My mum’s voice was the first sound I ever heard. Because she was born profoundly deaf, she speaks with a higher pitch than most hearing voices. Some people don’t understand her easily when they first meet her, but even though I’m partially deaf, like the rest of my family, I often know what she’s saying without needing to lip-read her.
The deaf voices I heard growing up ranged from those that were only marginally different from that of a typical hearing person, to voices that were completely unique. My uncle, who has a much deeper voice, communicates entirely in sign language but also uses vocal sounds to add expression to what he’s saying. To me and others in the deaf world, his voice, and the others I heard at the deaf centre we visited every week, are completely normal.
Yet most people rarely hear deaf voices, and inevitably, when we were out and about, people would react with a look or a stare that could instantly make us feel self-conscious. Once, in the middle of my sensitive teenage years, I offended my mum by telling her to speak more quietly in a restaurant, because of the looks people were giving us. I apologised and realised that day that the only way to educate people about deaf voices is for them to be heard.
Clearly not enough people have heard them, because two weeks ago, police were called to a nonleague football ground when deaf footballer Daniel Ailey was mocked by the crowd because of the sounds he uses to alert teammates to his presence on the pitch. Last week, there was further controversy when Tory donor John Griffin (above) compared Ailey’s sounds to the sounds that female tennis players make, suggesting that Ailey should be silent on the pitch. Griffin has since apologised, but it has been reported that Ailey has been “introverted” since the incident and has been given time off since the controversy broke. Following the abuse, will he feel able to express himself freely when he next goes out onto the pitch?
The irony is that many deaf people spend years having speech therapy in order to improve their speech, yet later become reluctant to use their voices because of the responses they get. I started going to a speech therapist while at school because the “s” sounds I made at the end of words were often slurred – yet I still only realize I have mispronounced something when I get a funny look.
It doesn’t help that society lacks the vocabulary with which it can respectfully discuss deaf voices, so the way they are described often demeans them. For example, the local press described Ailey as making a “grunting” sound. This reminded me of an interview I once read with deaf model Brenda Costa describing her voice as sounding “guttural.”
Perhaps the problem is that we rarely hear deaf voices on television or radio. The few deaf characters who appear in dramas nearly always sound just like a hearing person (such as Eastenders’ Ben Mitchell), or if they use sign language, they’re often portrayed as being silent. But there are several exceptions. In the excellent 2006 BBC drama Soundproof, actor Joseph Mawle, playing a profoundly deaf murder suspect, shouts out in frustration at his love interest, with the scene revealing her embarrassment at him using his voice in public. There’s also the series of radio dramas that deaf actor David Bower, who starred in Four Weddings and a Funeral has recorded for Radio 4. And of course the American actress, Marlee Matlin, won an Oscar for her role in Children of a Lesser God, playing a deaf woman who has decided to stop using her voice because of the criticism she has received.
We need to be exposed to deaf voices more often, because in real life, deaf people often use their voices, whether they are sign language users or hearing aid wearers, or both. Which is another reason why the terms “deaf-mute” or “deaf and dumb” are so offensive and out of date. Deaf voices are simply the natural sound of a person who has never heard. Why should anyone be mocked because of that?
My mother’s deaf voice was the sound of my childhood. Her words soothed me when I was ill, told me off when I was naughty, and praised me when I behaved well. As well as being the first voice I ever heard, to me, it’s also the most beautiful.