Deafness FAQ

As well as being all the other things that I am, I’m also deaf. Sometimes people want to know more about this than all the other interesting stuff… ! I’m more than happy to answer questions about any aspect of my hearing, but certain questions do crop up repeatedly so I thought perhaps an FAQ might work well here.

If there’s a question you have that you think ought to go here, but you don’t see it, or you want to comment on some other part of what I’ve written, please do feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.. when I can. My studies obviously have to take priority here!

How much can you hear/understand?

Without my hearing aids, not a lot. I can happily stand next to the speakers in a nightclub without wincing, and hear that (although that close, I’ll also feel it of course!). With my hearing aids, however, a great deal. The problems caused by my hearing loss aren’t so much to do with an inability to hear, its more to do with an inability fully process what I hear. When someone talks to me and I don’t understand them, it’s usually not because I’ve not heard their voice, but because what they’re saying hasn’t translated into recognisable words in my brain. For me, it’s like someone’s talking to me in a foreign language. Total and utter confusion.

I tend to struggle  more in very noisy environments, or events where there is a lot of cross-talk. Even in ideal situations, such as a quiet room, where it’s just me speaking to another person, that’s no guarantee that I will understand what is being said – there, elements like accents and the way that people talk come into play. If you have a strong accent of any kind, a beard, tend to mumble, cover your mouth, or are just one of these people who doesn’t move their lips very much when they talk then I’m going to struggle!

Is that why you talk so well?

I’m not a typical Deaf person. I do talk well – well enough to make myself understood, most of the time, by most people (if you want to hear my voice, try here). And a lot of people have asked how that has happened, what the magic technique was that allowed me to talk this well. Short answer: hard work. I spent years in speech therapy as a child, which continued till the day I left school. Even today, prior to giving a paper or a talk, I will check my pronunciation of particular terms with someone I trust. Other times I will avoid certain words because I can’t pronounce them. Sometimes I resort to actually saying “I can’t pronounce this” and describing it – people are very kind, when they realise I do know the word, I just can’t get my tongue round it (often foreign words!), and they fill in for me, which I love! But yes, I work hard at it. I was an only child, which helped, my parents had time and energy to give me to ensure that I learned to use my residual hearing to the best of my ability, and to teach me to talk. Dinner time at the table: “Chips, Cheese, Cheddar” (I still get lazy with ‘chips’ and ‘ships’ – its the ‘ch’ sound. Doesn’t everyone?). It took me three weeks of speech therapy at 17 to be able to pronounce the word ‘ecstacy’ for Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est. For some reason, I had particular problems with the sound ‘ec’. But then, I can also pronounce, in Arabic, the first prayer of Islam – the one that says there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger. That one took me 4 weeks. A doddle after ‘Ecstacy’!

What’s with the black labrador that goes with you to places?

Ah! that’s the lovely Neve. She’s my hearing dog. She was placed with me in January 2021 and although she’s currently with me as a companion dog (meaning we’re learning and training together) she is a fully trained hearing dog, we just have to do some work together before Neve is able to wear her plush Hearing dog jacket. Once she’s trained she’ll alert me to all kinds of useful sounds, including the smoke/fire alarm. Like a guide dog for the blind, she’ll be able to go with me to most places with her jacket on. She’s a pleasure to be around – and she loves meeting new people. 🙂 see my twitter for more photos of Neve – @LizvanWessem.

Do you like music?

I love music! Obviously, it needs to be loud though, so I tend to have it on very loud in the car on the motorway when I’m driving alone, where I can sing along (badly) and no one can complain…! I tend to stick to music I know though. I rarely get to appreciate ‘new’ music until I’ve listened to it about 50 times. That means I tend to be quite conservative in my musical choices.

What kind of communication support help do you have?

At university, a great deal. I have notetakers for indepth classes or lectures. I have a lot of sign language (BSL) interpreters. If you want to talk to me, but are unsure how to use an interpreter, then the best way to do it is to pretend that they aren’t there, almost! Talk directly to me (not to my intepreter), as you would normally. You’ll find that when you start talking, my eyes leave you and move to the interpreter – there may be a natural tendency at that point to stop talking, because you think that maybe you have to wait for us to ‘catch up’ – don’t worry about that! Both of us can and will tell you if we need you to pause for a moment. Just go ahead, confidently, we’ll keep up with you and a few seconds after you’re done talking, I’ll be replying to you. Maybe a bit longer if I need to think about what you’ve said!! If you’d like to know more about how to work effectively with an interpreter, then this page has lots of information, and if you want to know/where to book an interpreter, then The National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD) are the people to ask.

If you’re looking to book an intepreter specifically because I’ve asked for one in order to attend your conference (for example), then please be aware that not all interpreters have the skills to work at this level – many interpreters specialise in specific areas and you need to be very clear when you book the interpreter what is needed from them. You will need to replay to the agency that interpreter should feel comfortable working within a higher education environment, comfortable with discussing history, and with using lipspeaking and SEE/SSE, rather than BSL. The agency will know what the last part means but I am always happy to answer questions, or to make recommendations for specific interpreters, if it will help.

How do you handle questions at a conference or after you’ve given a talk?

At a conference, I will usually have at least one sign language interpreter with me, if not two (for any session longer than 2 hours, it’ll be two interpreters, as they need to spell each other), so they will interpret questions. At a talk, I may not always have an intepreters. In one of the last talks I delivered, people wrote down questions afterwards and that worked really well, and I will probably continue to use that method in future.

The reason why I sometimes don’t have an interpreter is down to the way that these things are funded. Interpreters work on a professional level and as such, have to be paid. Sometimes some of the talks I give to small organisations or groups of people fall between the cracks between criteria for funding, and so I have to manage without. C’est la vie!

Do you know anything about deaf history?

No. I’m a historian who is deaf, not a Deaf historian. There are many very good historians working out there in the field of Deaf history, some of whom are D/deaf themselves, and they would be the people to ask about any part of Deaf history. I never wanted to explore that, and all I know about it is more or less what any D/deaf person might know about their own history.

What’s with the whole D/deaf letters?

Those who use BSL extensively, as their first language, can be said to be Deaf, as opposed to deaf – they experience deafness as a cultural and linguistic minority, rather than as a disability (as a sense of loss). Those who consider themselves to be Deaf, for example, can tell jokes in sign language that can be very difficult to explain to people who don’t have the language skills or knowledge to appreciate the culture that generates the comedy. Deaf culture is incredibly varied, full, and at times, very beautiful – in short, it’s like any other culture out there. Deaf people are often very confident within their own Deaf identity, secure in who they are, and may not consider themselves as ‘disabled’, but rather instead focus on what they can do, instead of what they can’t. They stand in opposition, almost, to those who experience deafness as a loss. This might be your grandmother, struggling to hear the family talking around her, or a child in a hearing family that doesn’t have the tools to help him, struggling to learn and comprehend the world around him. It’s a completely different mindset.