The emotional realisation of what life is like for her deaf daughter in a ‘hearing’ world is the subject of this powerful and moving article by Helen Mackay.
I cried today. I have just been to a Deaf community meeting. There was no interpreter available for signing-impaired people like me. I went anyway but left unsure whether I was completely clear about the new voting options for the local Deaf Society or the new club room plans. I took my kids. One hearing, one deaf.
Today, the tables had been turned.
For just a few hours I experienced a little of what it must be like for my deaf daughter in a ‘hearing’ world. I think I understood about 30-40% of what was being signed. Enough, I think, to fill in the blanks with context. Perhaps as much as my deaf daughter picks up when reliant on lip-reading when people don’t sign to her or caption TV. I will never know if I did understand so there’s a nagging doubt that I missed something, but I think I’m OK.
But it was hard. My head hurt so much it was throbbing and still is, even as I write this.
I concentrated intently on the signing in front of me, unable to be distracted by kids tapping on my shoulder for me to do something. I simply couldn’t multi-task, I had to focus on the people right in front of me. The note pad in front of me, rendered redundant as I couldn’t take my eyes off the ‘speaker’. The distant but loud noise of a builder banging felt out of sync with what my brain was trying to do visually. I had to close the door to help drown out the background interference. My daughter tells me sometimes she just has to take her hearing aids off at school as she cannot focus with them on. “Mummy they don’t help, it’s just noise”. Perhaps this is what I was experiencing inside my brain in reverse.
I felt compelled to get up and ‘sign’ to the community about something I felt strongly about. I was nervous. As a sign language beginner, with every sign I made I was conscious that it was far from perfect but desperate that people would understand me. Perhaps this is the same experience my daughter has when she has to stand up and speak without hearing her own voice. Without knowing whether her words sound right and looking for reassurance from her friends to let her know she has been understood or turning to me for assistance with a word she struggles with – just as I had to fingerspell words I could not sign. I looked to the crowd who supported me by signing the word I was stumbling on. But I was vulnerable. The emotion of it all – the subject I was signing about and the way I felt, the tears dripped!
When it came time to leave, my eldest daughter wanted to stay. She was at home.
This is not the first time this year I’ve cried at a Deaf community event. A few months ago, it happened twice in a week at events held to celebrate Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand Sign Language week.
The first, was a solo outing for me. No kids, no husband. Just me. A special screening of the British Deaf Association film Power in Our Hands hosted by Terry Riley, visiting from England to attend the World Federation of the Deaf Board meeting.
It’s a powerful film, complete with captions so people like me can follow. It tells the true story of the suppression and oppression of the British Deaf community and the gradual recognition of British Sign Language and deaf culture in British society. The film had captions and the signed introduction by Terry was interpreted. I was challenged by the film but linguistically I was still in my comfort zone. My needs were “accommodated”.
However, the message of the film was so incredibly powerful it cut me to the core that this might happen to MY daughter. I felt ever so grateful for people like Terry who has been instrumental in the UK in making the deaf voice “heard”. He has been a leading light at the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust who produce wonderful videos directly relevant to the Deaf community (and accessible to people like me with subtitles). I resolved, as I powered down the pavement away from the event, that the “power” was indeed “in my hands”. As a parent I have a responsibility to ensure I do everything to make my daughters’ lives full, and free from discrimination. And to learn more sign. (My daughter is fluent receptively already and has a full time interpreter in her mainstream school where she is the only Deaf child in a roll of 400+. Our family are all learning to sign).
In another event that same week, we went to ‘listen’ to Drisana Levitzke-Gray speak – or should I say sign, at a Deaf community event, about her experiences as Young Australian of the Year. There was an interpreter. Again I was moved to tears and compelled to stand up as she shared her experiences of mainstream schooling, rising above the challenges of isolation and her advocacy for children like my daughter. Her message resonated with me, and both my daughters. Again, I strengthened my resolve to be a ‘hearing’ ally. A partner for good.
But today with no captions, no interpreter, no ‘signing aid’ and no voice, I had no “accommodation”.
I knew there wouldn’t be any, but I choose to go anyway, just as my daughter has had to do every day this week to her wonderful school (her educational interpreter has been away). Except that she doesn’t have a choice, she must go to school regardless, like tons of other deaf and hard of hearing kids that don’t have their needs met either. Perhaps they are Cochlear Implant users, denied teaching assistance as they are “cured”, or with an inability to access sign language lessons because the kids are oral and not on the priority list for sign classes. Perhaps they are hearing aid users who are not ‘quite’ deaf enough, but struggle to piece it all together using a combination of lip-reading and technology.
Today, it was just me. Laid bare, in a room of people about the same size as my daughter’s year 6 class. I felt vulnerable, scared and exhausted as I concentrated to understand and then be understood.
The tables turned, on me, today. But you know what, that’s no bad thing.
My daughter is deaf. Like many deaf children she was born into a family of hearing parents. Being deafened post-lingually she talks. But she is most at ‘home’ with her deaf friends. They get her. Many, many times since she went deaf, I have fought to be sure she has full access and is treated equally in society.
Today, I cried because I realize how much load this ten-year-old carries, just to get through the day with a smile, let alone understand and be understood.
I’ve done deafness ‘simulations’ before and I thought I ‘got’ it.
But today, I really got it. You know the best thing? When I cried, no-one judged me. No-one stopped me and said (or signed) “you can’t do it”. I was welcomed, appreciated, supported and encouraged. For that, I am truly blessed.
You see, regardless of whether some form of ‘technology’ may help my daughter now or in the future, she is Deaf. She speaks, she signs, she has choice. She’s Deaf and proud, and I am thankful she is growing in her own Deaf confidence.
I am sure some people will say that I shouldn’t cry about this stuff, and definitely not in front of my kids. But they hugged me tonight and as I signed “I love you” to my Deaf daughter she said “I love you” back. My hearing daughter did the same. I need to be able to switch in the moment, just as they do daily. To see me struggle too helps them both know life ain’t easy, but it sure is what you make of it.
As I write this, again I cry. But tonight, they are happy tears. I know that my daughter has a community of support who get it much more than me. I too value the friendship and welcome. My hearing daughter also gets to see and play with other children who too have deaf brothers and sisters and that’s cool too.
To everyone that hesitates to get involved in the “Deaf” community, I offer these words of encouragement. Do it! Let your kids have choice.
I know we are all stronger together – Deaf and Hearing. For that, tonight, I give thanks. *Hands wave*.
In case you are wondering, I’ve also made a note to myself. I must NOT cry at the next event!