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Discovering a Deaf identity

Photo: Holly's story

Embracing her Deaf identity hasn’t always been easy for Holly (18). After experiencing some setbacks, getting to know other deaf young people, like her mentor Ellie (23), has helped Holly reclaim her confidence at just the right time.

When Holly, who is severely to profoundly deaf, first got her hearing aids at six years old, she felt proud to be deaf. But her confidence was quickly knocked by comments from her classmates. “I liked my hearing aids, they were pretty and pink, but other children at school were mean about them,” says Holly. “It really affected me. I didn’t call myself deaf until I was 14 and rarely wore them.”

Growing up, Holly went to mainstream primary school and didn’t know any other deaf people her age. Holly’s teachers lacked deaf awareness too. “I was put at the back of the class and the teachers were told to keep an eye on me because of my behaviour, when really, I was struggling to keep up with lessons because I was deaf,” says Holly. “It didn’t help that I thought deafness was an illness. I’d get really scared whenever my hearing dropped, and my mum realised we needed to chat about what being deaf means.”

Talking about her deafness and meeting other deaf young people was a turning point in Holly’s Deaf identity journey. “When I was 10, I met my childhood best friend who was also deaf,” explains Holly. “We talked for hours about deafness. It was incredible. It prompted my Deaf identity journey and my confidence grew as I went to secondary school.”

However, unexpected challenges impacted Holly’s newfound confidence. After her hearing aids and radio aid broke in Year 9, she felt she’d lost a part of her identity. “I thought I was no longer deaf, as if my disability was erased because I didn’t have technology as a marker,” she explains. “That’s when I went to the Ear Foundation and met a group of deaf girls. We embraced Deaf humour by making up jokes. I started to see myself as different, rather than lesser or like I was lacking something.”

Holly now identifies with the capital ‘D’ Deaf and explains what this means to her. “To me, the word ‘Deaf’, with a capital D, represents the Deaf community, whereas ‘deaf’ without a capital D relates to the audiological side of deafness,” says Holly. “Before, I thought I wasn’t part of the Deaf community because I can still hear a little. Since my Deaf identity has grown stronger, I feel more comfortable calling myself culturally Deaf. It makes me proud to be part of our lovely community.”

Last year though, Holly experienced setbacks while studying for her A-levels and decided to take part in the National Deaf Children’s Society’s online mentoring service. The service connects deaf young people, aged 14 to 18, with a deaf mentor. The programme runs remotely, and messages are monitored by staff. “I was confident with my Deaf identity, but lockdown badly affected this,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to and my grades dropped because of online lessons. I was starting to think negatively about my deafness again.”

Holly was matched with her mentor Ellie, who understood the importance of connecting with other deaf young people. Ellie discovered she had unilateral profound deafness at three years old. She also found it difficult to acknowledge her Deaf identity. “I first saw an audiologist when I was 16, so I didn’t have a Deaf identity until I was older and I felt trapped between the hearing and the Deaf world,” says Ellie. “It took moving to university and developing my independence to acknowledge that my hearing does impact me, and I have a right to identify as Deaf.”

Mentoring was a way for Ellie to make up for the help she didn’t get as a teenager. “I wanted to offer the support I wish I’d had when I was doing my A-levels. I had lots of questions about Deafness and nobody to ask. The first time I met anyone who was my age and Deaf was when training to be a National Deaf Children’s Society volunteer a few years ago. It was transformational,” she says.

Embracing her Deafness also played a part in helping her follow her dreams. “It’s important not to put limits on yourself or let anyone say you can’t do something,” says Ellie. “I was told I couldn’t do languages at university and I graduated with a first-class degree in Politics, International Relations and Spanish.”

Holly also hopes to study languages at university and appreciated the opportunity to find out about Ellie’s experience. “It was nice to have someone to send messages to who is Deaf and studied languages too. I realised that being Deaf doesn’t mean I can’t have the education I want.”

“My advice for other Deaf young people is that it doesn’t matter what level of hearing loss you have or if you’re the only Deaf person in your family,” adds Ellie. “You have a right to call yourself Deaf and you belong in the Deaf community.”

Ellie and Holly suggest focusing on the positives that come with being Deaf too. “You’re not broken and you don’t need fixing. As a Deaf person, you have enhanced communication and empathy skills. Your difference makes you stand out from the crowd in a good way, so own it,” says Ellie.

“There will be challenges but there are benefits too,” Holly adds. “You get to do things your own way. Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re Deaf and don’t let your Deafness or other people hold you back. To me, embracing my Deaf identity is about being myself and loving who I am.”