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Why deaf people’s views must be heard

3 May 2023

For Deaf Awareness Week 2023, Opencast junior software development consultant John Owens, born profoundly deaf, shares his perspective – arguing that attitudes towards deafness are among the biggest challenges deaf people face.

As part of Deaf Awareness Week, I want to share some facts – not all of them widely known – around deafness and how to communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

A few things to clear up first. Not every deaf person is the same. Some use British Sign Language (BSL), some can speak – and some can both. Not everyone can lipread, either.

Born deaf

Some 90% of children are born to hearing families, with little or no history of deafness. I was born profoundly deaf and I’m only the deaf person in the family. At the time of my birth, there were no programmes at the NHS to test new-born children’s hearing levels. I went undiagnosed until I was one year old. NHS only introduced hearing tests for new-borns around 2001.

It’s very important to diagnose hearing levels at the time of birth, to help children understand language and communication. Otherwise, it could impact their school education and their ability to navigate a complicated world.

The National Deaf Children’s Society charity supports deaf children and their additional needs. It is also the organiser of the annual Deaf Awareness Week.

Mental health

I’m an advocate for mental health. Not just for deaf people, but everyone in general. Deaf people are likely to experience mental health issues at twice the rate of the general population. Mental health doesn’t stem from being deaf, but from “parental, societal and cultural factors such as communication and attitudes towards deafness” (quoted from NHS England).

It’s important that deaf people have support networks in place like having friends, family where they meet on a regular basis. More information on mental health for deaf people can be found on this NHS blog.

Colour photograph of man with glasses
John Owens was born profoundly deaf

Clear communication

Some deaf people use sign language or speech. In my case, I’ve learned to speak when growing up, with support from a local deaf school while attending mainstream school. I know some BSL but I don’t practice it often.

When you communicating with deaf person, please bear in mind with the following guidelines:

  • Ask the deaf people what their preferred way of communication is. Is it BSL or speech? Do they need any reasonable adjustments to help discussion go smoothly?
  • Speak clearly.
  • Room/area should be well lit. It would help deaf people to lip read you or pick up visual clues from your body language.
  • Look at a deaf person when speaking. They may be able to lip read you or pick up visual clues, as above.
  • Please be patient while a deaf person is trying to understand what you’re saying. If they don’t understand what you’re saying for the second time or subsequently, try rephrasing what you’re saying or write it down. There may be a few words they don’t understand on hearing it.
  • Lipreading is not an exact science: it’s pure guess work. Using a combination of lip reading and context (you, meeting agenda, environment etc), we might work out what you’re saying. Lip reading is hard work and it eats up a lot of mental concentration. Deaf people may feel tired after an hour-long meeting trying to understand everyone.
Dinner Table Syndrome

Dinner Table Syndrome was coined by the deaf community. It describes deaf or hard-of-hearing people being left out of conversations at the dinner table, especially over Christmas. I've experienced this before, where I would stare into space, working out conversations. These two articles may help you to understand Dinner Table Syndrome. You may have deaf family members or friends invited over for a meal:

How to beat ‘Dinner Table Syndrome’ this Christmas (2021)
Rebecca-Anne Withey: ‘Dinner table syndrome’ is for life, not just for Christmas (2018)

Opencast and its work

It’s good to be working at an organisation that’s committed to supporting people with any kinds of disability, including deafness. It’s signed up to the government’s ‘Disability Confident’ scheme – and also works with its clients on a range of projects on accessibility, which is great to see. It was particularly good to see that Opencast has worked closely on a platform on health and disability with DWP.

I hope you find this article interesting and helpful for collaborating with your deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues. If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Find out more about National Deaf Awareness Week.

Photograph of three people sitting on a sofa with a screen above it.
Opencast listens to its people to ensure they're included

Authors

John Owens

Junior software developer

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