Which is worse losing an arm, a leg, your sight, your hearing’

All are pretty traumatic of course but – the answer is – they’re all different in their own right. Maybe you’d select losing your sight as the worst possible scenario? Apparently the Guide Dogs for the Blind charity is a rich one indeed for the notion of an animal helping a blind individual to navigate around the streets seems to tear at the heartstrings of the British people. Hearing Dogs for the Deaf isn’t so rich by a long chalk.

The first two are physical impairments and, depending on the mind-set of the individual concerned, most can be assisted by the provision of physical aids and adaptations. The last two are sensory losses and both can be difficult to overcome especially if the loss occurs overnight or over a longer period of time. I have no experience of dealing with loss of sight so I shall not even embark upon what it must be like to experience this.

An abrupt end

Try and imagine what it would be like to lose your hearing. All your life you’ve been kept in touch with family, friends and people at work through the medium of spoken language … personal contact, the phone, video conversations and so on. Suddenly all that comes to an abrupt end. The people you thought you had meaningful relationships with now have difficulty in communicating with you. Initially many are sympathetic to your plight but, over time, conversing becomes too much like hard work and a chore. I’ve outlined how chancy lip reading can be in a previous article and the fact that people turn-off when they have to repeat something three times and they’re still not understood. You might suggest that the speaker writes down what they want to say but that takes extra time in the world of “normal” hearing people. If the whole population of this planet had no hearing there wouldn’t be a problem as we would have adapted our lives to communicate in other ways.

People say to me “… if I became deaf I’d miss the extraneous sounds: birdsong, the rustle of trees in the breeze and the muted sounds of everyday life at home and outside.” Ask the individual who has actually become deaf and they’ll tell you it’s the spontaneous free flow of thoughts, ideas and feelings … the conversation between fellow human beings that they miss most of all.

A question of tone

You might say that subtitles on television, text and emails all make life easier for deaf people and you would be correct in that assumption. What about tone though? You can glean a lot through facial expression and body language but tone also assists the message which is denied to the totally deafene individual. During my career as a Social Worker with Deaf People and latterly as a Sign Language Interpreter I had to voice-over what deaf people were saying in medical situations, the court room, marriage guidance counselling and so on and the tone, as well as the exact meaning of the message is all-important. Once, in the Crown Court, a deaf defendant told the prosecuting barrister to “f…-off”. Delivered as a bland statement is not the same as meting it out as an expletive! Unfortunately the judge happened to miss that part of the proceedings and asked me to repeat what he’d said. Then … I got into trouble when the judge thought I was personally telling him to “f… off!” What an absolute farce!

The group meet-ups you used to have are history to a large extent. Meeting up with the family and friends is akin to swimming around in a goldfish bowl. You see people’s lips move but trying to comprehend what they’re actually saying is something else!

You may have latched on to one conversation but when that spontaneously moves to another individual, by the time you’ve turned round, you’ve lost the thread of what’s being said. And anyway, the subject matter may have changed in the meantime and you’re still thinking in terms of what the previous speaker said!

Sometimes you make what you consider to be an appropriate response when - to the rest of the group – it sounds quite ridiculous. You become the butt of much hilarity and, after a number of humiliating encounters like this, you learn to keep your mouth shut and start to avoid social situations.

Relationship strain

Much depends on your partner and/or close friends. In effect, they become your “interpreter” … informing you of what people are saying and, because you become familiar with their lip patterns, you increasingly depend on them. That puts a lot of strain on relationships and tends to inhibit them from attending social occasions if they feel they are there to do a job of interpreting rather than take part as a member of that particular group. Work meetings are fraught with difficulties. A team manager once told me he met with the deaf member of the team after each meeting and went through the agenda to ensure his colleague had completely understood the proceedings. Another manager explained to me that a deaf colleague had been most upset when he realised after being told to put up his hand in a union meeting, he’d agreed to going on strike the following week. How do you know that a well-meaning colleague hasn’t ‘filtered’ the message to make it sound better – or worse? Over time, your independence and confidence is slowly eroded.

How to adapt

What can be done then to learn new ways of adapting to this new world of silence? Maintaining a sense of humour can undoubtedly help as is not insisting on what is said must be relayed to you at all costs. We live in a world where hearing reigns supreme and although there is a time and a place when we should be treated as an equal in terms of receiving the message straightaway, we need to be mindful of not overstepping the mark and negate the positive relationships we’ve built up over many years. We surely have to be realistic despite what the activists say. Lip reading classes? My experience is that no one can teach you to lip read but useful hints and coping strategies can be shared within such a class which tends to evolve as a social group where all the members have deafness as a common feature.

A cure for deafness? There is none.

Cochlea implants? Only trained personnel can tell you whether these will work for each individual. At a very basic level, they teach the brain to interpret electronic impulses and over time your brain learns to decode these. I suppose it’s rather like learning your native language in your early years.

Some say that losing your hearing completely is worse than being born deaf. Depends which viewpoint you’re coming from. If you’ve never known what it’s like to hear – you’ve lost nothing. It’s normal for you.

More about born deaf people and the fascination of Sign Language in the next article.