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Embracing my deaf identity: Jovita's story

Photo: After experiencing bullying at school, Jovita learned to embrace her deaf identity.

"Mental health problems don’t discriminate, and nor should we. They can happen to anyone, at any time and at any age.

Coming from a Deaf family who use British Sign Language (BSL), the assumption that we empathise and understand each other better because of one thing linking us together - our deafness - is not always true.

My parents both attended Deaf schools and, growing up, I was always envious of the fact they had this ‘privilege’ whereas I attended mainstream school. It was clear from the way my parents spoke about school that they were nostalgic about their times there. But I hated school to the very core. I was ignored, bullied and non-existent in other classmate’s eyes.

This created a substantial wedge between myself and my parents, as they didn’t understand what it was like to be in a mainstream school. Of course they were Deaf, but they didn’t experience what I did. They might understand the lack of subtitling, and being cast aside because of Deafness, as they had experienced those things, but they didn’t understand how different mainstream education is to Deaf school education.

Even if you find it hard to understand how to empathise with your child, try to be there for them like my parents were. This will help your children to know that they are not alone.

The hardest time was when I was 8-12 years old. I was bullied a lot, children teased me about my language, singing, “Monkey, monkey language! Look Jovita in a zoo, using monkey language!”

Looking back now, it was terrible, absolutely horrible. I didn’t tell anybody. I thought that my language, my first language, was indeed invalid. I was made to feel invalid.

So what did I do? I stopped using my language. I refused to sign with my parents in public or sign anywhere in general. I forced my mum to speak English or wait until we got home to the privacy of our four walls, where I would attempt to converse in English with a little sign added on. Within six months, I had forgotten my language. My parents were powerless to do anything as in mainstream school, I was not allowed to use BSL, but spoken English.

This was hard on our family, as I rejected my language. The lack of BSL meant that communication became difficult for me and I struggled.

I struggled with my own Deaf identity. Why was I was like this? Why did this happen? I blamed myself. One piece of advice I would give is to keep reminding your children that they are valid and equal, not subhuman because of their disability.

I wish someone had noticed the circumstances I was in, but no one did. I hid it so well, that I applaud myself for fooling others with a mask over my face. I looked fine, I behaved fine, but deep inside I was unhappy.

However, after many difficult years, I have learnt that, although these incidents were wrong, they do not define me. The scars I will always carry for life do not define me. My self-esteem has slowly built up, and now, I can honestly say, I’ve never felt better.

So, what can you do to support your child’s mental health? Here are my top tips for you:

  1. Don’t feel guilty if you haven’t spotted your child’s struggles in the first place. We’re not superheroes who can read minds!
  2. Remind them constantly that they’re not alone and are loved.
  3. Communicate with your child and find out how they are feeling. Learning BSL might help your child to feel more comfortable and find it easier to communicate with you.
  4. Give your children a safe space at home that they know is theirs. This will create a sense of openness and honesty.
  5. Never stop being their mums and dads! They will look up to you and ask for your help. Be there for them."