See Hear: To sign or to speak?

Hands signing Image copyright Alamy

The decision to speak or to sign is loaded with significance for deaf people, says BBC producer William Mager. He describes how he came to make his own choice.

I appeared on BBC Breakfast News last Saturday to discuss a video of a woman whose cochlear implant was switched on for the first time - it was a very emotional clip and quickly went round the world.

Joanne Milne herself speaks with a Geordie accent, which is audible in the video. She either had good residual hearing or is deafened, meaning she had enough hearing to pick up colloquial speech patterns. This in turn made the various headlines about Joanne "hearing for the first time" a bit misleading.

This is not my cue to contribute 1,000 words to the cochlear implant debate. Plenty of people have done that in the past week or so. What I found much more interesting about the viral video and the BBC Breakfast segments I filmed, was the subject of the deaf voice.

After the interview aired, my phone went mad with messages - text, Facebook, Twitter, email and more. But many of them asked why I'd chosen to sign, with an interpreter voicing me, instead of speaking so the nation could hear words directly from me.

The short answer is simple. There are plenty of people speaking on television but you see very few signing - and I like the idea of sign language being seen.

The long answer is a bit more complicated.

You see, I was born profoundly deaf. When I was diagnosed, my mum decided to teach me to speak, read and write herself, with the help of expensive speech therapists. The results were pretty good - or so I thought. I could lip-read and I thought my speech was equally good.

It was only recently when I spoke with my mum about my upbringing that she admitted that my voice sounded pretty rubbish for most of my childhood. It wasn't actually that clear or resonant, and certainly not as good as my written English. It was only in my teens, when I started working with a vocal coach for stage actors, that it became a bit more understandable.

I still have a deaf voice though. A speech therapist recently summarised the act of speaking as "effortful" for me. When I form words, it feels like they never quite come out the way they sound in my head. Intonation, pronunciation, pitch and volume are all concepts which will always feel slightly abstract to me - like trying to catch salmon barehanded in a stream. In the same way that some blind people will resign themselves to not being confident that they are dressing fashionably, I'm resigned to never having a speaking voice on a par with Liam Neeson or James Earl Jones.

Lots of deaf people have fun ways of describing their own deaf voice, and taking ownership of it in a way. Some describe it as sounding like a broken washing machine, an intermittent foghorn, or some say it sounds like French - though that's if you're at the clearer end of speaking. Without sufficient hearing to self-regulate, deaf speech can sound stretched, distorted, strangulated, too quiet, too loud, too whispery, too booming, or a bit of all of the above.

Image copyright other
Image caption William Mager

While waiting in the green room for our three-minute interview on the BBC Breakfast sofa, I started chatting with my fellow interviewee Craig Crowley, the chief executive of Action Deafness, a warm and likeable deaf man who I'd only met once before. We signed to each other, both of us having learned BSL as young adults.

He told me about a text message he'd received from his father the night before, a reminder that "99% of people won't understand your views and your speech".

Craig joked he could achieve 70% clarity on a good day but realised that the text message was part of his father's grieving process. Even aged 69, his father is still coming to terms with the fact that he has a deaf son who despite trying hard, will never have a "normal" speaking voice.

Reminiscing, I discovered we'd both been educated orally at mainstream schools, meaning we were encouraged to speak and lip-read rather than use sign language. We'd both had extensive speech therapy and, when growing up, we were both told that we had "fantastic speech". It was only when we reached adulthood that we realised that our fantastic speech came with the unspoken qualifier, "...for a deaf person".

So that's why we both found ourselves on TV, sitting opposite two interpreters, signing instead of speaking, letting our hands instead of our voice boxes do the talking. We believe sign language is a more reliable way of getting our message out to an audience of millions on a topic so sensitive and freighted with meaning, that any misunderstanding would have been disastrous, especially with live subtitles (as the screen-grab below demonstrates).

Image caption Subtitle fail on BBC Breakfast

I choose to sign in public, but only when I have an interpreter I know well and trust. I speak to most hearing friends, colleagues and family face-to-face. I sign with deaf friends and deaf family. When I use my voice and when I don't is my personal choice.

It's also a political choice. If I have a meeting at See Hear and there's just ONE deaf person present in a group of several hearing people - I'll still sign. If I purposely exclude a deaf person from a meeting by making them rely on an interpreter to understand me, I might as well just hand in my deaf badge now.

It's been a long journey for me to get to this point. I've always been deaf, but I wasn't always deaf-aware because I was brought up away from deaf people. When I went for a job interview at the British Deaf Association more than 10 years ago, I walked into a room with a panel of three deaf sign language users, and one interpreter.

When I started using my voice, all three of the deaf people, of course, looked away from me at the interpreter so they could find out what I was saying, and I instinctively stopped speaking. They looked back at me and motioned me to carry on. I carried on speaking in that interview, making all the mistakes that a hearing person does when they meet deaf people and their interpreters for the first time.

Despite my faux pas, I got the job. And on my first day in the office I was shown to my desk, and presented with a telephone for me to make calls. I can't hear or speak on the phone, but being a speaking deaf person made them assume that I could.

The voice you speak with, how much you can hear, how well you sign, the school you went to, and your family background are some of the contributing factors that make up a deaf identity.

Every deaf person has a different relationship with their deaf voice. Some embrace their voices and wear them as a badge of honour. Some switch it off completely. Some use it when it suits them.

But the deaf voices I most admire? The ones who don't care who's listening, who shout as loud as they like.

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