Deaf History. Its a topic that I was never fortunate enough to study formally, yet it’s one that has always spurred my imagination. Contemplating past deaf lives makes me feel connected somehow to a heritage, to a way of being.
A deaf film festival once showed a black and white film by the BDA of a 1930s deaf gathering and I was enthralled. The peculiar smart day time clothes, the traditional social dancing, and -of course- the unmistakable animated facial expressions and old fashioned signing. This was the deaf world in days gone by.
My Father in law is typically grassroots deaf. He’s 82 Years young with a fun sense of humour and he signs like nobody else I know. There’s lip pattern, fingerspelling and bsl signs with the odd old fashioned sign or London signing slang.
Contrastingly, most of my deaf friends nowadays sign in a more generalised way. Borrowing signs from across regions, you can tell that todays generation of deafies are the travellers.
And that’s absolutely fine.
But I recently worked on a project meeting quite a few of the older deaf generations at deaf clubs, and I was completely charmed not only by their life stories but also by the whole Community feeling present at the OAP groups.
May I introduce to you, a delightful couple, Bob and Irene Habberley of Sandwell Deaf Community Association.
Both deaf, they had first gone to the deaf club for different reasons. Irene was a young factory worker, good at her sewing machinist job. Her boss encouraged her to visit a deaf centre to source more deaf workers and it was there she encountered the deaf community for the first time. Bob was an unhappy divorcee who was looking to fulfil a part of himself that he always felt was missing. A social worker recommended he take up some voluntary work at his local deaf centre.
Growing up in the 30s, Irene recounted how back then she didn’t know any sign language and hid behind her Mother when she first met a group of deaf signers. Bob said how he had been raised as though he was hearing, because nobody knew any different. And as a result he is predominantly oral with mostly SSE signs which he didn’t learn until he was in his mid 40s.
Seeing them now, however, I can’t imagine them not ever being part of the deaf community. They volunteer to bring people to the deaf centre, which they attend weekly. Irene acts as a guide for a deaf-blind lady and Bob is a valued member and secretary for Dudley Deaf Club, also in the West Midlands.
From the moment I walked in the deaf centre in Sandwell they were offering tea and introducing me to other deaf people in the room. This welcoming, nurturing nature of their generation is so comforting. They take younger deaf folk under their wing and they look after them, as though you would a member of family.
And that’s the key really. Back in those days (as I’ve been told) your deaf friends were your only link to the Deaf world. There was no See Hear, no BSL Zone, no Facebook deaf groups. You made a date to see your deaf friends somewhere and you all went. No texting or tweeting beforehand.
My Father in law was sent to a deaf boarding school and as it was during war time he was evacuated to the Welsh countryside and didn’t return home for several years. Not even at Christmas. As a result, his deaf friends were all he had. They were his family.
And this feeling of connectedness to my new deaf friends is one that stays with me even after I’ve said my fond farewells to Bob and Irene.
You see, these people I met at the deaf centre join together several times a week to participate in various activities. Indoor games such as dominoes and cards, chess, badminton, bingo. (Bingo is quite the craze, in case you didn’t know!) And each person I spoke to communicated differently to the next. Some were grassroots BSL, others were oral/sse, another bunch used West Midlands slang and old fashioned sayings. But nobody really cared!
There was no BSL police putting the oral folk down, no SSE smarty pants making others feel foolish… they were as varied as a Family gets. And that’s one part of deaf history I love.
Because to me, these people are living deaf history in motion. They’ve gone through decades, been called deaf and dumb, experienced bullying, encountered discrimination, received harsh discipline for using sign language, they’ve witnessed huge political changes. Yet through it all they’ve never forgotten each other. And, most importantly never turned on each other.
There’s a lovely quote that says without history there would be no future. And it’s only by delving into deaf history and the tales of real deaf people from years ago that I can come to appreciate all I have as a deaf person living in 2018.
Deaf pride, deafhood, deaf rights; these were all born out of the struggles of our deaf ancestors. And whilst I know we may not be blood relatives to the deaf generations of the past, their actions leave a direct legacy for us all the same.
With thanks to Irene and Bob for reminding me of the unity that being deaf brings.