I’m deaf, so don’t shout

DAVID HUGILL, 46, is a deaf and blind community support worker for Darlington Borough Council.

HOW did you become a community support worker for deaf and blind people?

I am profoundly deaf. I was diagnosed aged two. We don’t know if I was deaf from birth or not.

When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of support.

When I tried to sign at school, I was told to stop as they thought this would make me use speech. I ended up having to sit on my hands.

I left school aged 16 and went to work at a bakery, where I worked for a number of years and was promoted to bakery supervisor.

I decided I was interested in meeting people who were both deaf and blind and started doing voluntary work with a charity.

I found it was interesting to work with deaf and blind people and learn about how I could communicate with deaf and blind people – they can’t hear, and they can’t see, so they use a form of communication which is very similar to sign language, but where the person who is communicating touches the deaf and blind person’s hands to make the signs. If the deaf and blind person is communicating with a person who can see, they use regular sign language to communicate back.

Then an advertisement for a job working with deaf and blind people at a residential home came up. I worked there for 15 years and I learned so much about people with different capabilities. I ended up working for Darlington Borough Council, and I’ve been here now for more than five years. I work with people who are deaf, and people who are both deaf and blind.

Do you find it a rewarding job?

I don’t feel that I deserve a reward for it. I just enjoy helping people. It’s not about me.

The best thing about the job is developing people, building up their confidence, so they can become independent, and help them develop lots of different life skills.

What difference do you think your role makes to the lives of the people you work with?

If I wasn’t there, they would feel completely isolated and dependent on others. I don’t think they would be able to build up the confidence to go out independently.

They learn important life skills and I support them to access everything in the community that a hearing person can access.

We help them to get information about things like benefits and other financial issues, as well as helping them to learn to communicate with hearing people so they can access day-to-day services independently.

I organise health sessions for the deaf community, to ensure they are not excluded from any public health information.

We also make sure they are aware of other national or regional public information campaigns, such as the recent digital switchover.

It’s about equality and ensuring deaf people, blind and deaf people and people with hearing impairments have the same access to services and information as people who can hear.

Is there anything you dislike about your job?

I love my job. There’s nothing I don’t like. I really enjoy it and I have learned and developed lots of skills since I’ve been working for Darlington Borough Council. They have supported me and made sure I have everything I need to do my job, for example, my manager is deaf aware, which means they understand the specific needs and issues of deaf people.

Tell us a little bit about deaf culture and how it differs from hearing culture.

The biggest difference is the way we communicate. Most obviously, deaf people use sign language to communicate – they can’t hear so they use their eyes to see.

Something which is less obvious is that in deaf culture, it is often necessary to touch people if they are not facing you order to get their attention.

Hearing people often are not used to this, and are not as comfortable with strangers touching them to communicate.

Tell us about the challenges which face deaf people and how these can be overcome.

Deafness is an invisible disability.

Deaf people look just like hearing people, which means hearing people don’t immediately know if a person is deaf or not.

Some hearing people can be a bit scared of deaf people – they don’t know how to communicate.

For example, I once went into a bank to withdraw £10 over the counter. The person who was serving me just panicked and got on the phone to find out if anyone in the branch spoke sign language.

All I wanted was £10, and I could have easily have communicated this without the aid of someone who could translate sign language.

Most deaf people can lip read, so the best way to communicate with a deaf person if you don’t use sign language is to emphasise lip movements, don’t speak too quickly, or too slowly, and definitely don’t shout.

It would be great if more people know sign language, and if it was taught in schools.

Children learn French, German and Spanish – why not sign language?

You just need to break down the barriers – deaf people are exactly the same as hearing people.

How has understanding of and facilities for deaf people improved in your life time?

Technology these days is so much better. When I was a child, there was very little help for me and my family.

All my family are hearing and I have two brothers who are hearing. I have got on with it, and I am very lucky that I have a lot of support from my family and friends – both hearing and deaf. We all support each other.

Now, people, councils and organisations generally are more aware. Social services have a specific worker for deaf people, and can provide lots of devices to help deaf people live independently, from flashing lights for door bells and fire alarms to a vibrating device which alerts deaf mothers and fathers to their baby crying. Improvements in communication, such as text and email, have also helped a lot.

Who knows, in another 46 years, we may have moved on a lot further.

I don’t expect the world to change for deaf people, I just hope people can learn more about each other and try to understand each other better.

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