Firstly I should introduce myself, I was born hearing, but following an accident at the age of sixteen, I lost almost all of that hearing. I wear two hearing aids, which, up until the age of forty I kept well hidden under my hair. After a complete lifestyle change at that time I no longer hid my aids, I finally arrived at the stage in my life where it wasn’t a secret, I was deaf, if my aids offended anyone, well that was their problem.
A visit to the theatre in Bristol one evening sparked the interest in sign language. The performance was enjoyed by the hearing in the theatre and the deaf, thanks to the lady stood on the side of the stage, who acted as interpreter . So where did I fit in? The answer was , I didn’t. For the first time in my life I realised that I needed to face my deafness. I struggled to understand conversation even with the use of hearing aids, indeed so many times I would nod, smile or even just say yes, when really I had no inkling of what was being said.
That theatre visit turned my life around, I knew then I wanted to be able to sign. So after attending various different colleges, I am now more than happy to communicate using BSL. I am also lucky that my partner also learned alongside me, thus making our communication now for the bigger part, sign. Well time moves along and I have reached the stage that when I have hospital procedures I use an interpreter, this is not an option but a necessity. I spent too many years relying on my partner listening to doctors or consultants, I now accept my deafness.
The question that I have asked myself recently is……”how comfortable is a deaf person, with an interpreter present at what can be, very personal times?” How many of us deaf folks lip read quite well, at least I do, but NOT with all people, it can be a real struggle. Sometimes, however, it is not always appropriate to have another person present, I for one have no idea of the confidentiality issues involved with an interpreter, indeed have no idea where I would find this information from. This uncertainty of another person at my appointments came to a head a few years ago, when I attended my first visit to a counsellor. This lady is hearing and was made aware of my deafness by my partner. So, from the onset we were both aware of our sensory differences. Well, I was extremely lucky, I find her quite easy to lip read , I don’t think my deafness has been an issue for her, however for me there have been issues that only perhaps the deaf or indeed a someone who needs to talk to a counsellor would understand. As everyone who uses BSL to communicate knows, facial expressions, body language and placement are a must, this involves face to face conversations. Likewise, if lip reading a hearing person you will need to watch the face of the speaker. This was, and is my stumbling block, I think that the majority of people when taking about something they are not comfortable with do NOT want to look at the other person. I must spend at least half my counselling session staring at the most uninteresting walls. This is a double edged sword, I am either embarrassed, ashamed or quite simply unable to look at my counsellor at these times. Which I believe is quite natural for all of us when in an uncomfortable situation, I find this thoroughly frustrating, I DO NOT want to make eye contact. Given that the only way I know what is being said, I MUST look at my counsellor. A difficult situation overall.
What comes to mind for me is the recent changes in the Welsh government laws that introduce accessibility for all. Surely questions need to be asked about the numbers of counsellors who are BSL users, I have tried in my limited capacity to find out the figures; I am given to understand there is a deaf lady counsellor in South Wales, however she works in Bristol, hardly easily accessible. The whole dynamics of mental health support from a patients perspective has dramatically reduced its services and availability in the last few years. Indeed our help through the avenue of counselling is limited to the magical ‘six sessions’ hoping to resolve matters and that’s IF the client has no communication needs.
So, given the fragile structure of the NHS in the counselling and mental health sector, exactly how does a deaf person cope in this situation? Well, for my part, I am incredibly lucky, I have a counsellor who gives me time, is patient, never rushes me, ensures when I can’t lip read certain words or phrases, to say explain using words I can follow. I am incredibly lucky to have someone who has given above and beyond what one would expect; sadly I am in the minority.
So my deaf friends, don’t hesitate to demand your accessibility, it’s your right. The need is there, for more counsellors who use BSL, maybe more deaf in this profession, certainly interpreters at sessions if we are happy with that situation. The name of my counsellor……….. no sorry folks, I won’t share, after all I have my own deaf friendly who ‘hears’ me. Go on, demand your deaf rights, accessibility for all.
~ Wendy Bebb-Sutton.