Embracing Identity, Celebrating Difference by Michelle Hedley

Today, from two different sources on Facebook, I was made to feel inferior and not able to call myself “deaf”.  Worse still, those comments were made by other deaf people in the so called deaf “community” and as a result are quite hurtful.  I might expect ignorant comments to be made by members of the hearing community, but from other deaf people?

I was (probably) born deaf, having finally been diagnosed at 3 years of age, and for the first seven years of my education until I was 10, I attended a mainstream infant and junior school in a nearby town that had a “unit” with deaf children attached. Thus I was integrated with both hearing and deaf children whilst getting speech therapy. At that point in time, sign language was frowned upon by those in the education authority (early 70s) and thus I was taught to talk and lip-read. For me, I was unaware of any other way to communicate in my early years of childhood.

When I was 10 years old, due to a family move to another part of the country, I was plunged into the unknown as the education authority’s policy there was to place the child into mainstream schooling with no support. Thus I became the first deaf child in the village and the schools I consequentially went through to the age of 18. This meant that I had no contact with other deaf children (or adults) and continued to develop my lip-reading and speech skills.  I was lucky in a sense, as I loved learning and I loved going to school! I also loved the English language and had a reading age far advanced of my actual years.

My parents then became members of the NDCS and this meant that I started to engage with other deaf children again. However this was short lived as most of them signed and I was unable to communicate with them.  I went to various deaf clubs in an attempt to socialise with others, but soon discovered that because I didn’t sign, that I was not considered “deaf” and was shunned by them.  Despite trying to learn some sign, I was ignored and after this happened so many times, I made a decision at the age of 18 to no longer be a part of the deaf community. It did not mean that I did not identify with being deaf, just the fact that at that time the community felt unable to integrate with deaf people who were not able to sign for whatever reason.

Years and years passed and I remained firmly in the hearing world with no contact with other deaf people. Despite having speech I still had the usual difficulties that are associated with being deaf by not being able to make telephone calls, follow group discussions, follow TV without subtitles and so on. Despite being “excluded” from the deaf community I still fought battles with organisations for equal access with some successes.

It was not until I became more familiar with social networking a few years ago that I started to socialise online with other deaf people on both Facebook and Twitter. I became more involved with activities and campaigns and slowly started to integrate back into the deaf community. I was still painfully aware though that there was still a division between BSL and Non BSL users. Last summer, as a Big Brother fan, I became a daily blogger for Limping Chicken following Sam Evans for 13 weeks reporting as he eventually came to be the winner of the series! This resulted in my being invited onto See Hear to be interviewed for TV! This was such an exciting time to travel down to London (from Northumberland) in order to share my experience of following Sam throughout and the deaf awareness that it helped to create. That excitement was dulled somewhat when after it was televised I received comments that as Sam and I both didn’t sign, that we didn’t represent the deaf community and were not really deaf!! Coming from adults in this day and age I was frustrated to find that perhaps the deaf community had not changed at all since my teenage years. Nevertheless I managed to recover from those comments and continued to embrace my deafness and took part in several campaigns to benefit others such as the recent Lovefilm/Amazon and Sky.

Those feelings came to the fore again today when on both the Love Subtitles Facebook page and Treehouse Facebook page, comments were made referring to BSL users and Oral deaf and again implying that deaf people are bsl users. One poster on the Love Subtitles page said “I do remember feeling ‘teed off’ when Eastenders showed Ben last year to be a normal speaking boy. How did he lipread when looking away? That does not represent a hard of hearing person does it, let alone a deaf person.”  David Buxton, Chief Executive of the BDA said on the same subject “I Vividly remembered a sense of joy when we heard Phil Mitchell’s new born son being diagnosed as deaf. I envisioned future episodes of Eastenders featuring deaf children growing up in a gangster family and using BSL.  Sadly I was totally mistaken!  His son wore a hearing aid, spoke fine and went to prison!” I was shocked to read that sort of comment from someone in that position and that he appears to not accept that deaf people can talk and lip-read and yet still have the same issues that arise from being deaf just like BSL users do.

Time and time again I see comments about little d and big D and implying that deaf means BSL. When a deaf character appears on TV and doesn’t sign, the snipes are always there about BSL and that “real deaf people do not talk”!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against BSL at all. Far from it.  Just like speech is right for me personally, I also know that BSL is the RIGHT way of communication for many of you. All I ask is a bit of consideration and remember that we are all in the same boat. Remember that some of us from older generations had no choice about how they learnt to communicate at school.  We all have different hearing losses, mild to severe/total (I have a severe hearing loss in the high frequencies), with our own ways of communicating. Some of us may be able to communicate in more than one way.  There is no right and wrong way, we must all do what is best for ourselves as individuals. But PLEASE be considerate of each other and remember we are all human and have feelings. Do not make the same mistake that hearing people make of trying to put labels on us all and make us fit into the same boxes with our very different needs. Whether we talk, lip-read, sign BSL/SSE or a combination, we all face the same issues our deafness creates in this society and together we can share our experiences and advice.

I have really had to stand back and ask myself whether I wanted to be a part of the so called community that chooses to exclude certain individuals based on what communication method they choose to use. I realise that none of the comments today were directed at me personally, but I still am affected by them as an “oral deaf” member, and the insistence to put labels on ourselves doing exactly what we hate hearing people to do to us! I am hoping this is just a blip and nor the norm as it were. Lets embrace each other and celebrate the fact that we are all different but united in the one thing that bonds us all together – the need to communicate by whatever method we can to get by in this world.

– Michelle Hedley.

Michelle Hedley.

Michelle Hedley.


8 thoughts on “Embracing Identity, Celebrating Difference by Michelle Hedley

  1. I am glad that you have spoken out on behalf of oral deaf people. The fact is that online deaf life has been made very much harder by the presence of a tiny minority of BSL fanatics. For the fifteen years or so that I have been working online these people have always been present.

    I think it is fair to say that they are regarded as a pain in the rear by a large majority of other deaf people. Most of us speak, sign, write English and do whatever is necessary to get through the day. It’s just this tiny group of people who seem to think that because they have a fanatical belief in BSL that everyone else should be the same. They believe that they have the right to go around annoying everyone who disagrees with them.

    That’s all very well but constantly preaching to the rest of us is just aggressive and anti-social. I too have been the route of deaf schools, sign language, deaf culture. I too have over half a century of being an adult deaf person in a hearing world. But then I have to put up with these beardless whippersnappers coming along and telling me how to be a deaf person.

    No thanks. I know.

    It is just plain insulting that these very same people are the first to take umbrage and to be “offended” when people criticise sign language. Why should we NOT criticise? IT’s OUR language not THEIR language. Sign language belongs to ALL deaf people not just a favoured few.

    Who are these people who set themselves up as some kind of authority over other deaf people? Like I need lessons in deafness from them? Too late, I figured it out for myself years ago.

    I have often said that with friends like these, the deaf world doesn’t need enemies. In my opinion these people are the one thing holding the rest of us back and until they learn to behave in a civilised manner they will continue to do so. Do you really want to be with people who treat each other so badly? No of course not. Let them go their lonely antisocial way and everyone else can take the better path of doing whatever suits us best.

    What I think everyone should do is simply carry on as they need to do. If sign is the best option for you, then carry on signing. If speech happens to be the best option, then do that. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, don’t be controlled by others.

  2. Whatever happens, you are a d/Deaf individual who had accepted being deaf and is aware you need the two worlds – deaf and hearing.
    I attended both hearing and deaf schools, but my brain was constantly filled with questions and metaphors whilst existing without access in my four years in Higher Education. I embraced my Deaf Identity through my thesis in 1976, at that time I was very oral and SSE.
    In the meantime, I made the conscious decision to be in the Deaf world – firstly, for me, into the Deaf Christian one – by participating in Youth activities and teamwork..
    Later (always better late than never) i moved into the Deaf world and Deaf professional world, still as a SSE user. I am now bilingual and very much value the trust gained by being consistently upholding Deaf values in all I do.
    I still get the occasional ‘are you hearing? you sign good’ query because of how I appeared.

    So I recognise that in you, you have the similar qualities as I have, you are Deaf. The only difference is that we are in a social media environment where judgements are hurled quickly without thought. It is not personal, it is the reaction of those who do not want to see Deaf values diluted, we can understand both sides of the coin.
    In fact we have at least three worlds – Deaf, deaf and hearing. It is no shame being in the middle, you will find your pace with signing Deaf people one day, or with bilingual Deaf people who switch from sign to speak and vice versa. We live in a multi-faceted society, you bare part of it, you will enable the many d/Deaf people emerging from solitude in the mainstream world in the years to come.

    That is why we have the Tree House – it can withstand storms and wind, lose some branches, but it is here to stay as a space for open dialogue in d/Deaf issues and everyday life.

  3. Hi, I can understand how you feel as I had been through the same journey as yourself. I had an oral education too owing to the educational policies of the early 1980s. I became deaf in 1980. However, on meeting other BSL users at Bristol University, I discovered my Deaf identity. I consider myself to be a strong British Sign Language user because of all the benefits that BSL is able to offer me through access to University education and many other events. British Sign Language has really opened the door for me in terms of access. Nonetheless, I still retain some elements of my oral past and can be bilingual in spoken English and British Sign Language. It doesn’t really matter what communication method one has, as the most important element here, is that we can communicate. If I was watching a play in English, I would prefer to have subtitles or BSL as the play is written in the English language, but if the play is written in BSL, then I would prefer BSL. One’s communication method is one’s personal choice. I used to think like yourself, I am not Deaf, I am a hearing person, but my attitude changed when I started by BSL level 1 course as a taster session, just to have some contact with the signing community, but I found that this actually changed me as a person, and I now regard myself as a strong British Sign Language user, although I am bilingual in both British Sign Language and spoken English. Stepping out of one comfort zone, whether it is into the oral world or the British Sign Language world can make a big change to one’s life. Both the oral and BSL users can feel very proud of their own preferred communication method and I can see now harm with that, but it is always good to step into each other’s shoes. I did that, and it completely changed my whole perspective.

  4. Oral-signing, the argy-bargy is about culture basically, here, the oralists is on a definite loser as they are blamed for some obscure ruling 200 years ago in Milan. I spend 80% of my time trying to raise awareness no BSL campaign has ever done, i.e. ours. Deaf clubs became ‘cultural centres’, deaf awareness became sign awareness. BSL people (And their ASL counterparts), are the sole sectors than can reject your human right, to know what THEY are saying. However they can invoke an access law to demand you give THEM access. Anyone buying the signing hard luck story is incredibly naive, they are superior to oral and hearing impaired in every way, and especially on access campaigns. I’ve attacks personally many BSL campaigns, I am not against equality, but am against the inequality of cultural campaigns that hijack our access in favour of its own, my only compromise would be in cutting culture loose from ‘Deaf awareness’, along with all its groups, or, we will get nothing for ourselves, if ‘Deaf’ can coexist and contain their own status quo, then, why can’t we ? Coexistence is in my view far far better than all this bull manure about ‘deaf unity’, (Which is naive clap trap someone copied from the coca-cola advert or something), and via our superior numbers we can get what we need, that is equality (Which BSL people are afraid of), and access (Which won’t be sign but mutually inclusive of us all), which is why they don’t want that either. With 9 million of US united it would be a walk over, but, NO to a unified approach with cultural deaf. We can beat them at their own game… and gain respect, not be seen as their poor relations. Time to man up…. we have a voice and must use it.

    • How can this be respectful to BSL when nasty comments are made about BSL users? if the oralist want to use their voice that is their choice, yes we will prove them with speech to text subtiles, etc, but why criticise a beautiful language that has been in existence since the middle ages. I missed out so much in life becuase I didn’t have access to the Deaf Community or BSL. My chosen career as a scientist was ruined thanks to stupid oralism. I chose to use BSL and why should other oral deaf people want to stop me from using my preferred language, just because they had been praised by hearing people at school that they would succeed in becoming like hearing people. We are not hearing. Yes we can learn some hearing culture and aspects, but we can never be hearing people. If you want to be oral, fine, but don’t criticise us BSL users. If you want appropriate communication support we will provide that. I too had been through the same journey, but decided to take off my oralist brainwashing to realise who I really am. Yes I can speak, yes I have a hearing aid, yes I have a cochlear implant, yes I can be oral, but my true identity is Deaf. Why do the oralists want the bsl users to be like them. imagine a situation when one person can only speak French and the other only english who fault is it? Yes I will campaign for improved subtitles in the same way as increased access. Yes I was a die hard oralist until I learnt bsl and realised so much hurt that I had caused to other bsl users becuase of the heaps of praise that I got from the hearing world who wanted me to be like them when I am not. I soon became a strong bsl user with a clear and strong Deaf identity. To the oralists, yes us bsl users will welcome you whether you are oral or not, but the first step is to accept who others are. I accept oralist becuase I was one of them, we will help you on the journey to discover your true identity whether it is oral or bsl, but do appreciate what bsl is rather than telling us nasty things about our language. Oralist you are not inferior as you do have a lot to contribute to the community and like wise. Making the step outside ones comfort zone can be hard as I have been through that journey. In fact as a bsl user I have campaigned for improved address for the oralist, but why shun BSL. Yes there are people on both sides who are locked in their own world and both sides do need to step out of their comfort zones. I very much admire the oralists who have shared their experience which is a very brave thing to do, and I have experienced your fustrations and pain too.

  5. I can’t find the ‘like’ button for your post! But thank you so much for standing up for us ‘speaking’ deaf people. Like you, I was educated in the mainstream school system, wore hearing aids and had to lip read as best I could. I only ever knew of 2 other ‘deaf’ children while I was growing up, and they were able to speak. I used to think that most deaf people were old! My parents had no interest in getting me into special schools, or mixing with other deaf children. I only became aware of sign language when I saw people doing it in the street one day. And it wasn’t until my teens that I realised there was a cultural difference too. I wish everyone could get along in both worlds!

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