Every year, my family hosts a summer BBQ to celebrate my husband’s August birthday amongst other things and we invite friends, family, and neighbours both young and old…. Over the years, the event has grown - all are welcome and we regularly number 50+.
The Turner family are not known for attracting good BBQ weather – we prepare for rain and usually get it! This year was no exception. Our guests know this and come armed with umbrellas and ponchos! For many reasons, we decided to make this year’s bash much smaller than the usual “come one, come all” affair and maybe because of this we noticed something we had not really seen before. Maybe it has not happened before, or maybe I am ashamed to say we just did not notice due to the volume of people passing through the house and garden on previous years.
We have deaf friends – a lovely couple we are extremely proud to know. However, they are our only close friends who are deaf and as such are in the minority in any social situation at our home. Both Hubby and me spent as much time as we could chatting with them, but as we were hosting the event, ferrying meat to and from the BBQ, trying to lay out the associated salads etc…, and generally stay as dry as we could in the process, this was unfortunately not for as long as we would have liked. Most of our friends, family and neighbours know each other well and they have certainly met our deaf friends before. However, we noticed that when we were not talking to them, only a small handful of the assembled company were seen engaging in conversation with them, and even then not for any length of time. Otherwise, they were chatting between themselves or engaged with their respective iPhones. Were we failing our guests? We received a lovely text from them the day after the party to say how much they had enjoyed themselves, so clearly this level of engagement is normal for them. This made me very sad indeed.
My research tells me that this is something that most deaf people experience in similar situations. So, why would this be the case? I started to research the internet for answers, and found information which pretty much backed up what I had already surmised….
In July 2015 The Sun’s Dear Deidre column published a letter from a young lad who said his deafness made him feel exceptionally lonely. The Action on Hearing Loss web forum lit up with the story and comments about it – many said they had similar feelings and experiences with one young lady saying “no one understands. When I go out to social gatherings I find it extremely difficult to join in as I can't always catch conversations, I hate asking people to repeat themselves all the time”. Another lady replied “I can relate to … the feeling of exclusion when I was in a group of people. Many of them thought I was rude because I rarely responded to anything that was being said, I just couldn't hear. Eventually I decided to give in and get some hearing ends, but my problems didn't end when I got them. I originally had NHS hearing aids which were very noticeable. On several occasions, I had complete strangers think that it was great fun to take the mickey out of me, this made me feel very angry and depressed, what makes people think that this is fun?”
The charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People has published a very moving article on “The Impacts of Deafness".
It makes some very powerful points and starts by saying that Deafness does not just affect a person’s hearing – it is an invisible disability that has the potential to totally isolate individuals from their peers. It can cause a huge blow to a person’s confidence, wipe away their self-esteem and eat away at their independence. Imagine having a GP or Specialist appointment to discuss any intimate problem you care to think of – now imagine having to do this through an Interpreter? How would YOU feel about that?
Deafness can be exhausting! Multi-tasking becomes a real challenge! You are unable to hear or take part in a multi-person conversation, unable to check your mobile for messages/read your paper or do anything else which takes your attention away from the person speaking. You need to concentrate on trying to lip read and take in body language, piece together what parts of the conversation you are able to discern and then try to respond in time before the speaker assumes you are not interested in what they have to say and either moves on in the conversation (by which time you have totally lost the thread) or just decides to give up making the effort and moves on to speak to somebody who requires less “effort” on their part!
How would that make you feel? Being marginalised in a work or social situation is a very real part of being deaf or deafened. Add to this the constant fear that you may miss a crucial and potentially lifesaving sound (eg a fire alarm) and you will appreciate that life can be mentally and physically draining for deaf people.
However, there are many other things that can impact a deaf person’s life….
When deaf or deafened people first reach out to agencies and organisations for assistance (very often it will take them years to pluck up the courage – research shows the average is 10) the most common and significant problems they face are isolation and loneliness. Hearing loss detaches people from interactions with others and this is precisely what I had witnessed with my friends at our BBQ. If your hearing is intact you will not appreciate that those who mumble or turn away during conversations make it impossible for those with compromised hearing to take part. Our world is built around social interaction and community support; deafness can take all this far away from an individual’s reach.
In the Hearing Dogs article, one of their recipients talked about his daily struggles to interact with others – even those within his own family who do not understand the impact his deafness has on his daily life. “I’ve always felt isolated and lonely particularly in social situations, even with family members. I find being deaf very hard, I am aware of how little I understand. I know when people are trying to talk with me that I don’t understand what they are saying, and as a British Sign Language (BSL) user I have the added difficulty of them not understanding me either. I feel sad that I cannot communicate easily with people, people seem to feel awkward and that makes me feel bad too. People don’t seem to understand that being deaf is not as easy as they might think.”
Personal safety is an issue! Many deaf people can feel extremely vulnerable in a range of situations where sounds are relied upon to provide essential information – for example roadside traffic, emergency services’ sirens, public transport announcements, fire alarms etc… One of my deaf friends was once trapped on a train that was diverted to a siding as he missed the verbal announcement about a change of destination on his way home from London. It took several frantic texts to a (hearing) family member who in turn had to make several ‘phone calls to Network Rail in order that he could be released from the train. This incident has had a lasting and profound effect on my friend and is just one small example of what can happen to those with a hearing impairment during their day to day lives. It is not surprising that many deaf people become withdrawn. One lady – a recent Hearing Dog recipient – said a number of terrifying and potentially fatal situations practically made her a recluse before receiving her service dog. “My hearing loss was so severe that I was finding day-to-day sounds really difficult. One day my step daughter, who was only six at the time, ran in saying “the smoke alarm is going off!” This was a devastating wake-up call for me. A six year old was having to keep me safe in our own home because I could not hear. My deafness was not only affecting me but those I loved. Around the same time I was nearly run over by a car coming from behind me. If it had not been for a very nice man rugby-tackling me to the ground, I am not sure I would still be here. The final reality check was when I realised I was the only person still shopping in an empty Tesco superstore. Unbeknown to me the fire alarm was going off and the store had been evacuated. It was then that I knew I needed more support in my life. By the time I applied for a hearing dog, I had become almost a recluse, only venturing to work and back and never going out of the office during the day.”
For many deaf people, night time can be terrifying; you need to remove your hearing aids before you sleep. Therefore, many deaf people who would normally have access to some sound are instantly transported to a totally silent world. Unable to hear footsteps, outside sounds or potential safety signals like fire alarms means falling asleep can be problematic. Remember that sleep deprivation is a well-known form of torture..., ask anyone with a young baby! This is particularly true for deaf children, who often feel nights are daunting as they cannot hear their parents downstairs and therefore can worry that the house is empty and they are alone. Many feel too scared to sleep in their own beds.
For some, a trained assistance dog is the answer. Hearing Dogs are amazing creatures and I have been lucky enough to visit their training facility in Buckinghamshire. However, they are not the answer for all, the waiting lists if you are considered a suitable candidate are long and therefore the social isolation continues….
Hearing Dogs are a charity and rely solely on donations from the public – you may like to consider helping them in some way?
Deaf people develop coping strategies for a variety of social situations where they are likely to be either in the minority or the only deaf guests. However, the sad truth is that they often decide not to attend, purely as this is the easiest option. Isolation becomes a way of life…. Where they do attend, they are often left marginalized and on the outside of the multiple conversation threads that are likely to be going on. Remember that not all deaf people can lip read – it is an acquired skill – and even where lip reading is an option, there are limitations. It is only possible to lip read one person at a time and even if you are an expert you are likely to only gain 50% of anything said!
Having taken all this into account, I would like ask for patience and understanding of my deaf guests…. With an aging population in the UK and age-related hearing loss on the rise due to the noisy and frenetic lives we all lead, remember that this could be you or me one day!
Small talk is important! It helps us all to feel included in the social situation and builds rapport. It is worth making the effort folks – it really is!
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