In Search of My (Deaf) Identity.

Sometimes we can be on a journey, in search of something, and not even know it.

A while ago, Steve asked me to do a piece for his blog on why BSL was so important to me. I thought hard about it but just couldn’t find the words.

I was born hearing, as was my brother, but deafness ran in my family. My father, uncle and grandmother were all deaf. My grandmother never wore a hearing aid and relied totally on lip reading. Back then, she was known as being ‘stone deaf’! But, despite all this, I was surprised to find myself following the same path, as did my brother. A friend pointed out how often I said pardon and, after extensive tests, I was told I had sensori-neural deafness, that ‘there is nothing we can do for you’, and handed a hearing aid which I struggled with, and fought against accepting.

I’d been a teacher in a Middle School, a challenging enough job without deteriorating hearing, but I loved my job and worked hard to keep up and do it well. Eventually, I had to accept wearing the hearing aid but, because I was embarrassed and, yes, ashamed (!) I kept it well hidden under my long hair.

So, why the battle to accept a hearing aid? When you’ve grown up hearing, all your reference and experiences belong in a ‘hearing world’ and I felt an overwhelming fear that I would be judged as less of a person, a teacher who was not able to do her job as well as others, and I did my utmost to hide my deafness. I became adept at working with incomplete information, I noticed what was happening instead of hearing all the detail, I asked questions and double-checked everything, I’d become a very good lip reader and I did my job well for many years. But, inevitably, the effort of ‘hanging on by my fingernails’ took its toll and, with my confidence and mental health broken, I left teaching.

For a while I was ‘lost’ but eventually I knew I had to try to help myself and so began a new journey. I joined a lip reading class, found new confidence and friendships and learned new skills. I became a volunteer for the Norfolk Hearing Support Service, learned all I could about deafness, began to give deaf awareness talks and even started to learn BSL, but without knowing any deaf signers, my skills soon lapsed. Slowly but surely I was becoming part of a different world where I felt safer but, away from classes, I was pitched back into the hearing world. I loved that I had found a new sense of purpose but these two worlds were often at odds with each other. I still wasn’t sure who I was or where I belonged. 

At the end of 2018, after realising that a hearing aid could no longer help me enough, I was accepted to have a cochlear implant fitted. Whilst not being the absolute game-changer I’d hoped it would be (I’m still very much a ‘work in progress’), it spurred me on, after over 20 years, to return to learning BSL which is how I came to find myself in Steve’s BSL class at St. Matthew’s Church, Thorpe Hamlet, literally just round the corner from where I’d spent most of my teaching career. 

I’d crossed paths with Steve many years ago and I knew from a deaf friend how highly he was thought of so I was keen to join his class. Despite having previously attained Level 1 (I failed Level 2), and having let my BSL skills lapse, I decided to start with Level 1 again. Those early days of Level 1 had me hooked! Steve made the classes interesting and fun and, despite the usual exam nerves, and the nightmare that was remote learning via Zoom during lockdowns, I passed my Level 1 and immediately enrolled in the Level 2 class.

The beginning of Level 2 BSL was challenging, due to the nightmare of remote learning via Zoom during lockdown, but it opened up many more opportunities for conversation with deaf signers including my brother, now also profoundly deaf. He had been signing for many years and encouraged me to sign with him and his partner whenever we met up and I know he was immensely proud of me for doing so. Level 2 goes into much more depth, enabling students to expand their grammar, understand how to use facial expression and non-manual features and have a much greater variety of conversations about real-life situations. The course supported this so well with excellent teaching videos made by Steve and with his enthusiastic support in the classroom and the more I learnt, the more I began to realise that BSL wasn’t just a new language to learn, it was becoming something very important, something I needed on this stage of my journey.

One day we were asked to do an assignment on Deaf Schools and to follow this up with a 5 minute presentation. I chose Doncaster School for the Deaf, as I’d lived in Doncaster for the first 9 years of my life. Coincidentally, it was a place that was important for Steve too. He went to College there and through learning BSL at the age of 19, his world opened out and he was finally on a path to achieve his full potential. He’d talked about some of his early experiences in a PHU, the frustrations of being locked out of a world he couldn’t access and in which he couldn’t achieve what he was capable of. I listened to this and found myself deeply moved, not because he told a ‘sob story’ but because, in my own teaching experience, I’d always been drawn to those children who were under-achieving and understood the tragedy of that lost potential and because, for so many years of my adult life, I’d experienced that too. 

At that moment, I realised how important BSL was for my future and that I’d been part of the deaf world for a long time – I just didn’t have the last key to the door. BSL was my key!

Now I’m studying for Level 3, having passed Level 2, and I’m loving every second of it. It’s not always easy but the challenge is such a positive one and the classes with Steve are a joy. With every assignment comes greater knowledge and understanding of the deaf world and, with it, my ability to hold better conversations in BSL. I’ve had the confidence to join a Signing Café, which meets once a month, where I can relax in a social situation and sign with a wonderful crowd of people, some learners like myself but many native signers. I can honestly say it’s the highlight of each month, it’s somewhere I feel confident and accepted for who I am. 

I was born into, and still live, in a hearing world, and that’s never going to change but now I have a place in another world, too, and that’s in the deaf world. It’s been a long journey, with many challenges but, finally, with the help of some very important people, and BSL, I’ve found my deaf identity.

Written by Heidi Yates

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