Thursday, 12 June 2014

Deaf Awareness - a personal view

What does deafness mean to you? Unless you've experienced it, it’s hard to imagine. My family still ask how I find certain types of music and certain types of listening situations. And, let's face it, many of us have a preconception of what a deaf person looks like. I have an amazing hearing dog, Chester - but the response has sometimes been "you look far too young to be deaf!"
Photo of cochlear implants by Fernanda Morais Ara├║jo
Used under a Creative Commons license.

I have worked at the University of York Library for six years, and prior to that I was a student here. I was born profoundly deaf and have known nothing else. However my hearing has frequently changed: I wore two hearing aids from being a toddler, had a single cochlear implant aged 13, and a bilateral implant aged 23. These modern miracles of medicine have improved things enormously, but it is important to bear in mind that profound deafness can never be 'cured'. 

Medical experts told my parents that I would never learn to speak and that my abilities to read and write English were likely to be limited. My parents thankfully chose to ignore this gloomy prognosis and spent hours teaching me to read, sing, hum, understand word and lip patterns. Thanks to their efforts, I acquired a lifelong love of books, completing a degree in English literature at the University of York. 

Ruth with her hearing dog Chester, and Mark Durkan MP
at the House of Commons
Deafness is an invisible sensory impairment, and has the potential to make day-to-day communication very tricky. However, supportive colleagues and a supportive work environment make a huge difference. So I was delighted to be invited to the House of Commons on the 14th May as part of the lead-up to the recent Deaf Awareness Week. This was as part of an event run by a company called Hear First - they provide equality and diversity training, and had been invited to train MPs on how to interact with and support their deaf constituents. 

I was there as part of a 'deaf and working' team from four UK organsiations, invited to talk to MPs about our experiences of being deaf in a 'hearing' working world. We all had different communication preferences and requirements - for example, I mainly lipread, whereas others used British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language. 

It was a great experience and very interesting to hear the sorts of topics that MPs have come across. For example, it is still very difficult to contact your bank if you're deaf, and there have been incidents where deaf people have had their cards refused in error.

I was really proud to represent the University, the Library, and Yorkshire in general! It was brilliant to meet other people with a profound hearing loss and to learn about their experiences and strategies. And, of course, it's great to show that people of all abilities can often achieve way beyond what is medically expected of them - the right support and understanding makes all the difference.

Other links:

Article on the University of York news page

Ballantyne, J., Martin, M., Martin, A. (eds) Deafness. London: Whurr, 1992.
University Library Y 7.89 BAL

Gregory, S. and Hartley, G. (eds) Constructing deafness. London: Pinter, 1991.
University Library DA 2.42 GRE

Cooper, H. and Craddock, L. (eds) Cochlear implants :a practical guide. London: Whurr, 2006.
University Library Y 7.89 COO

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