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Caroline O'Neill

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Born in 1980, Caroline O'Neill is a freelance researcher/producer/writer. Deaf since the age of five, she says she wants to be the first deafie on the moon.

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d or D? Who's deaf and who's Deaf?

24th February 2003

In a bit of a departure for me, this month I'm going to look at D/deaf Identity and all the trappings that come with it.
It is an extremely complicated subject and there are no right or wrong answers - everyone has a different opinion on what makes you D/deaf. But how do you define who is Deaf, and who is deaf? Is it really that easy to categorize people?

Just to clarify, deaf people refer to themselves as either being deaf (with a small d) or Deaf (with a capital D). But what's the difference?

To be 'deaf' (small d) is to fit into the medical definition of deafness as something to be cured and eradicated. Being deaf means you have a hearing loss, but you choose or don't feel able to function within the Deaf Community. You are predominately oral; probably thinking British Sign Language is the devil's spawn. OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but generally deaf people use oral communication. They may have a slight knowledge of SSE (sign-supported English) but this does not make them culturally Deaf.

Back in the old days, the powers that be recommended that deaf children be brought up orally; the thinking was that sign language would corrupt our education and prevent us getting a job in later years. This is a view that, unfortunately, still remains even nowadays. If you approach any deaf person and ask them about their hearing loss, they will tell you that they would love to hear "that bit more" - how they feel they miss out on music, radio or other aspects of life. They chose the spoken language and lip-reading rather than learning to sign. They ignore all aspects of the Deaf community and Deaf pride, with many pretending to be hearing.

Deaf - with a capital "D" (and occasionally with capital E, A and F too) - is used to refer to people who are culturally Deaf. These people actively use British Sign Language; they see themselves as being culturally Deaf and part of the Deaf community.

Deafies take pride in their visual language and do not see deafness as a disability. They see Deaf-ness as a groundbreaking cultural achievement that will go down in history. They campaign for the recognition of BSL as an official language and for better standards of education for D/deaf children. Major events are held throughout the year that cultural Deafies attend, holding forth their banners and Deaf Pride t-shirts with great dignity. Events include: the marches for BSL recognition, conferences regarding deaf education and other such political matters. Then there are the social opportunities - going to Deaf pubs every week/month in London and Blackpool in September, to name just a few! These are the people who are not afraid to be different, and don't hide away in the shadows.

I consider myself to be culturally Deaf; this is my Deaf Identity. I wear my deafness on my sleeve and consider it to be a major part of my life. I don't see it as a disability - there is nothing I feel I cannot do - rather, I see it as an important aspect of my character that makes and shapes me. If I were not deaf (I'm refering to both hearing loss and cultural Deafness here) I would not have had the opportunities I have now. Very likely I would be shacked up with a husband and two rugrats, working as a housewife!

For me, being a Deafie means you aspire to more, you strive to change things - to make things more accessible. That is why I work in the media - previously this area was inaccessible for many of us, but this is slowly changing. I like to think that this is something I can actively encourage.

I do, however, find myself questioning the definitions of what it is to be Deaf or deaf. Can we really categorise that easily? Is it merely a matter of handing out a multiple choice questionnaire, the results of which will clearly say: "right, you belong here, and you belong there"?

I both speak and sign because of my upbringing. I became deaf when I was 5, through meningitis, and attended mainstream school; I discovered Mary Hare when I was 11 years old. I didn't become 'Deaf' until I was around 16, when I attended my first Deaf Rally. I am now more or less fluent in BSL (although a poor memory means I often lapse!), but I can also speak. Which group do I fit into? I can sign, so am I Deaf? I can speak, so am I deaf?

I have been asked on many occasions whether I would take the opportunity to regain my hearing. My automatic answer is always, "No, of course not!" Being honest with myself, would I really say that if the technology was available? Answering a hypothetical question is one thing, but in real life? The technology isn't there yet, but what will happen when it is available? I love being Deaf, it makes me the wacky, opinionated individual I am today, and I wouldn't change that (bar wanting to lose a few pounds, but that's beside the point!) Yet ... I would like to know what it is like to listen to music; or what it is like to walk down the street talking on a mobile phone. Surely everyone has wondered at some point?

So what am I? Am I Deaf, or am I deaf?

Am I sitting on the fence, or is there a new cultural group in the making?

Should we cast off the chains that stereotype us and hug the nearest D/deafie, regardless of their political status, hearing loss or language of choice? Should we stop drawing cultural barriers?

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