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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 11:44 GMT
'I felt I didn't belong'
By Kirsteen Knight
Producer, Radio 4's Learning To Be Deaf

There are nine million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK. Most live happily in the hearing world.

Hands signing
Not all deaf people choose to use sign language

A minority use British Sign Language and see themselves as part of the "Deaf" (with a capital "D") world.

They are proud to be deaf, do not regard it as a disability and do not value speech over signing.

An even smaller minority feel stuck between the two worlds. Matt Nichol is a deaf and has hearing parents.

He attended a mainstream school where he coped by using the limited amount of speech and hearing he had.

I felt very much in-between, like I was in no man's land
Isabelle Bridge

He also relied on the support workers who took notes for him while the teacher was speaking.

But Matt could not keep up with discussions or make friends easily. And, although he loved his parents, he felt an outsider because his hearing loss made it difficult to communicate with them:

"When I saw how my parents related to my sister, it's different to how they relate to me.

"I always felt left out from family situations. I'd have to go and have a good cry or I'd get upset.

"I had to rely on my note-takers (school support workers) a lot, so I'd tell them the problems rather than rely on my parents. I was more connected to my note-taker than I was to my mother and my father."


Of course the vast majority of children with hearing problems go on to thrive in the hearing world but some adults, like Isabelle Bridge, feel terribly isolated:

"As a deaf person, I wanted to not feel like I was trapped in between two worlds: the hearing world and the deaf world.

"I felt very much in-between, like I was in no man's land and didn't belong anywhere."

Some deaf children who were brought up using speech decide they want to learn to use British Sign Language in later life and try to join the Deaf community.

I've got hearing friends, I've got deaf friends, so I'm not quite sure where I sit
Matt Nichol

Matt discovered signing when he went to university. He now has a large network of friends and a vibrant social life in the Deaf community. But this didn't come easily.

"I remember one of the first times I went into the Deaf community - a really bad experience.

"I tried to speak to them and they'd just walk off. They didn't make any effort at all to talk to me.

"The Deaf community are really suspicious of the hearing world. They think that oral people (people who use speech rather than sign language) are coming in to somehow damage them.

"I'm not there to sabotage them - I want to be involved, to be a part of the Deaf world."

Cultural differences

The Deaf world has its own rules and etiquette. Would-be members must be able to sign, be proud to be deaf and, most importantly, not be seen to have a "hearing-attitude".

In other words, if a deaf person is seen to value speech above signing, or hearing friends above deaf ones, the Deaf community see them as having a "hearing attitude".

Isabelle greatly admires Deaf culture but still found it difficult to fit in:

"Someone once called me a 'heary' in a derogatory way and someone said I was part of the hearing culture, that I was culturally hearing.

Instead of saying 'welcome to our culture', I felt it was putting a wall between us and saying 'oh, you are hard of hearing, it's very different'. It was quite disappointing."

Matt was finally accepted in the Deaf community but still feels as if he is sitting on the fence between the two worlds:

"I've got hearing friends, I've got deaf friends, so I'm not quite sure where I sit.

"I prefer to be with deaf people in a group but, in the everyday world, then I've got to speak, so to choose where I am is very difficult."

Learning To Be Deaf will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 1 March at 2000 GMT.

NHS 'failing' deaf patients
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