On ‘Learn to fingerspell week’, Catherine Loftus shares her fascination with communication for deaf and hearing impaired people which was grounded in her childhood experiences.
When I was about eight years old I sometimes went into the clothing factory my Dad worked in and met some of his fellow workers, two of whom were profoundly deaf and both of whom signed using British Sign Language (BSL). I watched my Dad trying to include them in conversations and trying his best to read their signs and lipspeak and sign himself. He didn’t know what he was doing, he just made a conscious decision to be as inclusive as he possibly could, even though he wouldn’t have described what he did in that way and of course neither would I have done at the time.
I became fascinated in the exchange of information, ideas and feelings. It seemed SO incredible to me that people who had never heard a single word in their lives as they had both been born deaf were able to understand words and communicate. Wondering what was going on in their brains, I’d ask myself and then my Dad:
- “Do they see sounds?”
- “Do they think in words?”
- “How come they can make sounds into words you can sometimes understand and have a good guess at, when they can’t hear the sounds they’re making?”
- “How do they understand when to talk/sign when they can’t hear voices?”
- “Don’t they have to concentrate really hard?”
My interest in deafness was deeply ignited. Many years later, having worked in education for several years, I was very lucky to be seconded onto an advanced post-graduate diploma in the education of deaf and hearing impaired children and adults at Manchester University. While on the programme I learnt about the history of deaf education in England, phonetics, audiology, speech production, the psychosocial aspects of deafness, how to teach and of course about myself and my assumptions. I became amazed at that the strength and resilience of the children and adults I taught and met. Some of the mature students told me of having their hands tied together or to chairs to prevent them from signing, of being called dumb, thick, selectively deaf and of having very few job prospects; working in clothing factories or cobblers seemed to be the employment opportunities suggested or ‘chosen’ for them.
We have come a long way since those days in educational, technological, social and cultural terms. However, we still have more to do. Deaf and hearing impaired children and adults still experience forms of exclusion, overt and covert discrimination and inequity and this can affect their health and well-being.
Taking the time and a few simple steps when communicating with colleagues, patients and service users who are hearing impaired or deaf helps us to communicate more effectively and promotes understanding and builds better relationships and communities.
Let’s take those steps.