Over the last year or so, there has been an increasing presence of deaf and hard-of-hearing characters and representation in UK TV and media. From Rose Ayling-Ellis winning Strictly Come Dancing and her award-winning ‘Silent Moment’, and Gabriellla Leon’s role as Jade in BBC’s Casualty, to Oscar-winning short film ‘The Silent Child’ in 2017 and the 2022 Mattel release of a Barbie doll wearing hearing aids, the mainstream media is slowly beginning to show deafness and hearing loss and the glorious spectrum of our community.
As wonderful as the depiction of a broad range of deaf experiences is and the positive message it spreads regarding our disability, it can also serve to simplify our experiences and sometimes overlook the struggles or frustrations of being deaf.
In portraying deaf people as accessing the hearing world ‘just fine’, there are a myriad of misconceptions brought to the fore and many seemingly small, but ultimately huge, elements of deaf lives which can be overlooked.
So, let’s address some of those misconceptions and share a little of what daily life can be like for deaf/hard-of-hearing people.
***Disclaimer, the deaf experience is an enormous spectrum: mild to profound hearing loss, specific frequency loss, tinnitus, raised oral, raised signing, using speech, using BSL, wearing hearing devices, not wearing devices, born deaf, deafened and a combination of these and a thousand other wonderful inflections of our diverse community. While these ‘Did you know…?’ statements are true for many deaf/hard-of-hearing people, they are not representative of every deaf person. The best way to find out an individual’s deaf experience is to politely, and with respectful curiosity, ask, in order to know how you can better understand and be thoroughly inclusive.
Did you know…?
- There are lots of different types of hearing devices, including hearing aids, cochlear implants and bone anchored hearing aids (BAHAs). If and which a deaf/HoH person wears depends on their level and type of hearing loss and whether they want to or not.
- Hearing devices make everything louder, equally. Hearing everything can be really overwhelming in crowded and noisy places.
- Even with hearing devices, we’re not ‘hearing’, so we will miss parts of conversion and quieter sounds, and sometimes can’t detect which direction sound is coming from.
- Taking hearing devices out/off can be soothing and a relief. Engaging in the hearing world can be incredibly hard work and exhausting; taking hearing devices out can provide calm and a welcome break from the barrage of sound from the hearing world.
- Lipreading is an art, not a science. Lots of words and sounds have the same lip-pattern, making it hard to be sure what’s being said. For example, ‘I love you’ looks identical to ‘Elephant shoes’ (I know you just tried it out!) when relying on lipreading. With people we lipread often, it’s easier but, at best, we catch 40-60% of speech from lipreading, the rest we infer from context, facial expression and body language. Additionally, all this is hard work and can make lipreaders tired – a phenomenon called concentration fatigue.
- Hearing device batteries die at the most inconvenient of times. Some devices use physical batteries, some are rechargeable, either way, they don’t last forever.
- Hearing aids make your ears sweat, especially in hot weather! Whether hearing aids with moulds (which have moulds that sit snugly in the ear shell) or domes (which sit in the ear canal), they can get very sweaty and sticky in hot weather or during exercise.
- Technology helps us answer the phone. Facetime or videocall means we can lipread or sign, Android devices can live caption phonecalls, and digital hearing devices can stream phonecalls directly into the devices (often through bluetooth). We’d still often prefer you to text, message or email, though. It’s usually much easier, but ask your deaf family/friends/colleagues their preferred communication strategy and just go with it.
- Captions are vital in the age of digital and online media. Adding captions (which is an automatic option on many platforms, now) is vital for inclusion of deaf and hard-of-hearing people. ‘You can just turn on captions yourself’ places the burden and responsibility of inclusion on the deaf person, but feeling truly included comes from hearing content creators adding captions to their own content. Having to ask for access or provide our own, constantly, is demoralising.
- Communication is key. Whether the deaf person’s chosen communication method is spoken English, British Sign Language, Sign Supported English, any other language or communication tool or combination of these, the best way to know how to communicate with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person is by asking them their preference. If you’re unsure, grab and pen and paper, scribble us a note, and we’ll happily help you engage with us.
Additionally, here are a few other random tidbits from my personal deaf experience (born hearing, raised oral, deafened as a teenager, spoken english and BSL communication with moderate/severe hearing loss in both ears) which you might find interesting or useful to know, and which may be experienced by other deaf/HoH people:
- I don’t sleep with my hearing aids in, so I rely on feeling during the night (doors closing, feet on the floor etc). Putting them in brings the world screaming into my ears.
- I don’t shower in my hearing aids (or swim) and I worry if I’m out in the rain!
- Some days I choose not to wear my hearing aids, so if I don’t hear you, text me or tap me on the shoulder.
- I, personally, have named my hearing aids – the last pair were Bert and Ernie, but these ones are Thelma and Louise. Not everyone names their hearing devices, though!
- Going shopping, or facing the general public, can be rough but often because hearing staff react like deer in headlights when I tell them I’m deaf. Don’t worry – just ask how best to communicate with me. It’ll be fine.
- Every TV in my house has subtitles automatically enabled – we all watch with subtitles and my family are used to it, but asking for captions on social media, in zoom meetings or pre-recorded training can be awfully draining. Please caption your visual media.
Finally, and not to repeat myself, but the best way to find out an individual’s deaf experience really is to politely, and with respectful curiosity, ask, in order to know how you can better understand and be thoroughly inclusive.
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