If you’re deaf, you can’t be a shrinking violet. The world won’t always remember to include you – friends and family apart – so you have to embrace the world with both grubby mitts. There’s the issue of accessibility with regard to public announcements, for example – oh, how I wish trains adapted their scrolling end-of-carriage screens which display the stops to convey real-time announcements when the train is diverted or delayed!
Anyway, I was on a train from King’s Cross to Durham about 10 years ago. It wasn’t uncommon for the train to get stuck at Doncaster, but after a longer than usual delay, I could see my fellow passengers cocking their ears to listen to what was doubtless a crackling noise with a few words recognisable as human speech overhead. I was sitting in the window seat and a middle-aged lady was next to me. Usually middle-aged ladies are very good when you explain you couldn’t hear the announcement, and if they tell you it’s indecipherable anyway, that’s OK – you’re no worse off than anyone else! So I enquired to be met with a reaction of pure, absolute terror as her body became completely rigid with fear.
It wasn’t because she was dealing with a deaf person. It was because she was deaf herself. She gasped out in utter terror, “Don’t ask me any questions, I’m deaf, I don’t want to talk” and buried herself back in her book, before I could explain that I was deaf myself. From her speech, and her reactions, I’d guess that she was a deafened lady who was so overwhelmed and embarrassed by her hearing impairment that she wanted to shrink back and become invisible. Actually, her exaggerated reaction simply drew the attention of more people, a group of four businessmen sitting around the corner table opposite, who had clearly heard every word, smiled at me sympathetically, and explained that we were awaiting the repair of a broken signal and would be going in about 10 minutes, and a bit later cheerily gave me a thumbs-up to say we were off now. They too, looked quite bewildered at the force of her reaction.
I’ve never forgotten this incident as it seemed sad to me on so many levels. It simply never occurred to her that I might be asking the question because I was deaf myself. It wasn’t as if I had attempted conversation with her previously as she seemed immersed in her book, so even if she hadn’t understood what I had said, the context of the delay might have given her a clue. She was content to wait out the delay rather than draw any attention to her deafness by asking a question of a fellow-traveller. I can understand that people are shy rather than put themselves through an ordeal of maybe not understanding an answer, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get, and nowhere is this more true than when you’re deaf. And I also felt that it was sad that I couldn’t talk to her and assure her that there is life after deafness – she remained huddled in misery and the vibe I got was that even if I wrote her a note or tried to smile at her she would have screamed blue murder: the noise of which wouldn’t have bothered me one jot, though her distress would. The remainder of the journey was very uncomfortable and as we drew near to Durham I made very obvious shifting and gathering my things together movements, which fortunately, she picked up on. I just didn’t want her to gasp out in terror and start telling me she wasn’t going to talk to me for a simple “Excuse me – my stop” and make it difficult for me to leave the train, nor did I want to just push past her.
I’ve often wondered since what happened to this lady: whether she ever learnt any coping strategies, or whether she had a CI, or whether she was able to boost her self-esteem. Undoubtedly, being deafened as an adult is a massive blow, and if you are naturally shy and retiring, perhaps even more so, but I would never have thought that in all my years on public transport asking a simple question of a fellow-traveller would elicit the most extreme reaction from another deaf person. If someone hasn’t heard the announcement properly, they often glance at their neighbour anyway, so what I do is very little different. In general, I find the Great British Public kind and helpful, as well as students on Inter-Rail, and it’s often been an opportunity to chat to many interesting people and while away the journey.
I still wish I hadn’t frightened that lady so much though. Her reaction was more appropriate to someone who felt they were being dragged off for interrogation by the Stasi or the KGB, the reaction of someone living in a repressive state. I was obviously taking her somewhere she didn’t want to go, even though I was a friendly citizen of the same state and wasn’t going to denounce her: she was denouncing herself out of pure fear.