Ironically, I’ve heard all the same deaf jokes before. Sorry? What? Pardon? Whenever I tell someone I wear hearing aids and have a mild hearing loss, the odd few like to try their luck.
It may seem harmless, but as the deaf community celebrates Deaf Awareness Week, the retort is likely to emerge once again and reinforce the damaging misconception that deaf people are ignorant, stupid or cannot listen.
We already see examples of this in our everyday conversations. Politicians describe each other as “tone deaf” for making ill-advised decisions. If someone’s frustrated with having to repeat themselves, they ask the rhetorical question “Are you deaf?” The difference between hearing and listening has been confused, and it is negatively impacting deaf people.
The issue lies with a lack of support and accessibility. For instance, employers are failing to implement reasonable adjustments in the workplace and as such reject job applications from deaf people. In many ways, deafness – and indeed, disability as a whole – is still viewed predominantly from the perspective of what people can’t do.
While of course it is fair to state that being deaf means we struggle to hear certain things, it’s wrong to say that a loss of hearing affects our listening skills. If anything, it actually makes us more alert when it comes to visual cues, to the extent that we can experience “concentration fatigue” when we have to process too much information without the help we need. The problems start to occur when being unable to hear is interpreted as being unable to do other, unrelated tasks.
This notion only feeds into the isolation, discrimination and self-esteem issues deaf people can face. It should always be down to the deaf person in question to recognise their own potential and acknowledge where difficulties may arise. We’ve seen what happens when deaf people are allowed to flourish: their contribution to wider society is positive and fulfilling.
Thankfully, deaf awareness resources – like the ones created by Action on Hearing Loss – do an excellent job of promoting inclusion, with advice including speaking clearly and learning basic British Sign Language (BSL). Yet we as a society must – and can – do more.
Deaf people also face isolation and loneliness when trying to join in group discussions. Requests for people to repeat themselves are still answered with “never mind” or “it doesn’t matter”. Our fast-paced culture, where information is consumed as quickly as possible, has only exasperated the issue.
We are attentive, to the extent that we’re making people listen to us. Deaf campaigners have made the UK government change its stance on a BSL GCSE and taken steps to improve subtitles at UK cinemas. In my case, I’ve called out an inaccessible rail system which fails to keep deaf passengers updated, and explored how the emergency services support deaf people. As a community, we are proactive.
This year, Deaf Awareness Week sees us celebrating deaf role models. However, it’s important that these individuals are not only acknowledged within our own community, but in society as a whole. We’ve already seen incredible steps forward for deaf representation in the arts, such as the Oscar-winning short film The Silent Child, deaf actors starring in the hugely successful zombie drama The Walking Dead, and deaf theatre productions in London.
Enough with the misconceptions and placing barriers on deaf people: now it’s time to commemorate those talking bold steps to change society for the better.
The stereotype that deaf people can’t and don’t listen is still present in our society and underpins much of the discrimination faced by members of our community. Hearing people need to listen to us, listen to our stories, and see how we are fighting the injustices we experience every single day.
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