Despite going to a mainstream secondary school with a deaf unit, nobody there once asked me or told me about the idea of a ‘deaf identity.’ It’s only now when I’m questioned on how I identify, I can pinpoint exactly how I feel and be proud of all the different parts that make up me.
Loosely speaking, an identity of any sort relates to how you see yourself – whether it’s do with your looks, beliefs, culture or social preferences. In relation to deafness, I see a deaf identity as how a person feels about their deafness and their individual preferences such as communication methods, lifestyle, viewpoint etc. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just how YOU feel.
In addition to this, I do believe that a deaf identity goes hand in hand with a sense of deaf pride. I didn’t fully understand this growing up, and my deafness was always attached to a sense of awkwardness or lack in some way. I wasn’t really ‘that deaf’ anyhow during my childhood so for the majority of the time, I felt very comfortable and at home with being solely in the ‘hearing world.’ I spoke, lipread, enjoyed music, and went to dance school, all with relative ease.
It was only in certain social situations that a feeling of unease would arise. I wouldn’t catch a conversation or somebody would tell me that a missed joke ‘didn’t matter’ and I would start to feel the emotions of someone who didn’t quite fit in.
I also had a bit of a blushing problem. If I didn’t understand what was going on or someone spoke to me unexpectedly, my face would burn bright red. Because of this I abhorred any kind of event that meant people would have to look at me when I was talking and I especially hated being asked to read in front of the class at school. I didn’t understand it at the time but I can see now how this social embarrassment stemmed from feeling inadequate if I didn’t hear.
On top of my personal insecurities at secondary school, my support teachers were often at a loss as to what exactly to do with me. They wanted to support me in classes but I felt their level 2 BSL was too slow for me and I preferred to lipread the class teacher. They also took notes in class for me but I would often finish my work before they’d completed writing these up.
I was also told that I wasn’t ‘deaf enough’ to have certain support in classes, even ones that I found exceptionally hard such as French or Music. So although I was clearly deaf (severely at the time) I still felt under pressure to function independently without much interaction or support from others.
I can appreciate now how hard I worked at mainstream school. Looking back I can see how I was often exhausted after school, silent in the car ride home and needing to take a nap at home before rushing out to my dance class. On other days I’d shut myself in my room for hours while laying down and listening to the stereo blaring out. I needed this alone time to decompress from focusing so hard on filtering information and lipreading.
Because I worked so hard to fit into the hearing education system, it seemed all of my time was spent studying, dancing or relaxing, with very little time for socialising.
That all changed when I went to a deaf school for sixth form, and boy did I make up for lost time! I suddenly had a great big bunch of friends instead of just one or two and I felt able to relax and enjoy myself during school time. I no longer had to concentrate intently to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
Because I made friends with deaf peers from all over the country, I also no longer felt like the ‘unusual one’ as I soon discovered that there were in fact plenty of us deaf folk scattered across the world!
By meeting more deaf people I had widened my perspective on what being deaf actually meant. I also made more use of sign language (which, fortunately I did already know) and I felt more confident at expressing myself – without the blushing!
I later had to return to my secondary school to pick up an award and a member of staff there commented on how surprised he was at my sudden confidence. I had greeted him with an outgoing ‘hello!’ instead of waiting to be spoken to, and my increase in self esteem was evident in the way I behaved and interacted with others.
It seemed that being around deaf peers had given me the boost in confidence I needed and resulted in a feeling of pride and self acceptance in regards to my deafness. My deaf identity had begun to form!
Saying that, I do remember a time at sixth form where something had angered me. In a rage, I burst into a torrent of accusations – all in spoken (shouty!) english. My deaf friends found this most amusing and pointed out to me how my initial reaction was to respond in english rather than BSL. My hearing identity was still there, it seemed.
There are many aspects of me that still stem from the hearing world. Even my (deaf) husband jokes that I’m the hearing one in the family sometimes and a lot of deaf people do assume when they first meet me that I am, indeed, hearing.
I guess two decades of living with hearing parents and growing up with hearing friends has shaped a lot of who I am, yet – more than anything – I am pleased and proud at how I’ve come to accept and embrace my deaf identity.
I used to think that my deafness was a flaw. Something I had to try and ‘overcome’ or work hard enough around so it justified my existence. I tried so hard to blend in with others it exhausted me.
But now – I see it as something that makes me unique. I loooove sign language and all of its depth. I recognise the parts in me that are synonymous with deaf culture and I identify with and relate to so many other deaf people worldwide.
I also have no qualms telling people I’m deaf and asking them to repeat themselves or find a way for me to understand something. I’m confident enough to do that now. I wasn’t always, believe me. I remember my childhood friend would always order for me in McDonalds because she knew I didn’t ‘like talking to others.’
I guess your own identity is equally unique to you. How you identify with your deafness or the hearing world depends a lot on your background, exposure to communities and personality type too. I’m not as much of an extrovert as most of my deaf friends are, but I’m also a little more open minded at trying new things than my hearing buddies.
If you asked me when I was 12 years old if I had a deaf identity, I would have firstly blushed (ha!) and then probably muttered ‘no, not really.’ But here and now, I well and truly do have a deaf identity. It just goes to show how life experiences can really empower and influence you. Along with a sense of assertiveness, my deaf identity has taught me to embrace ALL parts of myself, despite whatever anybody else says or thinks.
However you identify, I hope you always have the courage to be true to yourself and find people around you that love you just as you are.
Take care, Rebecca
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