Bicycles and the Hearing Saviour Complex.

miss gulch bike

The bicycle is a pleasing and virtuous method of travel.  After all, in the words of one anonymous wit, its passenger is also its engine.  Desmond Tutu, also quite a wit and pro-cycling activist, had this to say on the subject: ‘Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.’  Both good for you and the environment, the bicycle represents clean air and freedom.  In the cinema it has become a visual cue for childhood.  Think of ET silhouetted against the Moon, Paul Newman messing about in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the von Trapps out and about in The Sound of Music and, for those darker moments, the terrifying Miss Gulch in The Wizard of OZ.  This year, in The Silent Child, the bicycle reappears as a vehicle for salvation, carrying a social worker through leafy country lanes to rescue Libby, the titular Deaf girl, locked in a world without language.  The cinematic echoes of kindly governesses dispensing soothing spoonfuls of sugar should be a warning that something unpalatable lurks in Libby’s world.  Libby’s parents have problems. Libby’s parents don’t communicate. Don’t be like Libby’s parents.

The Silent Child is an intense story of hope quashed by injustice and deserved to win an Oscar.  The media attention generated by the film has given its makers a platform to speak up for Deaf children like Libby and  to celebrate sign language and highlight the struggle for its acceptance.  But what if it’s not that simple, what if the film is actually a variant of  the White Saviour Complex – a Hearing Saviour Complex?  The White Saviour Complex has been identified in film and literature.  It exists in the phenomenon of ‘voluntourism’ that has given rise to the satirical Instagram account of Barbie Savior and in the annual feel-good marathon known as Comic Relief.  The blueprint for Comic Relief, Live Aid, delivered a classic case of White Saviour Complex in the form of Bob Geldof, producer, director and star of the greatest show on earth.  We now know of cases where the Complex has led to sexual exploitation in the pursuit of charitable work, exposing a world of do-gooders turned do-badders.  The writer Teju Cole coined the term White Saviour Industrial Complex to shift the focus away from the individual and onto the original acts of colonial exploitation and continuing acts of post-colonial underdevelopment. The White Saviour Industrial Complex prevents post-colonial countries finding solutions from within their borders and is essentially a barrier to emancipation.

Screenshot (2)

The success of The Silent Child at the Oscars was followed by sign language week, followed in turn by the live transmission of the petitions committee at Westminster hearing the case for a BSL GCSE to be on the national curriculum.  MPs were earnest, well-informed, even passionate in their support for the petition.  Bizarrely, but not surprisingly, no one knew which Government department might be responsible for sign language – “Could it be the Department for Work and Pensions?”, asked the chair of the Cross Party Group on Deafness.  Or perhaps The Ministry for Silly Walks?  On cue, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb, Minister for (the deregulation of) Schools, stood up and responded to the petition: I’d like to congratulate The Silent Child on the Oscar, although I haven’t seen it yet (it’s £1.50 on GooglePlay and only twenty minutes long, Nick) and, basically, there are already ways to get a qualification in BSL, it’s such a long process to get a GCSE accredited, I’ve just fiddled with the national curriculum and couldn’t possibly burden teachers with more stress and…I can’t really be bothered.  End of transmission. Nick definitely doesn’t have Hearing Saviour Complex. Don’t be like Nick.

If there is such a thing as Hearing Saviour Complex then it should share some of the characteristics of the White Saviour Complex.  Both have roots in colonialism, colonisation, oppression and abuse.  Paddy Ladd has written the definitive book on the history of Deaf culture in which he compellingly argues for the decolonising of Deaf minds from medical and social-welfare models.  Central to this process is his concept of DeafhoodThe meaning of Deafhood is hard to grasp. It seems to be a hidden, internal aspect of the state of being Deaf which is experienced collectively, consciously or unconsciously,  by Deaf communities.  Deafhood has the potential to bind together Deaf individuals, who intuitively share a collective concern and commitment to the future health of their community and culture.  This collective concern “forms a core belief which should be heeded by those involved in the social and political policies which are enacted on Deaf communities” (Paddy Ladd).   The social worker in The Silent Child couldn’t save Libby, just as Barbie Savior, Bob Geldof and Oxfam haven’t saved Africa.  Salvation, if that’s the right word, starts with the decolonisation of the mind and is achieved by collective effort, not by well-intentioned actors on bicycles – that is the Hearing Saviour Complex.



Am I Deaf?

John Venn
Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Some years ago I came across what looked like a Venn Diagram describing the intersection of two sets: set A representing Deaf people and set B representing Hearing people.  To my surprise, the intersection, denoted as A∩B in Venn language, contained me and my brother.  Well, symbolically at least.  In reality, the intersection contained the word CODA – Children of Deaf Adults.  Thus, our identities could now be conceptualised as CODAs, or, in a rather pleasingly abstract way, as A∩B.

A = Deaf, B = Hearing, A∩B = CODA

I’m not an expert on Set Theory, but I think there’s a logical error with this Venn diagram.  Namely, what are the shared characteristics of the sets Deaf and Hearing contained in that intersection called CODA?  The implication seems to be that CODAs are both Deaf and Hearing – either an audiological paradox or perhaps the Holy Grail of Cochlear implantation?  Well, ofcourse it’s not really about being simultaneously Deaf and Hearing, it’s actually about being an amphibian, equally at home in water and on land, in the Deaf world or in the Hearing world.

A∩B = toad.

I don’t think of myself as an amphibian, mainly because I’m definitely happier on dry land.  And that’s part of the problem with the term CODA; it’s a simple classification which puts a complex spectrum of experiences, beliefs and attitudes into one box.  Thanks to Wikipedia, I’ve learned that there are three classes of modern amphibians but, as far as I know, there is not an equivalent taxonomy of CODAs.  How would that list look and, more importantly, what would be the point?  Perhaps CODAs would be classified according to cultural affiliation, using borrowed terminology from attachment theory – secure, anxious, dismissive or fearful?  The possibilities are endless and really only of interest to people who live by lists (pathological catalogueism?).  People who live by acronyms (acronymists?) might also wonder about SODAs (Siblings of Deaf Adults) and PaGODAs (Parents and Grandparents of Deaf Adults) – they may all have intimate experience of the Deaf world, so why single out children whose parents are Deaf?Because it is the transmission of language from Deaf parent to Hearing child and the natural immersion of that child, from birth, into the social, cultural and political lives of Deaf people that separates CODAs from other possible relative groups.

This type of enculturation can be so profound that the Hearing offspring of Deaf parents  come to regard themselves as linguistically and culturally Deaf.  In her own account of being a Hearing child of Deaf parents, the interpreter and academic Jemina Napier describes how the late Ben Steiner, whose parents were also Deaf, created the signed phrase ‘Deaf at heart‘ to encapsulate his sense of identity – for him, it did seem possible to be both Deaf and Hearing at the same time.  I’m Hearing all the time, but sometimes I’m Deaf too.

‘Who is Ben Steiner?

Ben was a unique and remarkable man. In his thirty-one years of life he accomplished more than most could in twice the number of years. As a hearing child of Deaf parents he quickly learned the art of communication in very different languages. He also developed a natural talent for entertaining.

“Brilliant, passionate, controversial and mischievous – he took interpreting in the UK to a new place of excellence. It was said that at times his interpretation into the sign medium seemed to transcend any particular sign language. His powerful intellect could rip the meaning out of the most difficult and obscure English source message and render it clearly in British Sign Language.” (Quoted paragraph modified and with permission from an obituary notice written by Roger Beeson. Complete text compiled from a variety of unacknowledged sources.)

In his twenties Ben Steiner studied Fine Art. Typically, whilst studying Art, he somehow found the time to reach black belt in Karate, and achieve high status as a sign language interpreter in art galleries.

He then went from strength to strength as an interpreter. He interpreted for Royalty, the Arts and Television. His love for language was married with a fine intellect and he gained his MA BSL/English Interpreting at the University of Durham. He became Senior Lecturer at Wolverhampton University where he was involved in developing degree courses and was studying toward a PhD in Linguistics.

In November 2000 Ben Steiner took part in the television programme See Hear (a national, weekly magazine programme in BSL) about coping with cancer. He did so knowing he only had a short time to live.’




Who are you?

Open Spiral Notebook (with path)

I was a callow youth for most of my adolescence.  It wasn’t my fault; the lack of judgment and poor impulse control that I shared with my pubescent friends were the products of a still-developing prefrontal cortex.  When you combine the overestimation of competence and the underestimation of risk with a sprinkling of hormonal surges, you have an accident waiting to happen – such accidents are now recorded for posterity as ASBOs, so that the adolescent perpetrator can have a lifelong reminder of their future-sabotaging prefrontal cortex.  You can’t avoid the cortex, it seems, and neither can you dodge the hand that life deals you.  You might be given a prial of ACEs – not as lucky as it sounds – giving you a predisposition to develop ARMS, followed by a FEP and, thereafter, a potential lifetime managing other psychiatric acronyms with the help of your local CMHT. But that’s another story, another potential trajectory and another identity.

There’s another threat to the immature adolescent brain.  Like a rogue personal trainer from ‘Catcher in the Rye’, urging you on to the next existential crisis, the ‘who am I-why am I’ challenge won’t leave you alone: the tricky twins of individuation and identity.

My older brother had a big influence on my efforts to find myself.  In his slipstream, I glided through a range of footwear from brothel creepers, brogues, loafers and clogs, eventually coming to rest in trainers and Dunlop tennis shoes.  The length of my trousers  and the circumference of their bottoms increased overnight.  Passing quickly through  Sta-Prest, Two Tone Tonics (very uncool, thanks to ‘Johnny Reggae’ by Jonathan King, another of those 1970s characters up to no good  – speaking of Reggae, rumour had it that Judge Dread lived in nearby Snodland, not Gotham City, where he produced a litany of risque Reggae numbers), I finally arrived at my sartorial destination: a pair of Levi originals that were kept going by a life-sustaining network of patches.  Tank tops over Brutus collared shirts were replaced by Grandad shirts and cheesecloth, overlaid with an ironic combat jacket from the ex-Army & Navy store on Week Street.  After a short fling with a feather-cut, my hair was left to its own devices.  This was a post-hippy, ‘Hairy’ look, hurriedly binned following the advent of Punk in 1977 – a glorious paradigm shift that slammed the lid on the 1970s and released an uncontrolled wave of contempt for our suburban status quo.  ‘Fuck the Jubilee’ appeared on the pavement outside the shops on the Beverley Estate.  Maidstone Borough Council was not ready for anarchy, let alone treason.  Who would have guessed that Her Majesty would still be reigning over us forty years later?


Hearing, Mother Father Deaf


7.30 am.  Late summer.  At the Level Crossing, East Farleigh Station.  The Maidstone West to Charing Cross is approaching.  I’m fifteen years old, sitting in Dad’s car.  We wait for the stretched white gates to be pushed back across the tracks. I’m on my way to Gallants Farm to pick apples for a pound a crate.  Dad’s inadvertently blocked someone’s drive.

‘What are you doing, how do you expect me to get my fucking car out?  I’m going to be late for fucking work.’

Dad looks at me.  Should I translate this?  I don’t think so.

I point at the window and Dad winds it down.  The man takes a breath before his next outburst.  Dad looks at him, shrugs his shoulders and places his finger against his right ear.

‘Sorry, he’s Deaf’, I tell the man.

Defeated and lost for words, he retreats up his drive and the gates open.  We don’t discuss it, but I think there’s a faint smile as we pass ‘The Victory’.

Dad was born at Coldrum Lodge, next to Coldrum Longbarrow, a Neolithic burial chamber.  His older sister was Deaf too and also had Usher Syndrome; inevitably and progressively, the light dimmed at the end of her tunnel.  My brother and I were taken on bike rides to the stones at Coldrum and, in my imagination, it became a hallowed portal, connecting us to them, the sleeping ancestors.    My living ancestors, maternal and paternal grandparents, seemed to me to be completely disconnected, despite their shared experience of having Deaf children.

We differentiated them by name and geography: Grandma and Nanna, Grandad Folkestone and Grandad Langley.  I wondered what they discussed on the rare occasions that they met.  Nanna’s love of books, her rise from life in service with the Barclays of London to shorthand typist at the bank, encouraged by Mrs Barclay?  Grandad Langley’s adventures in Canada, missing the Gold Rush, working in lumber and joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force?  Shot through the jaw in Arras, lamenting he could never eat nuts at Christmas again?  Grandma and Grandad Folkestone’s past lives were unknown to us.  No adventures, no stories, no wisdom.  We had some facts: Grandad Folkestone was an engineer, had served in the RAF during the Great War and didn’t have any scars, just a barometer in the hall that he’d made from aircraft parts, while Grandad Langley was hopping in and out of craters, scouting enemy lines.  I wonder now if they ever discussed the choices they made for their Deaf children, how they could help them to learn about and navigate the world.  And the question of sign language.

The two sets of grandparents differed in one very important respect: one side chose to learn sign language and the other did not.  Maternal or paternal?  Here are some clues.  Olfactory memories of furniture polish and disinfectant, a forbidden parlour reserved for special objects and special occasions (one day they left it open and we fatally examined the gyroscopic carriage clock – they scolded mum, not us), unexplained rules about how to eat and when to speak (and remember to say ‘Blue Peter’ when asked ‘What’s your favourite television programme?’ – not ‘Match of the Day’ or, imagine it, ‘Steptoe and Son’).  On the plus side, there was the funicular railway.  That was Folkestone.  Langley, on the other hand, smelled of orchards, tamped down soil in the tomato-filled greenhouse, suet pudding and steaming tureens of home-grown beans, runner and broad.  French cricket, post-watershed games of Knockout Whist and Joker (the television had the worst reception in the world anyway) and the freedom to run amok with the Suffolk Punch and the weird L-shaped Hayter in the orchard.  On the down side, Nanna and Grandad swore by Izal toilet paper.

Pouring another basket of apples into the crate at Gallants Farm, I say to myself:  ‘Hearing: 0, Deaf: 1’.  Much later, I learn how that crude dichotomy has been refined by Deaf scholars into the possibility of Hearing Loss and Deaf Gain.