Misunderstanding misunderstandings: Settling in as a Deaf fresher

By Stephen J Papillon

By sh850 15min read

What is your name? What do you study? These questions and the answers they elicit, recurrent during the daunting period of first impressions when freshers settle in at Cambridge, are so simple. Yet, the conversations they ensue determine study groups, establish sporting teams and forge lasting friendships, to name but three quintessential Cambridge experiences. But what if these questions and answers were not actually simple? What if they spark the same trepidation as a Tripos viva?

I am profoundly deaf with a speech impairment, and I communicate most easily in sign language. Conversations with hearing people, whether study discussions, sporting debates, or beer-swilling back-slapping banter, are difficult for me to follow. I don’t let that stop me, however; I employ various strategies, such as relying on context to fill in the gaps whenever I don’t manage to lipread perfectly.

But names are, by their nature, unpredictable. Paradoxically for among the simplest of utterances, they can be just inscrutable. My cheerfully saying “hello” to someone for the first time belies a concurrent prayer that his/her name is an easy and distinct one to lipread. Often, the prayer is fruitless and the person becomes “Amelia or Emily” or a still-nameless but now-friendly face clueless to the irony in thereafter greeting me with “hi, Stephen!” whenever our paths cross. For those who I know will be regular contacts, I resort to creative means of finding out their names, lest the question “what was your name again?” cause, as so often it does after a number of conversations, offence. If only it were as normal to wear name tags as jewellery.

Then there is my speech. I can’t produce the DZH and CH sounds, for instance, so answering “what do you study?” with “religion” is always a struggle. I have become used to simultaneously miming a Christian prayer stance to make myself understood, which at least attracts a chuckle, thus nicely breaking the ice (my course is actually Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion, but I think that is a mouthful for anyone on the Tripos, let alone me!) Thankfully, “Homerton” is easy for me to pronounce when I am asked “which College?” Imagine if I were George studying geology at Churchill…

So far, I have had a number of interactions with the various interesting people, UG, PG and staff, whose community I now share in at Homerton, as well as at my Faculty and across the University generally. But the issues posed by my deafness have generally been inverse predictors of the viability of the relationships that I form. Whilst Deaf people may egocentrically bemoan how tough it is for them, they forget that the hearing-Deaf interaction is necessarily an intersubjective experience. Indeed, it can be just as difficult for hearing people, and my matriculation dinner is archetypal.

"You’re too drunk"

As I say, the freshers’ period is daunting, and even more so for a Deaf student, but just imagine being surprised with the honour of the seat opposite the College Principal at the High Table. I thought all I had to worry about were keeping my gown from slipping and knowing which side of the plate my bread and glasses were, up until I took my seat amongst the College’s most senior Fellows in the candlelit and echoey Great Hall.

Although concentrating on lipreading for extended periods of time is among the most mentally fatiguing exercises for a Deaf person, I immersed myself in spite of the background noise and dim light. My neighbours appreciated my situation and repeated themselves whenever I misunderstood, and I clarified myself whenever my speech was unclear. It was also nice to rub shoulders with people who are ordinarily beyond a professional boundary; their congeniality put me at ease.

Debate ensued when I mooted a petition for a College Cat, and the Principal weighed in. He mentioned “Doctor Doolittle,” but I couldn’t get the reference. Several times the name was repeated and the moment became awkward when he changed tack by playing charades, gesticulating “film, two words.” When I apologised for still not comprehending, the Senior Tutor leant forward to address me. I watched her lips: “you’re too drunk.”

I maintained my composure whilst the conversation meandered in other stimulating directions, then it was time to retire to the Griffin and, in turn, bed. But I was utterly crestfallen and could not sleep. “You’re too drunk.” Still reeling, I ruminated all night and resolved to email the Senior Tutor in the morning to explain the real problem. “Start with a positive, then address the issue, and end on a positive,” I reminded myself as I crafted as constructive an email as possible, mindful of who it was I was writing to.

Within minutes came the “completely mortified” reply clarifying that what she actually said was “you’re too young,” that is, perhaps I was too young to know the Doctor Doolittle film, and elaborating that she herself also struggled to follow conversations in that environment. I was dumbstruck; it didn’t occur to me that “drunk” and “young” look virtually the same in lipreading. Believing that I’d genuinely upset her, I felt bad about it for several days and even asked my Personal Tutor to smooth things over with her.

So, what I took to be a manifestly ignorant assumption turned out to be perfectly innocent. A compliment, even; being 35, I did see the film first-hand! She and I have long since moved on, but that what started out as an inconsequential misunderstanding snowballed to leave both sides feeling bad exemplifies how challenging it can be for both Deaf and hearing people when they come together. My experiences since arriving in Cambridge prompted me to write this article to shine a light on what is among the most consistently misunderstood of disabilities in that it is one of communication.

Lack of awareness

Social interaction is mediated primarily through sound, so whilst blind people and wheelchair users have no problem fitting into conversations per se, Deaf people are often isolated from social activity with hearing people. When they do come together, whatever awkwardness inevitably results tends to reinforce the problematising and exclusion of Deaf people when the real problem is a lack of awareness.

Deafness is a spectrum; one may be deaf from birth or have lost hearing later in life. Those born deaf, as in my case, tend to have trouble with speech because they can’t replicate sounds that they don’t hear. They communicate primarily in sign language and form proud cultural ‘capital-D’ Deaf communities centred around its use. So proud as to eschew the label of ‘disability' and even resist medical advances that seek to ‘cure’ deafness. Conversely, those who become deaf later in life already have speech, participate well in hearing society, do not seek out other deaf people, and embrace developments that mitigate what they perceive as a disability.

Just as being hearing has its boons and banes, like enjoying music and having to cock ears or raise voices in such noisy environments as the Great Hall, so too does being Deaf have its pros and cons. We can sleep blissfully through raging thunderstorms but fail to hear hazards whilst out and about. Sign language allows us to talk through windows and across rooms, but if we get particularly focused or animated, we may walk into lampposts or knock over drinks (rest assured that is very rare! What is more common is sending spectacles flying from one’s face).

In contrast to the struggles of hearing people following conversations in places like the Great Hall, Deaf people converse with total ease, no ear-cocking or raised voices. Come to think of it, even at heavy metal concerts, Deaf people can still maintain perfectly normal conversations no matter how much the pounding bass vibrates you out of your skin. And enjoy the music, because they can feel it! Some will also play the ‘Deaf card,’ of which I take a very dim view, however, I must admit to consistently deploying it myself to skip airport queues...

Sign language itself is also often misunderstood. Neither is it a manual rendering of spoken language contrived by ‘helpers,’ nor is ‘it’ universal; many sign languages exist, having evolved naturally as true languages with distinct lexica and grammars. Moreover, for instance, whilst English is their common spoken language context, British Sign Language (BSL), which I use, and American Sign Language share almost no intelligibility, the latter being, rather, very close to that used by French Deaf people. Even several may coexist within individual nations, as in Canada with Deaf people either using a local dialect of American, or Québécois sign language. And they have accents as much as voices do; by watching British Deaf people I can figure out their provenance.

Members of these communities, collectively constituting the ‘Deaf World,’ value and celebrate their identity. They socialise in Deaf clubs (classically) or pop up and colonise big bars (latterly). Whilst many, like me, come from hearing backgrounds, there are also multigenerational Deaf dynasties that wield influence. Deaf people have the highest rate of endogamy of any community in the world (>90%) and their children often are raised in Deaf schools, a prominent one of which I attended. They are politically active at all levels ranging from, for instance, the British Deaf Association through the European Union of the Deaf to the World Deaf Federation. There are substantial heritages of the expression of the Deaf experience in film, the arts and music. Most countries’ sporting leagues have Deaf equivalents and there is even a Deaflympics. And everywhere, instead of clapping, Deaf people applaud by making ‘jazz hands’ upwards.

Parallels with Harry Potter

This may be surprising, implausible even, but it would not be such an alien idea for those who have read Harry Potter or at least seen the films, by which I mean everyone (seriously, anyone really not familiar with any part of the canon?!) Muggle society belies a thriving community of wizards, some from muggle backgrounds and others from ‘pure blood’ families, with their own schools of wizardry, Ministries of Magic and such international tournaments as the Quidditch World Cup. There is even a paper by Czubek and Greenwald (2005) making this comparison: Understanding Harry Potter: Parallels to the Deaf World (I’ll leave you to figure out what is clever about that title).

So, in a sense, in Cambridge, I am a wizard in a muggle’s world. That may sound cool, but in reality, it can be a lonely experience. It is not just my deafness, but also the misunderstanding thereof by others, that have foundered what may have been nascent friendships. Whilst, by now, most freshers have well-formed social networks and firm friendships, there are only a couple of fellow students that I chat with circumstantially. But all the signs are there for true friendship – they’re splendid people – the point is that it takes a lot longer for a Deaf person if at all, to truly be accepted by hearing people.

In addition to the lack of awareness, as with the Dursleys’ misunderstanding of magic as an evil that led them to fear it and marginalise Harry Potter, the unease of entirely well-meaning hearing people, cognisant of their lack of insight, engenders awkwardness for both sides of the hearing-Deaf interaction. Whenever a Deaf person comes into their conversation, and despite a genuine desire to engage, hearing people are often unsure of what to do for fear of causing offence. The result is that they may try too hard or opt-out entirely because it is easier.

Faux pas

There, indeed, is quite a range of faux pas by which hearing people affront Deaf people, much of which, to be fair, the former are not even aware is disrespectful. Whoppers include over-enunciating; when first misunderstood, restating in easy words instead of repeating/writing, and; if the Deaf person asks what the group is talking about, responding with “ah, it’s not important,” or “I’ll tell you later.” Moreover, due to lifelong lipreading, and facial expressions being an integral component of sign languages, Deaf people are highly-attuned readers of faces and always know when hearing people pretend to understand what they are saying. They would be excellent polygraphers, just as blind people are the best perfumiers!

On the whole, I am relaxed and like joking about it. Intentionality is my criterion sine qua non; if the person means well, then I almost never acknowledge the blunder and happily continue the conversation. Once, when I was asked how I was when I hadn’t been seen for some days, I explained that I’d just returned to Northern Ireland for a funeral, to which the person grinned, “oh fantastic, did you have a good time?” More recently, whilst I had a pint with a lecturer, he prefaced an anecdote about discerning genuine laughter amidst an audience of polite titters with “you wouldn’t understand”. On neither occasion did I take issue, because I knew that they were lovely and intelligent people who had never before met a Deaf person.

Although I am well-accultured to the hearing world, coming from a hearing family, I, too, commit various faux pas. I may talk or chew a little too loudly because I don’t hear myself. I often point to people with my index finger, which is perfectly normal among the Deaf. I have offended members of service teams by favouring one worker whenever I needed assistance, which appears to be personal but is, in fact, because the established familiarity facilitates communication (admittedly, this has a flavour of laziness; I am resolved to make the effort with others who are just as well-placed to help). On occasion, I inadvertently derail group conversations by building on someone’s point that I only later realise was merely a brief aside to the main subject, if I hadn’t fully grasped it in the first place. And, I am just as guilty of pretending to understand the speaker.

“Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do except hear”

Faux pas aside, Deaf people do great things not only in the Deaf World but also in the hearing world. Many hold PhDs or high positions in international conglomerates. Some are senators, MPs and mayors. Several tinker with atoms at the Large Hadron Collider and gaze through billion-pound telescopes into the farthest reaches of the cosmos. Marlee Matlin, the Best Actress Oscar winner for Children of a Lesser God (1986), is a profoundly deaf American Sign Language user.

The front cover photography and design for some of the famous international fashion glossies is overseen by someone with whom I shared a dormitory at school and whose consequent jetsetting lifestyle I now envy. Two years ago, whilst I visited a friend in London, he was knocked unconscious in an accident and rushed to hospital. Upon arrival, I was enlivened to recognise a woman I also went to school with and who was now the A&E Doctor taking care of him, with a customised stethoscope and a BSL interpreter in tow.

And Homerton counts among its Fellows Dame Evelyn Glennie, yet another high-achieving pupil of my alma mater, who is a music Laureate of decades-long international renown. I could go on – indeed, Deaf History would fill volumes – but the most important takeaway is, to quote Irving King Jordan, a former President of Gallaudet University, a Deaf university in Washington, D.C., “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do except hear.”

In my case, I’ve travelled solo far and wide across the Third World, I’ve learnt several languages and I converted to Judaism. Now, following two hour-long admissions interviews conducted over text chat, I’m in Cambridge adding religion and Arabic to my repertoire with a view to promoting interfaith relations in the Deaf World and contributing to the effort to translate the Qur’an into sign languages, which has never been properly done anywhere.

I have various forms of access where my deafness poses an obstacle. In lectures, I watch live subtitles typed to my laptop screen by captioners working remotely from an audio stream. In discussion seminars, I have the support of a BSL interpreter in order that I can contribute as much as follow, with a notetaker working alongside. In my Arabic classes, I am especially lucky to have an interpreter who happens to speak Arabic as well, so she is entirely comfortable with translating the teaching into BSL (not the Arabic itself, of course, that would be overstepping the remit!) Finally, in my bedroom, I have a flashing light and enhanced siren to alert me to fire alarms, with a vibrating pad that goes under my pillow as an additional signal whilst I am asleep.

Jazz hands

Workload aside, it is with social interaction that I have struggled since arriving here. In demystifying d/Deafness, I am hopeful that this article (if you are still reading this far) eases the discomfiture of the well-meaning people who have been around me. Instead of being defined by the obstacles to communication that my deafness presents, I hope to be taken for the person that I am (it occurs to me as I write this that my quirks aren’t exactly going to help. But isn’t Cambridge such a wonderful hub of eccentricity and diversity to be celebrated?)

I never expect anyone to learn BSL, and indeed a hearing person, upon meeting a Deaf person for the first time, saying “I’ll have to learn sign language!” is another whopper (I have never met anyone who has said that and followed through!) But it would be amazing if people knew the fingerspelling alphabet – charts abound on Google Images – because that alone would solve my issue with names. If you find yourself sitting next to me at a Formal or elsewhere, don’t worry about or be stiff on account of trying not to cause offence. You are welcome to make use of the notepad that I normally carry for clarifying words. If I unwittingly divert the intended course of a conversation, please do say “yeah, and we were also talking about…” (unless I happened to be more interesting!) And if we have met before, upwards-jazz hands if you fingerspell when I ask, “what was your name again?”

Stephen is a first-year Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion mature student at Homerton College.