Where is Deaf identity in an aural society?  | Lauren Stevens  | TEDxVUW

Translator: Araminta Dutta
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Hi, my name is Lauren Stevens
and I was born profoundly deaf. You’re probably questioning my ability
to talk to you today, but all my life, I’ve had to practice hearing and talking
in order to converse within society. Here’s a question for you – when you encounter a Deaf person,
how do you initially perceive them? As a person less able than yourself,
a member of a culture, or simply a normal member of society? I am the only one
in my family who is Deaf, and I have encountered
all of these perceptions. When I was diagnosed
with profound hearing loss at 10 weeks old, my parents faced a dilemma. They could choose to raise me
with New Zealand Sign Language, or they could choose to enrol me
into early intervention programmes which would teach me
to hear and to speak. As a result, they faced
two strongly opposing views. The Deaf community told them that they were denying
my rights as a Deaf child if I did not learn
New Zealand Sign Language, and that my Deaf identity
would be stripped away from me. Rather than perceiving Deafness
as a disability, it is perceived as something
you are born with and as a difference
that should be embraced. In contrast, the hearing world argued that if I did not acquire verbal
and auditory skills, I would have to be held back in school
and in many areas of development. Because I grew up in a small town
that did not have a large Deaf community, my mother was determined
that I would learn spoken language so that I would be able
to successfully interact within society. And my dad, who is a musician, wanted me to grow up sharing his passion
for the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Thus, I was enrolled into an extensive
auditory-verbal programme in Australia at St Gabriel’s School for the Deaf. At St Gabriel’s, I was taught
to come into spoken language through using what little residual hearing
I had with the help of my hearing aids. Hearing exercises involved
the complete removal of visual cues, such as lip-reading, so that I had to listen for certain vowels
and consonants to identify a word. For example, if I was spoken to, the speaker would place
their hand over their mouth, like this, so I wouldn’t be able to read their lips. I began this program
when I was five months old and successfully completed the curriculum at five years old. This process set me on the path
to integrate into a world for the hearing. I was then enrolled
in a mainstream school, and the way I experienced situations
in the hearing world as a Deaf child was vastly different
than that of my peers. Deafness can be isolating because it’s considered
to be an invisible physical disability, and not many people understand
what it means to be Deaf. Now, with my hearing aids,
I could only hear up to a certain point, and it wasn’t until I received
a cochlear implant that I realised just how bad
my hearing was. Previously, I could only hear
very low-frequency sounds, but the cochlear implant opened me up
to an entire new world. I can now hear the clock ticking,
bees buzzing, and my personal favourite, the sound of a morepork
on a summer’s night. Yet, there is always
something I miss out on. For example, if I’m conversing
within a large group of people, it’s like walking into a bar at 2 a.m. full of drunk first-year
university students just yelling over the top
of one another. I have no idea what they’re saying or which direction
the voices are coming from. This is just one example
that serves as a reminder that I am still too deaf to be completely part
of the hearing world. Now, the Deaf world
I have very little association with. I grew up with one
or two Deaf children but they signed. I wasn’t able to communicate
directly with them and relied on my teacher aide
to interpret what they were saying. As a result, I felt alienated
from the Deaf community as there was a huge language barrier
that I did not know or understand. I was reluctant to become involved as I felt more comfortable
being in the hearing world, where I was able to socialise
and communicate with others. Admittedly, I viewed
members of the Deaf community as people who are even
more disabled than I was, because they do not have the hearing
or oral skills that I have, so I could not understand
how they were able to succeed and interact within society. So what changed my perspective? When I began learning
sign language at university, it suddenly became so much more
than just a university paper. In the first class of the course,
I had no idea what to expect. The teachers, themselves, are Deaf,
and do not use spoken language. But because of this, I did not feel the pressure
to work harder than others, and felt like I was on an equal
playing field with everyone. It was then I realised
that Deafness is not a disability; it is an identity, and learning New Zealand Sign Language
helped me find this identity as a Deaf individual. I then wanted to experience firsthand what it was like
being in the Deaf community, so I began going to regular events
set up by the Wellington Deaf Society. The Deaf community
does not just involve Deaf people but hearing people who have
Deaf parents or Deaf children. Although I was surrounded by
technically, strangers, there was a feeling
of belonging and familiarity that I do not quite experience
in the hearing world. Members of the Deaf community may not share the same
political views or religious beliefs, but what brings them together as a culture is the art of sign language
and shared experiences. Deaf people have all experienced
complications and frustrations in trying to navigate
in a predominantly aural society, especially when that society is limited, when the social requirements
of Deaf people are not well catered for. One misperception
is that Deaf people are limited as to what they can and can’t do. They do not see themselves as incapable,
and focus on their abilities rather than what we would consider
to be a disability. They have this perception
because, in the past, Deafness was viewed as a condition
that had to be treated. Suppose you were a Deaf person
in the early to mid-20th century; a time when communicating
in any other language but spoken English was strongly discouraged. Sign language, especially,
was too different, too outstanding, and was perceived to be an embarrassment
or incapacity that had to be corrected. As a result, language barriers
were set up between the two worlds. One point I want to emphasise here is that sign language
is not a universal language. It differs based on the collective society
of a particular country. New Zealand Sign Language
was only formally recognised as New Zealand’s third
official language in 2006. But there is still a lack of exposure
around the importance of this language as a basic right for Deaf people. New Zealand Sign Language, in many ways,
is not just a form of communication. It is an art. Signers use dimensions
of time and space to perform visualisations
of stories and poetry. Greatly contrasting from spoken English,
it is a vibrant, expressive language, and although sentences
are structured in simple forms, it is the way the signs are conveyed
that expresses a lot of meaning. For example, facial expression
is a key concept used to identify between a question
or a statement, and often signs depend entirely on context
to understand the conversation. When learning New Zealand
Sign Language, for some people, it can be a step out of their comfort zone
because it’s a very emotive language, and they may not be used to communicating
in such a bold, visible way. I was at a party a few months ago, and a friend of mine, who is also learning
New Zealand Sign Language, began a conversation with me
from opposite sides of the room by signing. It wasn’t long until I realised
that room had gone dead quiet. About 15, 20 people
had stopped their conversations and were just watching us. With spoken language, it’s easy to ignore
the conversation of another person, but when signing,
it’s hard not to draw attention to something that is rarely seen
in the general public. Sorry, I’m just getting a little bit
of feedback from the microphone here. Now, when people first meet me,
most do not realise I am Deaf. Usually, the first thing I am asked is, ‘You have an accent, don’t you?
Are you from Europe?’ (Laughter) And I’d dearly love to say ‘yes’, here, because it makes me sound
so much more sophisticated, but, growing up, I wanted
to perfect my speech so that people would be able
to understand me better and that I’d gain the confidence
to speak in front of audiences. An additional 12 years of speech therapy
and competitions helped me achieve this. However, I soon came to realise
that not everyone responded the same way when I said, ‘Actually,
I have an accent because I’m Deaf’, and I would become concerned that they would not see me
as a person equal to them. One instance was when
I was at a careers expo at university and was having a discussion
with a recruiter about social work. At one point, I mentioned
that I was, in fact, Deaf, and their attitude instantly changed. They then said, ‘Well, in that case,
perhaps a role in communications wouldn’t be suitable for you,
but, of course, there are other roles in administration
you could consider’, and I was thinking, ‘Okay. Well,
if communication is such an issue for me, how, exactly, are we carrying out
this conversation right now?’ This was a huge blow to my confidence, and often the doubt of others strongly impacts my own
sense of self-worth. Am I really not as capable
as I think I am? But becoming part of the Deaf community taught me that Deafness
is not a limitation, and that there is no reason as to why there are language barriers
between worlds. When I was diagnosed
as a profoundly deaf child, this placed me inside a box. While I received the therapy and education that set me up for life
inside the hearing world, I was still perceived as disabled. That, because I am Deaf,
there are certain things I cannot do. But, for me, I do not see myself as someone who is severely lacking
in the ‘hearing department’ because Deafness is normal for me. I always get the best
night’s sleep, without fail, (Laughter) and that includes sleeping through
my flatmate’s raging house parties. By embracing the differences between
the Deaf world and the hearing world, it will create opportunities
to open up doors for communication rather than set up
and maintain the barriers that are currently in place. There is evidence
that New Zealand Sign Language as a visual mode of learning
for both Deaf and hearing children has been effective in brain development
and cognitive processing, regardless of whether they use
spoken language or not. It is a basic right for all Deaf people to be able to develop their linguistic
and cultural identity by signing. Research has shown that
by both signing and reading or speaking, Deaf people are more likely
to achieve academic success and fully participate as an active member
within the wider community. As an aural society,
we have the tools and responsibility to make this world a more inclusive place
for those who do not communicate orally. I had once thought that being part
of the hearing world was the ‘be-all, end-all’
of effective communication as a person with hearing loss. But becoming part of the Deaf community opened a door to a culture
I did not know existed in the language of my own right. Thank you.

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