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Forging an identity

Photo: Zain and his family playing on a game console.

Zain (16) has pushed himself out of his comfort zone to meet others like him and now feels much more confident about who he is…

Moderately deaf as a child and with excellent support from his family, school and health services, Zain had never really struggled with his hearing loss. But that all changed when he woke up one morning, aged 10, to find his hearing aids weren’t working.

A check-up revealed Zain’s hearing had suddenly dropped from a moderate to profound loss. “We were told Zain had scarlet fever when he was five and this may have caused the hearing loss,” Zain’s dad Denis says. “But the consultant explained it was probably misdiagnosed and could actually have been meningitis. Hearing aids became redundant and they asked if we’d consider cochlear implants. It was a traumatic time as a family.”

“It was upsetting,” adds mum Anbar. “In that time, while they were investigating, Zain and I would spend all day cuddled up on the sofa watching the TV on mute together. He appreciated that we both couldn’t hear it, I didn’t want him to feel alone.”

The family decided cochlear implants were the right choice for Zain and he was implanted the May before he went to secondary school. “It was challenging,” says Denis. “The implant operation was life-changing in a way we hadn’t felt his deafness was before, now we’d have to think more before he went through security gates or went swimming.”

And for Zain it didn’t end there. “At the age of 13 he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes too,” Denis adds. “That was quite a rollercoaster. You think ‘Oh my God, how much can a child go through?’”

Luckily Zain has always found school accommodating and he particularly appreciates that they involve him in discussions about his deafness. “Instead of saying ‘Sit here’, they’ll say ‘Are you happy where you’re sitting?’” Zain explains.

Now Zain’s in Year 12 and studying Maths, Physics and Economics for A-Level. While everything is going well for him, Denis and Anbar both worried he was missing a deaf identity. “I didn’t know any deaf people,” Zain says. “I applied to join the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Young People’s Advisory Board (YAB) two years ago to see what it was like being with deaf people.”

The YAB is a group of 19 deaf young people from all over the country who get together at residential weekends to learn about their deafness and create their own campaign. “At first I felt awkward and nervous,” Zain says. “I worried everyone else would be communicating using sign language and I didn’t know any. But I soon realised everyone just got on with it. We all learnt to interpret for each other and got on very well.”

As well as making deaf friends, Zain also learnt more about his deaf identity. “The workshops were really interesting, they taught us about deafness and what we can do for ourselves. I learnt about campaigning and how to be more independent. Before I joined, whenever we went on holiday my parents would talk to security for me about my implants if ever I had to go through a scanner. But during YAB, I went through security on my own and went to Paris with my friends from school.”

Learning more about his deaf identity led Zain to want to explore other parts of his identity too, particularly being a British Muslim. “Similar to not knowing many other deaf people, I didn’t know many other Muslims outside my extended family,” Zain explains. “My faith is very important to me. Being deaf and being Muslim all tie in as parts of my identity.”

“There’s this identity complex that I don’t think many people that are not British Muslims or deaf or belonging to a certain community understand,” Denis adds. “Being born and brought up in the UK, you’re seen as a foreigner here because you’re not white, but whenever you go back to Bangladesh, you’re seen as a foreigner there because you weren’t born there. And being deaf too, Zain had to find his own identity.”

Zain applied for charity Islamic Relief’s Young Campaigners programme, called Campaign IR. The programme involves 10 workshop days and Zain will also receive an Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) endorsed certificate. “In the beginning I think we protected him a bit too much and didn’t let him form those identities,” Denis says. “So we encouraged him with the YAB and Islamic Relief.”

“I’ve had three sessions with Campaign IR so far,” says Zain. “We get together as a group of Muslims of all ages to talk about campaigning. I’m interacting with a lot of different people who I never thought I’d be interacting with. After the YAB, I feel more confident now telling them if I need an adaptation because of my deafness.

“I have to do a presentation at the end to get my ILM certificate so I’ll be learning more about public speaking. I love presenting to groups but sometimes last-minute nerves get to me so it will be good to practise those skills.

“I now want to go on to study Economics and Politics at university, combining my interest in maths with campaigning.”

"I believe he needs to own his deafness and realise it isn’t a barrier."

“I encourage Zain in all he does,” Denis adds. “I believe he needs to own his deafness and realise it isn’t a barrier. Meeting other people can help him both form his own identity and learn about others’ differences. He can look at things from a deaf and Islamic perspective. He’s more alert and aware now.”

“I’m not scared to be who I am now,” Zain says. “Meeting other people has helped me find out about who I am and what I like, I understand better my identity as both a deaf young person and a British Muslim.”