Opinion

Attention, media: hearing people don’t speak for us

We are seeing a growing rise in hearing people being invited to talk to the media on issues relating to deafness. Broadcasters should know better, and hearing allies need to uplift those in the community, not speak for them.

TV personality Josie Gibson is the latest celebrity figure to talk about the lived experiences of deaf and hard of hearing people on national television. Speaking to hosts Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford on Thursday’s issue of This Morning, the Big Brother star talked about her deaf brother’s experiences with face masks, and the communication barriers they can present to him, and other members of the deaf community.

It didn’t start well. “Her brother Harry and his wife Jessie both suffer from hearing loss,” Eamonn says in the introduction to the piece. Moments later, the words ‘coping with masks & hearing impairment’ appear on a strapline at the bottom of the screen.

It’s all well and good talking about the problems face masks can cause for deaf people, but framing deafness in a negative light is nothing but hurtful. For deaf people like me, it’s the barriers created by society and audism from which I suffer, not my condition.

“The term ‘hearing impaired’ is often used to describe people with any degree of hearing loss, from mild to profound, including those who are deaf and those who are hard of hearing,” an article from the University of Washington reads. “Many individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing prefer the terms ‘deaf’ and ‘hard of hearing,’ because they consider them to be more positive than the term ‘hearing impaired,’ which implies a deficit or that something is wrong that makes a person less than whole.”

Of course, it’s most likely that these errors came through in the script, but had This Morning focussed on Harry’s lived experience, rather than having it told ‘second hand’ through his hearing sibling, then they would know the correct terminology to use. It would also go some way of reducing the negative or pitying tone around deafness, too.

In fairness, the full clip of the package on YouTube – which, like the short version on Twitter, is not captioned – includes Ruth and Eamonn speaking to Harry about his experiences, but Josie is still at the centre of the story. It’s a deaf person’s everyday life framed through a hearing lens. It’s hearing people speaking for deaf people.

It’s a growing trend, too. Just one month prior, Hollyoaks star and The Silent Child creator Rachel Shenton was asked about deaf issues on The One Show. The actress, who is an ambassador for the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) was quizzed about the impact of face masks on the deaf community as well. Another similarity to This Morning was that the clip shared to social media also came without subtitles.

“Instances like these have the potential of creating this ‘messenger’ narrative, which inadvertently implies that deaf people themselves are not in a position/’not confident enough’ to discuss issues which have directly impacted them,” I write on Twitter. “This, of course, is not true.”

“Instances like these have the potential of creating this ‘messenger’ narrative, which inadvertently implies that deaf people themselves are not in a position/’not confident enough’ to discuss issues which have directly impacted them. This, of course, is not true.”

The aforementioned ‘messenger’ narrative also feeds in to a much wider problem. While I have had my fair share of people telling me I’m too loud, myself and other deaf people have also had hearing individuals tell us that we’re ‘quiet’, ‘shy’ or ‘withdrawn’.

They say it without realising that the reason why is often because of poor access. In noisy restaurant environments where little is done to accommodate my communication needs, a mobile phone helps to ground me. We’re not quiet because we choose to be; we withdraw from social situations because they are often inaccessible. Another instance where we feel this sense of isolation is, rather coincidentally, when individuals use opaque face coverings.

With this latest trend of hearing people speaking for us, however, we withdraw because our opportunity to highlight the issues we face as deaf people has been taken up by hearing allies, forcing us to the sidelines or making us completely redundant within the specific reporting that is taking place.

This is not advocacy, nor is it representation. It is a failure – from both the individuals and the broadcasters – to recognise their hearing privileges, and how best to support and represent the deaf community. Unfortunately, it appears both still have a long way to go.

“This is not advocacy, nor is it representation. It is a failure – from both the individuals and the broadcasters – to recognise their hearing privileges, and how best to support and represent the deaf community.”

We need our hearing allies to recognise instances where they should offer the platform to members of the deaf community themselves. Harry should have been the central focus on This Morning, and Rachel should have politely declined The One Show‘s request to talk about a lived experience about which she has a limited knowledge. If not Harry, then there are plenty of other individuals and organisations talking about face masks which they could speak to – including @DocFizzabella on Twitter and the Scottish charity Deaf Action.

As the case of hearing ‘signers’ on TikTok – who release viral videos on the short-form video platform with incorrect signs – has shown, people still need to realise when they are appropriating deaf culture, or taking opportunities away from deaf people.

Meanwhile, on a broadcaster level, one of the best ways to improve the accuracy of reporting on issues relating to the deaf community is to involve them in the development of the package. Co-production not only ensures the language used is appropriate, but can also mean that the story gets to the heart of the issue a hell of a lot quicker – without a hearing person getting in the way.


Photo: ITV/This Morning.

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