My Deaf World: exploring identity and the experiences of the deaf community

Part of the popular BBC Radio 3 series The Essay, My Deaf World explores what it is like to be deaf in 21 century Britain through personal essays from the deaf community.

This week (14 – 18 June) the five-part series of essays shares the experiences of people in the deaf community and what it means to them. From the little-known divisions and politics of the community to what makes it so special and distinctive, the unique project aims to bridge the gap between the deaf community and the mainstream to break down cultural stereotypes and encourages new perspectives on the world around us.

To mark the airing of the essays on BBC Radio 3 – which will also be available as videos featuring British Sign Language (BSL) – we speak to co-producer Camilla Arnold along with two essayists: filmmaker Teresa Garratty and sign language interpreter Sandy Deo.

My Deaf World

Co-producing the project with Sophie Allen, Camilla Arnold wanted My Deaf World to to be a deaf-hearing collaboration. Having worked in TV for more than 12 years, Camilla has worked on everything from documentaries to the deaf magazine programme See Hear and is a creative director for the deaf-led production company, Flashing Lights Media. For her, telling strong stories where lead characters happen to be deaf is the best way to educate audiences.

Why was it important to produce this project for radio?

I was born deaf and I have absolutely no idea how radio works, it’s alien to me really as a concept you know, I can remember asking my mum how does radio work, so I’ve always been particularly fascinated by radio.

I started a conversation with BBC radio 3 and I approached them and said would you be open to producing content about the deaf community so it’s a bit of a paradox really, making a programme from the deaf community on a platform that’s not actually accessible for deaf people but I did really feel it was important. I think it’s a platform where the hearing community can actually learn more about the deaf community and realise that it’s multi-faceted, it’s very complex, deaf people are more than just disabled, they’re a linguistic minority.

What was the process of creating the series like, from choosing essayists to recording them?

We started with a broad headline which was The Deaf Community, then what we did is started to break it down and actually thought the deaf community is so much more than this: it’s culture, it’s pride, it’s looking into the hierarchy that there is within the deaf community, deaf elitism as a concept.

One of the themes is the preservation of sign language and how language evolves, but also quite interestingly to find out more about hearing people within the deaf community, so hearing people who have deaf parents.

The deaf community is like a village, it’s very small, everybody knows everyone else or we all know of each other, so it was quite easy really to identify who would be the best people to fit in within those themes. I gave them the headline and I said look it’s up to you how you’d like to write because I want them to have autonomy and ownership over their own story because, ultimately, it is their story, their experience and the essays are very personal.

How were voiceover artists chosen for each essay?

When it came to recording we were thinking about who the best people would be to represent them, so who would be their voice. One person spoke for herself, but the others are actually sign language users, so we thought about ethnicity, age, background, where they’re from, what they would sound like if they were hearing and then we cast a voiceover artist based on those elements. We set up a meeting with a voice over artist and the essay writer themselves because I think it’s really important that the voice over artist met the authors so they can see them because, in effect, they are their voice and that is quite a big responsibility.

It would be completely hypocritical of us to make a radio series about the deaf community but not actually have it accessible to the deaf community so we have done a series of BSL versions.

Camilla Arnold

The essays have an overarching theme of identity. What does identity mean to you?

I grew up in a hearing family, and I grew up very much in the hearing world, I didn’t learn to sign until much later in my life. I was really fortunate because my parents are very accepting of our deafness and made myself and my brother very proud to be deaf.

I was the only deaf person in my sixth form and my dad said look, stand up, talk openly about your experience, introduce yourself so people are not scared of you or scared of asking you questions because that’s going to be an ice breaker, and it worked.

I’ve been so fortunate to have such supportive parents that celebrate my deafness that they say it’s not a disability it’s a benefit to me, it makes me who I am and who I am today. I moved into a deaf production company and that’s when I started to learn to sign and that’s where I met my deaf friends and I found my place in the deaf community, now I’ve got a deaf partner whose from a very big deaf family who are integral to the deaf community.

I’m quite fortunate I flip between the two worlds, I can be in the hearing world, in the deaf world, I’ve got a hearing family, I’ve got a deaf family and I think it’s lovely that I have such a fluid identity really, but I think my identity is: yes, I’m deaf and so what, I’m very proud of my deafness. I see it as a bonus and if someone offered me a magic pill and said take it you’ll be hearing my answer would be no thank you; thank you, but no thank you.

What impact do you hope the essays have?

The purpose of creating this series was bringing in people from the deaf community with different experiences to show the hearing community that being deaf is not black or white: its grey. The grey scale is there, the different levels are there, the deaf community has its own politics, its own hierarchy, its own history, it’s such a rich history and culture and it’s complicated.

We’re a linguistic minority, and I think it’s really important that people learn that. People don’t realise that we’ve got a massive international sort of culture and community and events and film festivals and I’m really proud of the deaf community.

I’m really keen to find out what people are going to think, what their reaction is going to be, what’s their takeaway. I would like the deaf community to watch the BSL versions because I think it might be interesting for them to learn more about their community from the deaf perspective and someone else’s background.

Big D versus Little D

In her essay, airing 16 June at 22:45, filmmaker Teresa Garratty gives a frank and honest insight into what it was like to lose her hearing at the age of 18. Teresa decided to learn sign language so that she could join the deaf community, however, she reveals how then she realised that sign language can be perceived differently within the deaf community. 

Teresa Garratty

Why was it important for you to tell your story via My Deaf World?

My essay was about this thing we have in the deaf community called big D and little D deaf, basically how you identify yourself as a deaf person. The theory behind it is that if you used the capital D it’s because you have like a very deaf cultural background and you’re very involved in the deaf community, and if you use the lowercase D it’s because you just see it as a sort of medical issue. I felt it was important to talk about that because I personally have seen quite a lot of negative backlash from using that system.

I think it was started with good intention that it was a way for deaf people to sort of own their deafness and reclaim their power behind it, but then it quickly became almost like a status symbol. It almost created segregation between people who were heavily routed in deaf culture and then there’s deaf people who were sort of coming to deaf culture later in life.

What was the process like from initial discussions through to now when the essays are airing?  

We had to start with the written essays which I’m fine with but I did kind of struggle a bit with the sort of balance of making it personal and relatable and interesting as well as keeping it quite academic and balanced view of the subject itself, but once we got past that it’s time to do the voice recording and I think I’m the only one out of the group of deaf people who used my own voice to record.

After the voice recording it was the task of then translating the written essay into BSL and recording a video version of the BSL translation. Unfortunately, I felt that my signing skills weren’t good enough to translate an article that was this wordy, with my BSL vocabulary I would not be able to cope. I would’ve loved to have recorded it myself in both spoken and BSL but I feel like that kind of heightens the message within the essay itself because it’s showing that there are these different shades within the deaf community and that out of the group of deaf people, I’m one of these people that was more capable of speaking than I was signing.

Teresa Garratty

In your opinion, why was radio the right platform for the essays?

It was really important to have them on the radio because we’re trying to reach out to hearing people and the mainstream world to give them insight into the lives of deaf people. It’s something that a lot of hearing people just don’t really know about at all and obviously radio is tailored for hearing people, you need to be able to hear to use it so that seemed like a really good way to target that audience.

Obviously we’re all deaf so we’re big on access and we wanted to be able to include deaf people and BSL users as well, we didn’t want to just aim it at hearing people and leave deaf people out. We wanted to be inclusive as well so it was really important to have the essays be accessible through the videos, too.

All of the essays in the series revolve around identity and belonging, what does identity mean to you? 

I think identity is one of those things that doesn’t really seem like a big deal on the surface but I think it carries a lot more weight than people think it does. When you’re trying to find your place in the deaf community there’s this sense of relief when you do find a group of people who have a mutual understanding and sort of know the frustrations that you go through daily. There’s also equally that feeling of disappointment when you don’t quite fit in somewhere that seems you should.

It can be quite hard on people’s mental health, I think it’s really important that people have this sense of belonging.

The thing that’s at the route of all of that is BSL and a lot of deaf identity in deaf culture is anchored to BSL. It’s a huge language that should be respected like any other language but it doesn’t get that kind of respect because it’s not a spoken language.

I do understand why some people gate-keep BSL in a way but also I do feel like for deaf people that haven’t had the opportunity to access sign language that it’s something that shouldn’t be taken out on them. It’s more of an issue with society itself. My essay isn’t really about passing blame to BSL users or passing blame to deaf audiences, it’s more about looking at society and why we’re not being more inclusive in BSL in general.

What do you hope the essays teach the general public about the deaf community? 

I hope that it will teach people that the deaf community is really complex and it isn’t just this sort of like little group of deaf people that hang out, we have deafness in common, it’s so much more to it than that, there’s so much depth to the deaf community. There’s so many different types of deaf people and there’s so much politics as well. There’s just so much that people can learn about the deaf community that I don’t think they realise how complex it can be, I think learning about the variation of deaf people within the community will be really good for everyone.

Hearing in a Deaf World

A qualified sign language interpreter, Sandy Deo brings a different perspective to the series as she looks back at her cultural heritage and considers the realities, privileges and responsibilities of growing up as a child of a deaf adult while not being deaf herself.

Credit: BBC

Why was it important for you to be involved in this project and share your experiences?

I have a deaf mother so growing up I’ve been very involved in the deaf community just in a social way so going to deaf clubs and community groups and events and then having to interpret for my mum growing up was the norm back in the 80s and 90s.

I had a completely different career working for almost 10 years in auditing and compliance so completely unrelated to interpreting and I actually stumbled across becoming an interpreter. I decided to go to uni and studied and then became an interpreter.

I think what I wanted to really portray was being a child of a deaf adult there’s so much that comes with it. There’s a lot of expectation on you from members of the deaf community, there’s a lot of expectation from other interpreters, there’s sometimes some discrimination. I think what I’m really conscious of, which I wanted to put in my essay, was just because I have a deaf parent that doesn’t define who I am, I’m also me.

A lot of my clients say you have deaf parent haven’t you, and that’s lovely to have that recognition but with other interpreters sometimes it’s a negative thing. They just automatically assume you know everything and I wanted to show that, actually, just because we have deaf parents doesn’t mean we don’t have a childhood that’s similar to you: we have similar childhoods to the rest of the community.

I just wanted to put that in my essay, that you can’t define us all just because we’ve all got one deaf parent, it doesn’t mean we’re all the same.

You want to give people good examples of how you’ve lived but also things that you’ve learned along the way so initially I made notes of what I wanted to talk about, examples of stories that I wanted to put in there and just made notes about the theme.

All of the essays explore the theme of identity, what does this mean to you?

For me it’s about recognising all of your intersectionality’s so I’m proud of being a coda, I’m also proud of being a Sikh, I’m proud of being Indian, I’m also proud to be British, there’s a lot of different things. I think it’s really important as well to show to the next generation that you can just be yourself and you can try to be comfortable in who you are.

People have to lean to accept that about you cause I think a lot of in particularly when I spoke to codas who like me are of an ethnic minority we struggle with that as well. If you grow up with family with a deaf parent for example, because they don’t have access to a lot of the Indian culture it just means then that you miss out as a child. As an adult you’re then lost because people look at you and they think oh you must know everything there is to know about your culture and you’re just there like not really.

I think it’s just really nice to capture the fact that not everyone’s journey is exactly the same, not everyone’s experiences are the same and just because you are for example a member of the deaf community it doesn’t mean your experience is exactly the same as another person in that community.

I think the other thing being an interpreter you’re always the conduit between people so you’re never yourself and you are always there to facilitate communication.

Doing something for radio is completely different, but also speaking as myself cause it’s not something that we ever do, so it was kind of like a bit surreal.

I think I’m nervous of how it will be received but also I think on the whole it might be quite nice for people to get an insight into who I am I suppose.

Why do you feel it’s important for the essays to be shared via radio?

It’ll just reach more of what we would call mainstream society, in a way it will educate some people and I think people that we can choose to watch certain things on TV, sometimes people just leave the radio on and just listening to things in the background and that’s quite nice actually.

People can get on with what they’re doing but still just listen and actually it might just broaden their horizons a little bit and they might learn something that they’ve never really thought about until quite recently.

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