discrimination on a personal level

On an individual level, it’s rare now that I get invited to parties, weddings, or even funerals.

Why? Because I’m just too difficult, aren’t I?

On top of arranging the venue, invites, food, entertainment, outfits, it’d also be necessary to arrange for me to have an interpreter.

And that, well, that’s a task too far.

When people don’t invite me, I assume they never think what that might feel like.

But let me tell you, it hurts.

The scars run deep, and it’s a constant reminder from loved ones that you are deaf.

For my own mother’s funeral, I booked an interpreter so that I could get up alongside my brother and give my eulogy in BSL.

Sadly, when the interpreter didn’t bother to turn up, I sat there in complete silence and isolation, tears flooding down my face in utter dejection.

What can you do? What will you do?

With 12 million deaf people in the UK, everyone will have someone in their lives who’s deaf.

What adaptations do you make to help, support and communicate with them?

Which restaurants are good, which are bad?

Where should everyone sit?

Just how effective is lip-reading?

Is there anything you can do to improve their quality of life?

People who ‘think deaf’

I have a few truly wonderful people around me.

They make a difference in my life.

Most importantly, they are tireless in learning more about me, my life and my deafness journey.

They strive to be an understanding and knowledgeable part of it. These people, the people who care deeply, ‘think deaf’ constantly.

They are what every deaf person needs to get the most out of life.

Loved ones, colleagues, friends who are deaf need this too.

Looking forward to a better future

When I meet people and start to use BSL because that’s my language, I immediately see what people think of me. It’s instant.

Sadly, those first thoughts are fuelled by long standing bias and misunderstanding. I’m judged, and I’m usually judged negatively.

I look forward to a generation of people who simply see me for what and who I am.

I’m Sarah, I just happen to be deaf.

Make a difference

If you’re interested in treating deaf people around you better tomorrow that you might today, access knowledge and understanding at Deaf Friendly.

Help change the long-standing stereotypical views and opinions of deafness.

Learn to ‘think deaf’

The ICE recently held a deaf awareness webinar to highlight some of the barriers that exist in deaf life.

Watch the webinar
  • Sarah Lawrence , director at Deaf Friendly