My Label and Me: Being deaf is a gift, especially when the baby is crying at 4am
During my school years I was called ‘dopey,’ ‘cloth ears’ and ‘slow’. This wasn’t by bullies but by teachers who failed to recognise my lack of hearing.
Being called these names was humiliating and something I didn’t want to talk about, so I swept it under the carpet.
I regularly misunderstood situations and instructions and had to learn to survive. I would assess a scenario visually, piece together what was happening, using lip-reading to add context.
It’s how I had got by all my life and, as I have congenital deafness, I just thought that was the way everyone else heard, too.
I used to call my good ear my index ear as a child, in the same way you have an index finger. I was a bright kid but ended up in remedial groups because my deafness wasn’t identified until I was 13.
There is a long-standing correlation between deafness and assumed stupidity among educators throughout history, as evidenced in the common usage of the phrase ‘deaf and dumb’, until quite recently.
There are 8.3million of us who are hard of hearing in the UK. We inhabit a strange hinterland; not hearing, but not as deaf as the 50,000 capital ‘D’ or culturally deaf people who use British Sign Language.
As a result, hearing loss can be a very alienating and isolating experience.
When my daughter was born last year she had a hearing test within a few hours, but there were no hearing tests when I was born in Birmingham during the 70s.
After discovering my deafness, my response was to retreat into the visual world and language of cinema.
That sense of isolation and necessary emphasis on the visual has aided and shaped my career and world view as a film director. I’m drawn to characters who are outsiders and my last film ‘The Marker’ on Netflix was about a deeply solitary character.
In terms of work, I think there is a misunderstanding and fear about those labelled with non-visible disabilities such as deafness.
For example, I know myself and other deaf filmmakers have been passed over for work opportunities because people either don’t really see us as having a disability or don’t understand and fear what working with us might entail.
There is a kind of soft prejudice at work, rooted in fundamental misunderstanding.
When most commissioning editors are looking for crew with a disability they think of someone with a visual disability. Other types of disabilities such as deafness and mental health issues are complex and not straightforward for them to understand.
Austerity Britain, the rise of programmes like Benefits Street and what the UN has referred to as ‘social engineering at work in the UK’s welfare system’ has impacted how deaf people are perceived.
It’s created a new cynicism and suspicion of those of us identifying as deaf. In meetings, I can sometimes actually feel people thinking: ‘He doesn’t look disabled to me’.
That used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore.
I just remember that isolated undiagnosed little boy – to me they are the modern iteration of those ignorant teachers. Times change, but sadly lack of empathy does not.
These days I am very open about my label, as I know it makes me who I am and is an important part of my identity.
It’s actually a benefit at times and I enjoy retreating into a world of silence and my own solitude – it’s a very empowering experience (especially when the baby is crying at 4am).
I embrace it, zone out and explore my ideas and where they might take me.
That’s a wonderful gift for any artist.
In the words of the late great blind writer John Hull my deafness is ‘a gift, not one that I would have chosen, but a gift nevertheless’.
Labels is an exclusive series that hears from individuals who have been labelled – whether that be by society, a job title, or a diagnosis. Throughout the project, writers will share how having these words ascribed to them shaped their identity — positively or negatively — and what the label means to them.
If you would like to get involved please email [email protected]
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