Each month we invite an inspirational or outstanding deaf role model to share their story. From what they’ve learnt, to what they wish they’d have known and their best deaf tips.
This month, meet Stephen Iliffe a deaf photographer and writer with a background in charity management. Stephen’s latest project Deaf Mosaic aims to demonstrate and celebrate the diversity of the deaf community.
Scroll down for Stephen’s top 3 tips for deaf people in BSL.
1. Hi Stephen! Tell us about yourself?
Hi there! My name’s Stephen. My background is in senior charity management. For 26 years, I worked at Royal National Institute for Deaf People and then National Deaf Children’s Society. For the past three years, I’ve been a freelance photographer and writer.
My current project is Deaf Mosaic. It’s a photography website that celebrates diversity in our deaf community. It portrays positive deaf role models from different ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, occupations and ways of life.
2. What is your deaf story?
I was born in Gibraltar (a tiny British territory on the southern tip of Spain). However, my father abandoned my mother and disappeared overnight. So, Mum flew home to England, and I grew up in a single parent household in Leicester.
At the age of one, Mum noticed I wasn’t responding to her calls whenever I looked away from her. She had me tested and I was diagnosed as severely-to-profoundly deaf, and fitted with hearing aids.
Fortunately, as Mum was a primary school teacher, she gave me a good start in life. She knew how to stimulate me through communication and play, and how to develop my language skills. So, I could read and write fluently from an early age. I owe much of my success in life to Mum’s love and early support.
I spent a year in the pre-school nursery at the Stoneleigh Deaf School in Leicester. But this was in the mid-1960s and Local Education Authorities were starting to close the deaf schools and mainstream deaf pupils. So, I left and was integrated into a local hearing school (without any unit or communication support).
I wasn’t aware I was deaf until I arrived in my new class and all the hearing pupils gathered around me pointing at my big body-worn hearing aids. Suddenly, I realised I was the only deaf kid at the school. I didn’t know how to explain myself. I had no deaf adult role models.
I struggled to follow the teachers – it was way too tiring to lipread all day long. But I was naturally curious and had a hunger for knowledge. So, I read and wrote obsessively: comics, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, manuals. I self-educated myself.
Mainstreaming was the best of times and the worst. I had friends, but the classroom and playground could be tough psychologically: I was occasionally mocked and humiliated for my deafness. To avoid getting systemically–bullied, I’d hide my hearing aid under my long collar-length hair (which was fashionable in the 1970s) and sit at the back of class to avoid drawing attention to myself.
3. Tell us about your experience of BSL? Why did you decide to learn it?
During my last year at University, I felt pretty down and frustrated at my inability to integrate into university social life. The classrooms were noisy, the lecturers mumbled, and student union bars were too dark. One night, I had a very nasty panic attack – it felt as if I was about to ‘explode’ into a million tiny fragments and no-one would ever be able to put me back together.
I realised that something had to change, but I had no idea what to do.
One Sunday, I switched the TV on and – by chance – saw the BBC TV See Hear! programme for deaf people. I stared at it for a while thinking “Well, it’s very nice but this is for deaf people, and I’m not deaf. I’m just a hearing person who uses hearing aids. It’s not for me”.
This was in the mid-1980s, when See Hear! had two charismatic presenters, Maggie Woolley and Clive Mason. So, I kept on watching and began to think: “They’re deaf people. They’re hearing is worse than mine. So, how come Maggie and Clive look so confident and assertive? And I’m not?”
I became curious, and began to watch See Hear! weekly. I discovered a whole new world: Deaf clubs! Deaf culture! Deaf rights! It completely revolutionised my thinking about my place in the world. I realised that I was deaf, but that it wasn’t deafness that was my problem, it was barriers that hearing society places in front of us.
Then, I was inspired to visit the Leicester Centre for Deaf People where I met older deafies like Frank and Pamela Sly, who were incredibly warm and welcoming and encouraged my early efforts to acquire BSL as a second language.
4. Tell us about your career and how you got involved in it?
After I graduated from University with a degree in photography and graphic design, I sent over 50 job applications to employers, and got zero response. Not a single interview. Yet the other students seemed to be getting work quickly. I realised that my deafness was seen as a liability. Remember this was in the 1980s before the Disability Discrimination Act (later the Equalities Act) and the current Access to Work scheme (which funds deaf employees support costs). So, I had no idea how to break the circle.
Instead, I threw myself into the deaf community. I made weekly trips to London to immerse myself in the deaf scene. I got involved in political activism with the Deaf Broadcasting Campaign (DBC). I’d finally found a space where I was accepted for who I was.
I secured a job at RNID as a Campaigns Researcher and began lobbying MPs at the Houses of Parliament. Later I went onto senior management and at NDCS eventually led a team of 24 people with a budget of £1.5 million, to deliver information and services.
5. What is one thing you wish you’d have known before as a deaf person?
I wish that as a child and young person I’d known that I wasn’t “the only deaf person in the world”. You shouldn’t have to wait until your twenties to have the confidence to know that, with the right support, deaf people can do anything.
6. What is your biggest achievement?
In professional life, my most important achievement has been to lead and manage teams of individuals to define their goals, develop their own skills and fulfil their potential at work (and in life).
In personal life, being a son, husband, father, brother, and friend to others. Success is fleeting but relationship friendships are lifelong.
7. What makes you proud to be part of the deaf community?
I’m deeply proud of the deaf community’s diversity, agility, resilience and creativity. I love how it blends people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. Every time I meet a new deaf face, I learn from their experience and insights.
That said, I have to acknowledge that – as with the hearing world – there are ‘intersectional issues’ and intolerance shown by some deaf towards other deaf, which is something that has to be challenged, worked through and resolved. The deaf community has to work harder to be mutually respectful and supportive of each other if we are to break through the hearing world’s glass ceilings.
8. What is your best piece of advice for young people in the deaf community?
I’d like to quote two younger deaf people who’ve inspired me recently.
Abdi Gas, the founder of Deaf Unity, who told me over lunch: “I went through a period of feeling angry and resentful at all the barriers hearing people put in front of me. But when I decided that the most important barrier was inside my head, that has made the biggest difference to progress in life”.
Vilma Jackson, a BSL performance artist, who grew up with a “triple oppression” – being female, black and deaf in a world that systemically discriminates on all those three fronts. I couldn’t have put in better when she said: “find the fire inside yourselves and don’t allow society to stop you from achieving your goals. I want you to be fierce in a positive way. Work hard. Struggle. Experience success
9. Where do you turn for unity, community or understanding of your deafness?
It’s good to have a range of diverse sources. The mistake some deaf (and hearing) people make is to over-rely on ‘echo chambers’ (places where people all think alike and have the same position on any issue).
Be curious, visit different websites, social media pages, engage people who may think differently from you and you’ll get a much wider and more agile perspective on deaf community life. This can only help you in both your personal and professional life.
In my latest project, I’ve met, interviewed and photographed a wide variety of people – from a female deaf vicar to a deaf orthodox Muslim leader, from a deaf-blind athlete to a deaf hairy biker. They all have much in common but also very different experiences and insights too. I learnt something new every time and my appreciation of the deaf community widens and deepens as a result.
10. What deaf resources or support have you found the most useful?
No deaf organisation has the total answer to the needs of deaf people, but each holds a piece in the puzzle. One thing, I’ve found useful is to collate resources from different organisations into a personal file on my laptop computer that I can access and refer to a wide range of resources whenever I’m under pressure and need to act fast.
11. Who inspires you and why?
Too many to mention them all: but If I go back to my formative years, a key inspiration was Paddy Ladd who revolutionised my thinking by highlighting the need for a new ‘social model’ of deaf people (as members of a linguistic and cultural group) as opposed to the traditional ‘medical model’ (of deaf people as just a pair of ‘broken ears’).
Also, Ruth Montgomery and Eloise Garland who are the leaders in Audiovisability which aims to innovate new art forms that blend the visual arts, sign language and music. It’s been fabulous collaborating with them.
Also, my wife and best friend Emma, who is not only an outstanding BSL teacher and leader but is always open and encouraging to every deaf person she meets.
12. What do you do to look after your mental health? What advice would you give to anyone struggling with their mental health and/or deafness?
Aside from one terrible year at University, I’ve been largely fortunate to be blessed with good physical and mental health, and resilience. The things I have found useful are:
Look after yourself: Exercise, eat, hydrate and sleep well, moderate your caffeine and alcohol intake. Sounds obvious but when I neglect these I quickly tire of dealing with hearing barriers and things can feel futile.
Don’t suffer in silence: You are not alone. A problem shared is a problem halved.
Negativity is everywhere, but don’t let it control your thoughts. Build a network with positive thinkers, be it family, friends or colleagues.
13. What ways do you think hearing people can be allies to the deaf community?
Of course, we need hearing allies. The deaf community is too small to win all its battles on its own. But take ownership of your life goals, be assertive and stress you want hearing allies to empower you, not take over and do everything for you.
14. 3 top tips for deaf people?
- Have clear goals: and review them regularly. If you’re not clear what you want personally and professionally, how can you build the right networks, pursue the right training and development and allocate your valuable time and energies?
- Be assertive: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I’m naturally shy and diffident. Being assertive was a skill I had to work at and practice. Most hearing and organisations people will make adapt and accommodate your needs if you tell them what you need and want. But if you say nothing, then nothing will happen! If that fails, then escalate to a higher authority or use the law or pull whatever levers you need to.
- Lifelong learning: too many people think education stops when you leave school. Set yourself learning goals for each week, each month – be it learning a new cooking recipe or mastering a new app or going on a professional development course. It all adds up.
3 Top Tips in BSL
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