A few nights ago I decided to stay up to watch Hear and Now. This is an award-winning documentary about an American Deaf couple who, after a lifetime of living with deafness decide to get a Cochlea Implant (CI) at the age of 65. Their daughter Irene produced and filmed their story.
Diagnosed with deafness as children, Paul and Jill went to the same ‘special’ school. This was in 1945, when the oral method of teaching deaf children to communicate was still largely unknown.
Upon returning from Deaf School and trying to integrate into mainstream school, both Paul and Jill encountered difficulties as many people were afraid of approaching them. So much so that Jill even resorted to not telling people she was deaf, pretending that she could hear.
Initially, Paul felt very much part of society and the same as everyone else. He realised he was ‘different’ when he discovered he was not able to use the phone. Once, as a young man, he wanted to court a girl and when he was given her phone number he realised he could not do anything with it.
In the mid-70s, inspired by a futuristic prototype of a video telephone, Paul set off to engineer something similar. This was a type of text phone where people could type messages to others via a keyboard, thus inventing the TTY , or as we call it in the UK, the Minicom. I was gobsmacked: this was the man whose invention changed my life?
The most emotional part of the documentary was when Paul and Jill decide to have a cochlear implant and both go through a gruelling and very painful 4-hour surgery. I can’t tell you what happens afterwards without spoiling it for those who want to watch the documentary.
The film left a deep impression on me as I found I had so much in common with the two protagonists: pretending not to be deaf, realising I was really ‘different’ only when I could not use the phone, and each day confronting myself with the expectations of both the hearing and the Deaf worlds.
It made me realise that it’s crucial to educate both hearing people and Deaf people that advances in hearing aid and implant technology can be helpful but will never replace regular hearing. As hearing aid or implant users we might be able to hear sounds but if these are unknown they create huge stress. We might hear words we can’t understand, experience a loop system that won’t work, etc. And the biggest barrier is put up when people don’t know how to talk to us and shy away from making an effort in including us.
We need to raise awareness of the challenges deaf people go through. Integration often is very hard work, but for the sake of the 9 million Deaf and partially deaf people who live in the UK, we should strive for better understanding through more Deaf Awareness Training.
If we look at some of the principles of good communication we’ll see things like:
- speaking clearly
- use of concise language
- facing people as we speak
- active listening
- an open and welcoming attitude
These benefit not only Deaf people but everyone.
I wished I had seen this documentary 30 years ago, and perhaps so many issues I had with my deafness might have been better understood and accepted. I hope that many will get to see this moving documentary: a fantastic contribution towards better collaboration and understanding between hearing people, Deaf people and all of us in between.