How deaf are you?

‘How deaf are you? Can you write it down?’

This is what I was asked when trying to access emergency medical care at the local Accident and Emergency department of my local hospital, recently. That said, I only know what was asked of me thanks to my partner, who heard and repeated for me from behind a clear panel mask. Experiencing the beginning of an anxiety attack anyway, the isolation, inaccessibility and judgement of the situation only served to make me feel worse and I left, against medical advice.

We visited A&E following a head injury and under direction from NHS 111. Having explained about my hearing loss, I was told I could take my partner with me, in a clear mask so I could lipread, and so she could interpret for me. On arrival, I was asked ‘how deaf are you?’, which my partner interpreted, and I answered with my (very clear) voice. My partner was then told to leave and I was asked to write in order to communicate, while the staff continued to talk to me from behind opaque facemasks. The stress of being around so many people, and of being alone and facing a communication barrier was too great and I promptly left, against medical advice, in the middle of a severe panic attack.

But, with hindsight and a little distance, it is clear there were two main issues to this experience and the communication breakdown between myself and the hearing staff of the A&E department.

Firstly, the question ’How deaf are you?’ implies request of justification of whether you are ‘really deaf’ or ’deaf enough’. Asking how deaf someone is means to pitch one person’s hearing loss against another and devalue the feelings or experience of the individual. While someone with profound loss may be able to follow less spoken communication than someone with mild hearing loss, it remains the right of the deaf/HoH person to explain their hearing loss if, and when, appropriate for them.

Secondly, some deaf people speak, regardless of their level of hearing loss. A person’s ability, or choice, to speak is not indicative of their deafness. If the deaf person uses their voice to communicate, the need to write as a form of communication does not lie with them, as they can make themselves understood, but with the hearing person, especially if they are wearing a mask, preventing the deaf/HoH person from lipreading. Asking the deaf/HoH person, who has already spoken very clearly, if they can write things down in order to communicate, negates the issue that they still cannot hear or follow you from behind the face mask.

Finally, the fundamental issue still remains; that today’s society, with masks and barriers, is a difficult place for the deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community and that the hearing community has a long way to go understand how communicate and integrate with deaf/HoH people.

How to help

Hearing people:

  • Ask deaf people how they choose to communicate and make accommodations
  • Don’t judge the deaf/HoH person – every deaf experience is different
  • Use technology to type/write where appropriate
  • Be patient

Deaf/HoH people:

  • Communicate your needs clearly and politely but with confidence
  • Know your access rights
  • Do not be afraid to speak
  • Be patient

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