What Signing Means to Me by Paul Clarke

My experience of sign language is different to those use this as their first language. I lost my hearing through meningitis at the age of four. My hearing loss was described as moderate to profoundly deaf and I grew up with wearing two hearing aids and using the Phonic ear system whilst at school.

I attended a mainstream school that had a separate partial hearing unit (PHU) and there would be mixture of us that would use sign language, or in my case, using the Phonic ear system to help with communication needs in the class.

Throughout my life, especially my teens and early adulthood I never signed. I didn’t feel the need to do so because while I had a hearing loss, I could still communicate, hear and over time relied more on lip reading.

But there was a difference and I felt it at a social level. A new Deaf community centre opened in Belfast while I was still at secondary school, and I went along to it. Most of my peers used sign language and I felt alienated as I didn’t sign, which resulted in me feeling like a complete outsider.

To my peers, I could hear but not sign. I never made any effort to learn to try to fit in and learn sign language.

To make things worse for me having a hearing loss was a big disadvantage when socialising in the mainstream as I couldn’t hear anybody speak in the louder environments.

So, it felt like falling between the cracks, not fitting with my Deaf peers because I didn’t sign and not fitting in with those who could hear but I couldn’t.

After leaving secondary school, further education was discouraged for me as I was told that I wouldn’t have access to the Phonic ear system when I left school which would have made it difficult for me to hear in big classes. So, it was into the world of work for me.

I had my problems at work as well with difficulty hearing on the phone and lack of support but because I was a good worker I was taken out of the loop and allowed to work without the hassle of the noise and busyness of the office.

I’m in my fifties now. It feels like another stage of life, but I reached out for support to RNID. With the WorkableNI and Access to Work programme at the time, I had a support worker who helped me get through the minefield of obstacles that I faced ages from ago, but there just wasn’t any support at that time in my life.

This gave me confidence and I hosted a communication tactics seminar with my colleagues which helped reduce the stigma of my own hearing loss and how I preferred to communicate. For many that was a revelation as nobody really had thought of me in that way. The seminar played a vital role in making my colleagues in the office more aware.

My employment support officer was called Laura, she worked for RNID for 10 years. As a result of a change in their strategic direction, specialist employment services in Northern Ireland were closed. As a response to this, Laura and her previous RNID colleague Alex, set up AdaptNI (www.adaptni.org.uk ) to ensure the continuation of this invaluable support. They have now replaced RNID on the SES (Supported Employment Solutions) Consortium ( www.sesni.org.uk )

 

As part of EQANS Diversity and Inclusivity I am now part of our company’s Disability Network. I had a part to play regarding my hearing loss. On Deaf Awareness week I again hosted the communication tactics seminar, this time online for my colleagues telling them of my own experiences and how best to communicate. There were questions about sign language, and I admitted that I never done it or learnt because I relied on lip reading more.

That conversation opened things up for the rest of us in the group and an interest was expressed in learning sign language to help our deaf colleagues and make them feel more included.

I just took part in my first ever sign language session recently. It was a three-day course over Zoom hosted by RNID. I must admit I was dreading it but instead found it very engaging and enjoyable.

Whilst I learnt the basics regarding finger spelling and verbal/visual clues to communication it made me more aware of what communication issues those who had complete hearing loss had to face.

My experiences in early life, shaped my direction and my journey, pushed towards the hearing world, but feeling wedged between them both.

It did make me reflect more as I have got older, wiser that now is the time to learn a new skill which will help me communicate with others.

 


(Please note: This blog has been written by an independent author not associated with Signature, any and all views expressed are that of the independent author who does speak on Signature’s behalf.)

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