In a perfect world, my job would not exist. Every parish would be fully inclusive to everyone, including those who are Deaf, Deafblind or hard of hearing. Everyone would be fluent in sign language, everyone would automatically turn on the hearing loop and use the microphone when they spoke. The 1 in 6 people who are Deaf or hard of hearing would only not hear the homily if they chose not to listen (something I will admit to doing on occasion!). That utopia of a fully inclusive parish is, however, still a long way off.
As Deaf Awareness week comes to a close, I have been reflecting on what it means to me as a hearing person to be an ally for the Deaf Community. When is it my time to speak and when should I let others take the lead?
I am privileged that my life and work spans both the hearing world and the Deaf Community; I get the best of both worlds. I can share with wonderful people from both communities, but I am not Deaf; I don’t know what that feels like.
The past 14 months have been challenging in so many ways for so many people, but just imagine for a moment the effect of people wearing masks on those who rely on lip readings and facial expressions to communicate. A notice from your GP tells you that all contact has to be by telephone in the first instance. Where does that leave a parent who happens to be Deaf with an ill child that they are desperately seeking help for? Last March, the Prime Minister decided the situation was so dire he must speak directly to the nation; but there was no sign language interpreter, so Deaf people who rely on British Sign Language (BSL) had no access to what he was saying. Did you get confused at all with the tier system and what you were allowed to do when and where? Imagine trying to understand the latest information on the television news with the sound off. Difficult? Challenging? For some Deaf people, quite simply, it has been impossible to follow what has been going on.
Like any community, the Deaf Community is made up of a huge variety of people, they are not a homologous mass; everyone is different, but a lack of an interpreter to provide information and a lack of closed captions or subtitles on videos and some TV channels, has created a common frustration over a lack of access to information.
So how can hearing people support the Deaf Community with respect and appreciation? How can you make your parish truly Deaf friendly?
- Invite Deaf and hard of hearing people onto committees and organising groups in your parish and listen actively to their contribution.
- A different perspective can be challenging but it can also be interesting, so be open to understanding this different perspective and to doing things differently.
- Engage with this different perspective and show your commitment to accepting change if that is what is required.
- Speak up if you realise that others in your parish are ignoring or marginalising Deaf or hard of hearing people.
Treating everyone the same does not necessarily mean that you are treating people equally. Equality is sometimes created by doing things differently. The best person to explain what it feels like to be Deaf in a parish is a Deaf person. The same with someone who is hard of hearing; if their experience is to be shared, it should come from someone who is hard of hearing and has first-hand experience of what that actually feels like.
Do I want to be standing shoulder to shoulder with my Deaf friends and colleagues? Actually, no I don’t, I want to be one step behind them. I want them to know that I fully support them and I am right behind them as they lead on what they are the experts at.
Deaf awareness should not be not just for a week; it should be part of everyday life.
Shell Roca is the director of the Caritas Deaf Service
You may also be interested in: Deaf Awareness Week 2021