Here are some facts that you should deafinitely know about…

  • There are 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss.
  • Roughly, there are only 50,000 BSL users (who use it as a first language).
  • 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents

And…did you know that this week is Deaf Awareness Week? Deaf Awareness Week is designed to raise people’s awareness of deafness, hearing loss and giving advice on what you can do to help be more deaf aware.

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It has been circulating around my social media and talked about at work by students and colleagues. I have seen the campaign being published in all the deaf related social media pages that I follow, but there has been virtually nothing on more general sites and blogs – they’re more concerned about whether Meghan Markel’s father will be walking her down the aisle this weekend.

This year Deaf Awareness Week has coincided with Mental Health Awareness Week (also important), but, I’m sure many of you reading this already knew about that one! It is a much bigger campaign that mainstream audiences are exposed to all the time from University students to the retired.

As this is such an important week, I thought it would be interesting to see what deaf awareness is out there already in day to day life. I spent the week visiting lots of different shops and businesses in my local town to see whether deaf awareness is present in their world and work place. Here is how I got on:

Teoni and Alfie – Fitness First

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Alfie: “Here at Fitness First we have a number of deaf members and there are a variety of ways in which I try to be as deaf aware as possible. I make sure I always have pen and paper on me or near me to be able to grab at any moment so that people have an alternative way to communicate if we feel there is a communication breakdown. I also like to be quite visual, pointing and talking with my hands – although I don’t know how helpful that is! We have lots of pictures and diagrams on our equipment as well as subtitles on the TVs, but there is a long way to go as all of our announcements are done through speakers. I’d love to learn sign language and not just point to things to show what I mean – I need to know the official signs. I think that it is really important to know sign language as I could go deaf and would not know how to communicate – how would I cope? Who could I connect with?

I would certainly benefit from deaf awareness training and hope this is something that can be delivered while I am working here at Fitness First”.

Teoni: “I don’t know any sign language and I don’t think it means I struggle with approaching or communicating with deaf people but, I do worry about offending and making someone feel frustrated if they don’t understand me. If I knew sign language then this could be avoided. It would be so helpful for the team to know sign language – we do try to accommodate anybody with any need as, for example we have members who have English as their second language and often have to gesture for them to make ourselves understood.  There is no deaf awareness training here at work, and I feel like it would be really useful. I had never heard of Deaf Awareness Week before and it is something I would like to get involved in – maybe learn a new phrase every day and build up my vocabulary”.

Emily – Tiger

“Before I worked here in Tiger, I was a paramedic where I was faced with language barriers all the time as I would meet such a variety of different people with different background and needs. It was a deaf aware environment as I had been trained in gestures and how to make yourself understood in a tense and difficult situation. I have not interacted with any deaf people since working in retail but, I would use my fingers to show how much something was and show a bag if I’m offering a bag.

I would be interested in learning sign language, but I don’t know where to start. I learnt Makaton when I worked in a nursery and I have forgotten how to use it because I didn’t use it enough. I would worry about that being the case with sign language too. I think having deaf awareness training and learning sign language is so important as it brings inclusion to people instead of exclusion”.

Sahera – West Cornish Pasty Co

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No work place of mine has ever offered deaf awareness training and I think that is a shame as it would be very beneficial. In fact, we don’t get training on any form of disability including things like autism. I think it would make everyone feel comfortable if they knew that the staff had been trained appropriately and from my perspective I would feel comfortable knowing I’m doing the right thing by the customer. In my old job we held a children’s party for a group of deaf children. I found the experience really hard to manage when it should absolutely not have been an issue and should be just a normal part of the job – but I had not been prepared for it in my life. This includes no education from my school to now.  I hope that no deaf person has ever gone into a shop or situation and has felt like a burden or a problem, because the problem is with the company – it is our fault and we should be trained in deaf awareness. Maybe companies do not see it as a priority because deaf people are the minority, but it should be as anyone who comes into the shop could be deaf – you cant see the disability.

Matt and Joe – Darlish

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Matt: “I’ve never heard of deaf awareness week which is a shame as I would like to get involved. I think I know how to be deaf aware – we have many deaf customers coming into the shop. I recently found out that there is a school for deaf children in town and often after school they will come in here to get an ice cream. I think I communicate well, but in the past I have given my phone to customers to write down what they want to say or find pictures of the flavour they are thinking of. I point to different flavours on the wall and show the deaf customer the ice – cream so they can see what it looks like and get an idea if they will like it or not. I want to go the extra mile for all customers and despite not being officially trained in deaf awareness techniques I think I have a good understanding of what is expected of me. I would like to learn sign language. My sister is a speech and language therapist and knows some signs, I think she is a great communicator. Maybe her and I could start a course together. A deaf customer once taught me how to say please, thank you and pounds. Whenever I use this, I always get a big smile from the deaf customers.”

Joe: “Matt taught me how to say please and thank you in sign language when I first started working here as he told me we had a few regular deaf customers. I’m really thankful he did that, but I do get worried I’ll get it wrong. I can be quite shy and I worry about what the right thing to do is. However, when working in retail and with customers, the customer is our core and if we aren’t going to cater appropriately for them then we are failing at our jobs. Deaf Awareness Week sounds like a great cause, I wish I had known about it sooner and hope to one day be involved in it”.

What have I learnt from this experience?

One thing I have learnt is that I am not a ‘normal’ hearing person. I think that sometimes I can be quite critical of the attitudes and behaviours of other hearing people in relation to deaf issues such as when hearing people refuse to watch something with subtitles on or when people think it is okay to say ‘it doesn’t matter’ if they cannot be bothered to repeat themselves. That is only however, because I am in a deaf environment, so is it reasonable for me to have assumed that everyone should feel confident when communicating with a deaf person or a group of deaf people when at work? People in the past have told me they would tense up and freeze. I was pleasantly surprised to hear however that people are using their common sense and trying alternative forms of communication when they encounter a deaf person at work.

It is clear that everybody would like to be trained in deaf awareness and even learn sign language. Although I am so thrilled and pleased to hear that, and I’m sure deaf people would also be happy to know this, I think it is unrealistic. Trying to get everybody to learn sign language is not going to happen. It is clear from when talking with people they find it hard enough to juggle relationships, children, a job, working out and keeping up hobbies to then start paying a lot of money for something they do not have time for. It is unfortunate, because I would love for this not to be the case. Starting with deaf awareness techniques would be a huge start though and could make deaf customers and deaf people feel comfortable and looked after such as: gestures, lightly tapping on the shoulder for attention and flashing lights.

We need to start learning sign language in schools as part of the curriculum as there is time. School days are built for education. Going to school is like a job – and once you leave and have a real job, time is more important for social events and hard to get. The Government shutting down opportunities for deaf awareness and sign language to be taught is not only affecting current children but, it will affect adults lives. An adult starting to learn sign language from nothing is going to be hard.

Although deaf awareness has not officially been delivered to staff, it is actually a good point that it should not just be deaf awareness training presented to employees. There should be training for blind and autistic customers too. Customer service should be all about the customer – and learning to be exposed to different people.

I think it is interesting that people want to be knowledgeable in deaf awareness for work purposes. What about socially? Would you not want to be friends with a deaf person because you do not know how to communicate? Would you not be willing to try and socialise because it is not going to help you gain employee of the month? Just some questions I’m thinking about and would welcome any feedback and comments in relation to what has been said in this post.

Thank you to those who let me interview them, it was a really interesting couple of hours getting to hear your stories in relation to deafness and deaf awareness. Sorry I could not post any more – this article is already longer than my undergraduate dissertation.

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Emma Colton – emma.colton@hotmail.co.uk

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