“Sorry, I’m deaf,” I say. I gesture to the apparatus in my ear – the universal sign for my hearing aids not working quite as well as they should, hoping the mildly annoyed waiter in front of me repeats his question with a little less visible frustration.
I’m in a burrito bar trying to order dinner, but this kind of exchange can occur in any customer service scenario. Harried staff want to get the orders in, and customers behind me are hungry. Hearing people perhaps don’t notice how frenzied daily communication is in our fast-moving society. But it has a significant impact on deaf people like me, who regularly struggle to access information.
Too often I find myself apologising for the communication breakdown. I say sorry in the hope that my basic good manners will eliminate the exasperation of the hearing person in front of me. It usually does, and we’re soon fumbling for another way to communicate, but isn’t it troubling that the oh-so British institution of politeness extends to deaf people apologising for the very inaccessibility that discriminates against them?
I didn’t always think this way. When I was first coming to terms with having to wear hearing aids as a teenager, challenging systemic discrimination would have felt insurmountable. Self-conscious, I hid the tech underneath my curly blonde hair, and avoided questions about an identity I was yet to understand myself. A quick “sorry” to move things on was so much easier. It never got any less awkward to utter, only compounding the shame I already felt around my deafness. But connecting with other young deaf people through the National Deaf Children’s Society helped my identity to blossom – and my confidence with it.
It opened my eyes to the myriad ways in which deaf people are shut out of the conversation. It helped me see that my limited British Sign Language (BSL) skills were still an achievement – I was at least doing something to break down the communication barrier, which is more than can be said for most hearing people. My new deaf friends encouraged me to stop apologising for being inclusive, and even more, made me realise I had to stop saying sorry for being myself – my communication needs are nothing to be sorry for.
Part of learning how to stop apologising came through a greater understanding of the social model. That it isn’t my own condition(s) as a deaf and disabled person that disables me, but rather the world we live in. In the burrito bar, for example, the masked staff members and loud music made my deafness disabling.
Of course, there are other ways I could have detailed my access needs without an apology: “I’m deaf, could you repeat that please,” being one of them. But transitioning to that script as a deaf person – never mind an autistic one, who swears by routines – hasn’t been easy. Unlearning remains an ongoing process, and an uncomfortable one at that.
I hope that in the long term I’ll be able to shed the shame and embarrassment I carry as a result of apologising, as I learn to advocate for myself more confidently. But ultimately, more work has to be done by hearing and non-disabled people to remove these barriers so I don’t have to feel bad about asking for something to be repeated, or have to ask for conversations to move towards accessible formats such as written communication. We need to shift the narrative that deaf people are responsible for accessibility.
But as we work in that direction, I’m done saying sorry.
Any discomfort I feel is worth it if I can encourage hearing people to reconsider their position as the default. By exposing our ableist attitudes and infrastructure, I can encourage non-disabled people to think about how we view deaf and disabled people in our society, and sit with their own unease. I hope my advocacy will help change societal perspectives. Deaf people deserve better – and, at the very least, a more comfortable burrito dinner.
Liam O’Dell is a Deaf and disabled freelance journalist and campaigner