Deaf Life11th July 2014

Deaf Awareness vs Deaf Equality

Deaf for a day John Barrowman raising awareness of Hearing Dogs for the Deaf

by Natasha Hirst

Celebrity John Barrowman has been on the news this week after having a go at being deaf for the day in support of Hearing Dogs UK.  Call me a cynic but I had to roll my eyes at this.  I really dislike the whole disability awareness approach that encourages non-disabled people to be ‘disabled’ for the day.  Although it can be helpful for raising awareness of barriers that exist, quite frankly, if you want to know what those barriers are, go and speak to someone who is living with them. Learn about it from their perspective.  I find it frustrating and patronising for people to stick some item on their body be it a wheelchair, ear plugs or blackout glasses and wander about the place going “oh god, how dreadful life is”.

In fairness to John Barrowman, he’s trying to do a good thing and raise awareness in support of hearing dogs. My criticism of the deaf awareness approach is not a criticism of the charity itself. Having watched the YouTube clip, I actually think John did a pretty good job of going into the experience with an open mind and talking about it in a way that wasn’t too patronising.  Hearing people take their hearing for granted so the process of being aware of his hearing because he suddenly didn’t have it, was clearly eye-opening. John realised some important things.  He talked about frustration, tiredness from concentrating, feeling withdrawn and anxious and we see him struggling with intercoms and people who don’t face him when talking to him. Such horribly familiar experiences for anyone who is deaf. 

At the end of the day he can pull the ear plugs out and all is good again. Hurrah.  What impression does he now have of my life, and those of other deaf people?  Deaf awareness is important but it doesn’t promote equality.  It helps a little in getting people to think about some of the barriers that exist for deaf people and perhaps they will remember to be more considerate in the future.  It doesn’t begin to touch on the ongoing impact of deafness on your self-identity, your relationships with people, how you access education or employment or on your aspirations and hopes for yourself and your future. It gives no voice to Deaf culture and no recognition to British Sign Language.

Most importantly, deaf awareness exercises give no insight into how your perspective on the world can be different in a positive way due to deafness. We have skills and talents and insights which give us an edge in some situations. We have something different and good to offer that just isn’t valued because it isn’t recognised or understood by wider society.

It disappoints me that people are more willing to listen to a hearing person talk about what it is like to be deaf (for a few hours) rather than listen to deaf people themselves, who are the real experts.  However, thanks John, for having a go in good faith and promoting a good cause. The best thing you can really do is to help share the experiences of those of us who live with the pros and cons of being deaf every day, and join us as we call for greater access and equality of opportunity and the ability to live independently, just as you do.

Article by Natasha Hirst

posted in Community / Deaf Life

11th July 2014