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Deaf Dad (Disability dads series)

Guest Guest | 15:05 UK time, Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Charlie Swinbourne on some of the things that could only happen to a hearing-aid wearing dad.

Every night, shortly after dinner, I become a human climbing frame. My daughters Martha (three years old) and Edie (15 months) take turns jumping on me and climbing up my back, while giggling their heads off.

Sometimes they'll playfully try to catch hold of my hearing aids. To them, trying to get the beige plastic things Daddy wears in his ears is fun, but in order to protect NHS property, you understand, I'm forced to perform my mildly scary dad's tiger roar to fend them off.

My wife and I are deaf, while both our children are hearing. So in auditory terms, we now live in a mixed household.

When Martha came along three years ago, we suddenly had to keep the noise down - something that doesn't come instinctively to us, you'll understand. So, flushing the toilet at night, watching the TV with a high volume and speaking too loud (my main habit) were quickly banned when we realised they disturbed her, and the neighbours (presumably) rejoiced.

Although Martha isn't deaf, we signed and spoke to her from birth. When she was ten months old, she copied us and signed "duck" in the bath. Sign language gave her a head start in communication.

Naturally, at three years old, speech has taken over. Now our biggest challenge is gently reminding her that if she runs around the house chattering away without looking in our direction (making it hard to lipread her) we won't understand a word she's saying.

Edie has only just started walking and is still at the point where she communicates visually. She's gradually beginning to copy sounds she hears, but for now we joke that she's our 'deaf baby' (arf) because she signs all the time. In true deaf person style, she's constantly waving and tapping us, in order to grab our attention.

Meanwhile, Martha is getting used to Daddy occasionally mishearing things. The other day, we were all driving home on the motorway when I was shocked to hear her say "Speed camera, Daddy".

She had to repeat herself a few times before I realised she wasn't warning me that I'd get a ticket - she was actually trying to say she was hungry. What I should have heard were the words "Cheese sandwich, Daddy". Whoops.

We're friends with a lot of other deaf parents who have children of the same age, but now Martha is going to pre-school, we've recently been meeting up more with parents who are hearing.

Communication isn't as clear with this new crowd - without the luxury of signing, you're mostly depending on lipreading - but as we attend more toddler birthday parties, we're rather enjoying the occasional escape from the 'deaf bubble' because copious amounts of chocolate and cake get consumed. By the parents, mainly.

The one thing I find awkward is the first question some people ask me when I mention that I'm a father. It's not whether my kids are male or female, a typical first question perhaps, but whether they can hear or not. Once, someone asked if my children had "caught it".

My view of deafness has never been negative - I'm deeply proud of sign language and the deaf culture I grew up in.

Jo and I both have deaf relatives, so there was a small chance Martha and Edie might have been born with some level of deafness. This might surprise some people, but we wouldn't have been devastated if that had happened - as deaf people, we have all the tools we'd need to give a deaf child the best start in life.

As it is, being able to sign and speak effectively means Martha and Edie are bilingual, and their experiences of communicating with both deaf and hearing people will stand them in good stead as they get older and approach new situations.

Although our experiences are different because we're deaf, in every other way we're just a normal family, doing things slightly differently. Like other parents, we want to give our children the happiest childhoods we possibly can, along with, naturally, all the human climbing frames they could ever have dreamed of.

The Disability Dads series continues next Friday.

Are you a deaf dad or mum? or perhaps your parents were deaf? Tell us about your experiences of parenthood or childhood in the comments below.


  • Comment number 1.

    What a similar story to my own father Charlie! I guess I could be Martha exactly 40 years on. All of your anecdotes of the deaf culture and the 'deaf bubble', the food and the noise awareness ring a very familiar bell. I consider myself fortunate to have lived this experience and I'm sure your children will too. I remember Dad telling me to never let anyone feel sorry for me for having deaf parents. I didn't and I don't. I believe it made me more observant and empathic and approachable but it also made me more responsible. My only warning is - as hard as it can be - try not to allow your children to become your 'ears' as they get older. (I suspect it may be easier now than 40 years ago with all the technology that's now available.) The reason behind my warning is that 'little ears' grow up too fast and learn to protect and filter for their parents.
    I LOVED reading your story Charlie and wish you and your family the happiest of lives together!

  • Comment number 2.

    Great story!! I was born hearing impaired and by the age of 12 was more or less deaf, within a hearing family that had always experienced me having bad hearing, ear infections, etc, but on the actual loss of my hearing we were relatively unprepared. I found solace in a deaf family , their only hearing daughter (out of a family of 5) was a good friend of mine and they "took me in" as it were. I discovered a proud deaf culture id never even considered before, and i wondered in awe, at how my friends family worked as a unit, they taught me basic sign language, lip reading was a total no no, i just could'nt do it, i was too used to looking at peoples eyes as they spoke:) And i learned a lot of deaf awareness issues, like thumping the ground to attract someones attention instead of the usual vocals. Using ways to communicate that dont involve sound. In my experience Being a bilingual child (speech and sign) has seen me pretty well as ive grown older, ive had my hearing restored now through reconstructive surgery, but i still sign when i need to, ive never forgotten my link with the deaf community. Working with the public means i have the ability to speak to a deaf person if they need my help and also help colleagues realize how they treat deaf people, understanding that shouting doesnt help, etc. :)

  • Comment number 3.

    Great news item.

    My family are all deaf.

    If you were born deaf you don't think 'I wish I could hear' as you don't know what it is like.

    We also try to do our best, be happy and be positive in whatever we do in life.

    Yes, we do get weird questions/comments from people too. Can be funny sometimes.

    One asked whether my deafness was contagious (a disease that can be caught through touch/air etc)!

  • Comment number 4.

    My Dad was profoundly deaf, we communicated in sign language. He was a wonderful Dad in every way. His deafness was a real gift and to us and a real enrichment to our lives. I think we gained more than lost from the experience.


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