By Sarah Petherbridge
My earliest memory is when I was around the age of 2 years old and I was in hospital for glue ear, something that it was hoped was the cause of, and therefore the solution to, my deafness. It wasn’t. Parents were not allowed to stay over in hospital with their children in those days – I vividly remember Mum and Dad leaving me at the hospital and driving off to go home. So I was left alone, unable to communicate and feeling isolated. It was a feeling that would come to describe much of my childhood.
A hospital nurse put a thermometer in my mouth and forgot about me. Unable to communicate, I ended up taking the thermometer out myself and putting it under my pillow.
That’s a young age to have such a clear memory. I even remember the tin bath that I had to share with the other children there. I can only deduce that the hospital stay was traumatic for 2 year old me. Maybe it was the first time I felt truly isolated.
As I got older, isolation became the norm. My parents and myself were never encouraged to learn or use sign language (again, a sign of the times), and so I was brought up in the hearing world.
Being profoundly deaf, it was a world that I didn’t completely fit in. A world where I didn’t fully belong.
My older brother could talk for England, and frequently did. The dinner table was a time and place for family conversation, except, I couldn’t really follow what was being said, nor could I contribute to the conversation.
The frustration I would feel then, and throughout my childhood, led to tantrums on the floor.
From an early age, I learned to be closed off. I couldn’t communicate my needs to anyone, not parents, not teachers, and so they weren’t met. On top of this, speech therapy was exhausting, it drained all of my energy; and from the age of 5 I was travelling 90 minutes to school and 90 minute home again. My focus was to keep my head above water and merely survive.
As a result, I was perceived as both pushy and inconsiderate of other people’s needs. It even says so in my old primary school reports. Well of course I was! It had become necessity, a survival skill. My own needs weren’t even known, let alone being met. I still didn’t have full speech. It was the only way I could try to be heard.
I read those primary school reports recently. It was sobering to realise from their assessment of my social skills, just how little was understood at the time about disability and early child development.
Nobody asked in those reports, or even suggested a possible explanation, as to why I was the way I was, nor tried to help me learn and gain the emotional intelligence and resilience I would need in adult life.
Together, my parents and I got through those early years the best way any of us knew how. Mum wasn’t the most patient of people and as an older parent, was set in her ways. Much of my upbringing was controlled, it was often Mum’s way or no way. But I know that she was trying to protect me and navigate an uncertain world at a time when there was not much direction to follow.
There have inevitably been impacts on my life as an adult. Being unable to articulate my feelings for so long and being closed off meant that I have struggled to have difficult conversations even in adulthood. But over the years I have learned to set boundaries and articulate my feelings more.
I have also managed to get to a place where I have accepted who I am, and am no longer looking for others to accept and validate me.
Nonetheless, I was fascinated to watch a programme on BBC iPlayer recently, about someone who, like me, was profoundly deaf but grew up in the hearing world.
I reached out to him and learned that like me, he was not taught sign language and endured years of speech therapy so was able to communicate in the hearing world.
It meant that we had no deaf culture or deaf identity. We hadn’t gone through the deaf school system. Instead, we had both feet in the hearing world.
But in reality, we didn’t belong there. Neither did we belong in the deaf world. We didn’t belong anywhere. We were in limbo.
About 20 years ago, I joined a deaf club and started learning sign language. But a lack of opportunity to use the language meant my knowledge lapsed and, if truth be told, I wasn’t fully welcomed nor accepted. There was an oral and signing divide, and as someone who spoke, I fell foul of it. I understand why. Deaf people, especially signers, faced so much discrimination and social exclusion, that the need to protect yourself meant you stuck with your community and were suspicious of outsiders. As a ‘speaker’, I was an outsider.
However, I have recently tried again, both learning to sign and joining a deaf club. The guy in the BBC programme has done the same. It helped him to find acceptance and belonging.
I too, have been welcomed with open arms this time around. An interpreter I spoke to has said the divide is gone. British Sign Language is now recognised as an official language and more opportunities are open for deaf people. It has paved the way for the deaf community to come together.
Finally, at a time when I am no longer looking for acceptance, I feel like I belong. I have one foot in the hearing world and one foot in the deaf world and that’s okay.
What a difference the world could make to so many deaf children, by letting them know that they belong from the very beginning – whatever that looks like.
Written in collaboration with Written by Lyds Ltd (www.writtenbylyds.com)