Do you think you know what deafness is? Is it not being able to hear? A ‘disability’? What about ‘deaf identity’? Is that labelling yourself as deaf? The questions and the lack of easy answers indicate that these are contentious issues for those who care to discuss them. To others, perhaps they just hint at unchallenged assumptions.
Luke Christian, founder of the business and brand Deaf Identity says that, ‘Deafness is a spectrum, there’s no right or wrong way of being deaf’ (Limping Chicken, 2019), which might help deaf people feel less upset but not necessarily less confused. Is he talking about deafness when he says it’s on a spectrum – and deaf identity when he asserts there’s no wrong way to be deaf? Is he talking about you – or me?
I have a good medical understanding of my own deafness – bilateral, progressive, acquired – but I fought with myself for years over the how to describe myself to others, to hearing people. There have always been lots of terms used to describe people’s deafness: deaf or Deaf (where the capital D matters!), hard of hearing, hearing impaired. Then try bilateral, unilateral, conductive, sensorineural, mixed, progressive, sudden, congenital, acquired. And for the medics mild, moderate, severe, profound hearing loss. Most of the world just says deaf.
Yet using the word deaf always felt wrong for me because I could hear some things, enough to have some connection to – and a place – in the hearing world. Using the term ‘hard of hearing’ always (and especially in recent years) felt like not enough, because of how much I struggled in hearing company. At the same time, I was challenged by some in the deaf community: ‘You can speak, so you’re not really deaf’, or ‘You don’t sign, so you’re not really deaf’. Having my deafness questioned made it difficult for me to be confident in my own deaf identity, feeling bombarded by the opinions of others. So how could I begin to build a view of our own deaf identity in this ever-changing world?
The Collins English dictionary definition of ‘identity’ states: ‘Your identity is who you are’ and, ‘The identity of a person or place is the characteristics they have that distinguish them from others’. Identity has nothing to do with anyone else; it has everything to do with the individual recognising that part of themselves, acknowledging it and cultivating it. Identity might be made of many aspects of a person – age, ethnicity, gender, experience, culture. No-one has to pick one thing – we are all multi-faceted human beings.
For a long time, for some in the UK, deaf identity was attached to a particular school or deaf club – but as things have changed deaf people haven’t gone away or abandoned their identities. I have come to know that for me deaf identity is about acknowledging my deafness, learning new ways to interact (and possibly new skills) and being proud of what makes me different from hearing people, but also different from other deaf people.
When we consider definitions of both deafness and identity, a picture of deaf identity emerges, one inclusive of all people who fall under the enormous deafness umbrella. Deaf identity is what you make of it. The language you use around your deafness, the ways in which you communicate and the time you spend in the hearing and deaf communities, help create the deaf identity you choose. That is not to say any one identity is better than any other; we are all unique in our deaf identity and that should be celebrated.
As a previously confused and hurt deaf person, I now suggest:
- See your deafness as part of who you are, rather than something you ‘suffer from’
- Claim your needs for access to the hearing world as a right, not as something you have to apologise for
- Don’t compare yourself, your journey or your place in the deaf community – whatever you decide that is – with other people
- Be deaf your way – and be proud
This article was written by Evie Cryer, a full time primary teacher, full time autism mum and full time campaigner for inclusion and equality. Evie has a passion for all things literary and never goes anywhere without a book. Check out her previous article here.
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