Growing up deaf: sport, speaking and society
Deaf since she was just 14 months old, Ceara Toal, a sports assistant and lifeguard at the University of Leicester, spoke to us about what it’s like to live with deafness, the challenges of communicating with hearing people, and her views on how society could be better educated on hearing loss.
Ceara, 29 years old from Whitwick in Leicestershire, has profound, unexplained deafness and is unable to hear most sounds – including people speaking or even a fire alarm. She was raised in a large, loving family and is one of six siblings (two of whom are also deaf). With the support of her family, she has learned to never let her deafness rule her life.
“We are a close family and all get on very well. I’m a doting Auntie to my four nieces. My family has always supported me and given me everything I need. They’ve always made sure my (lack of) hearing never affected me negatively and that I am treated equally and fairly in all aspects of my life.
I’ve tried not to let my deafness affect my day to day life and most of the time it doesn’t. There have been set-backs related to my hearing but I don’t let that affect me and I try to see the positives by focussing on where else deafness can lead me to.”
“Being deaf for me is very different to being deaf for someone else.”
Ceara believes that every deaf person has a different experience in life, and this will often depend upon whether their families are deaf, and if they grow up mostly with people who are deaf or who can hear.
“Many deaf people are part of a ‘Deaf World’ - they will be part of deaf families, go to deaf schools, have deaf friends, go to deaf-only events, and be fluent British Sign Language users. My experience has been different, in that I grew up in the ‘hearing world’ - I went to hearing schools, hardly knew of any deaf people other than my siblings, I play sport with hearing teams, and so on. Everyone is on a different journey and being deaf for me is very different to being deaf for someone else.”
Ceara has never let her deafness get in the way of achieving what she wants in life. An avid sportsperson, Ceara adores football and cricket – in fact her list of sporting achievements is incredible! She plays for the England Deaf futsal and football teams and has played for Great Britain Deaf Women’s football team in the last World and European football championships, as well as the Deaflympics. Impressively, her team won the bronze medal at the World Cup in Italy 2016. She also plays cricket and indoor cricket for a hearing team, playing for England in five indoor Cricket World Cups – the most recent being last September in Dubai, UAE.
Ceara’s sporting prowess has not been hindered by her deafness. She explained that sometimes she just needs a little extra support; for example, her football team captain always makes sure she has heard the coach and understands what is required during training exercises. Similarly, she can rarely hear a whistle, so makes referees aware of this before a match.
“I can’t quite have a fluent conversation with another deaf person yet.”
Ceara uses oral communication mostly, with a lot of lip reading, and knows a little sign language to communicate with other deaf people.
“Communication is relatively straightforward for me as long as I am face-to-face with, and fairly close to, the person speaking, and there’s not too much background noise. I rely on lip reading a lot. It is a little more difficult for me to understand people who have thick accents or who are softly spoken – but I imagine hearing people have difficulties with this too! Phone conversations can be difficult for me so I only tend to speak to people I’m familiar with over the phone, such as my family.
"I can sign a little but I can’t quite have a fluent conversation with another deaf person yet, I’m still learning.”
Ceara urges hearing people to try not to get embarrassed when they are talking to someone who is deaf, and recommends just being open with the deaf person they are talking to. Ceara has some top tips to help hearing people out…
“Rule number 1: always be patient! The person with hearing loss will get there eventually. We really appreciate it when someone is being calm and patient with us.
“Rule number 2: make sure you are facing the deaf person and if you are not, then assume that they can’t hear you. It’s perfectly fine to gently get their attention first before speaking.
“Rule number 3: If they still can’t understand what you are saying, try saying it in a different way or maybe write it down. Getting the subject of the conversation across first may help too.
"Overall, just talk to them, ask them questions about how you can help or what you can do to make things easier for them. The onus is on the hearing person to find a way to communicate, without getting frustrated!”
Ceara finds some elements of communication challenging, especially when she is in a big group of friends, all having a conversation.
“Sometimes, I think my friends think I’m being a bit shy, quiet or even miserable at times because I’m not saying much but the reality is I’m trying to keep up with everything that is being said.
"I think people do not understand how mentally exhausting it can be to keep up with conversations. Sometimes it gets too much and we kind of fade into the background.”
“Hearing people should be taught about how to interact with a deaf person.”
Ceara does not see her deafness as a problem in general and definitely doesn’t feel “disabled” in any way, something she is keen to help hearing people understand. She tries to tackle any issues people have with her deafness, head-on, to ensure people know she is not embarrassed about it and that they shouldn’t be either:
“A lot of people are quite apologetic for some reason, as if I have a condition that is very upsetting for me or that is really life-affecting, which it isn’t for me. Most people I come across are quite cooperative and they want to help, although some shy away from that thinking that I will be offended if they asked me questions about my hearing.
"In my current job, I took it upon myself to send an email to all colleagues that I will come into contact with to explain about my deafness. I received a few replies, with fellow staff thanking me and saying they understood a little better. One member of staff even approached me and wanted to know a bit of sign language.”
Ceara is aware of social stigma about deafness, and knows people who have been on the receiving end of this, but she has rarely come across it herself. She will challenge people on their wrong beliefs about deafness in a positive way so that people do not feel bad and, on occasion, she has had to stick up for herself and fellow deaf people if she feels she/they have been treated unfairly or that a hearing person is being offensive.
Ceara has some important ideas about how society could change for the benefit of people who are deaf or have hearing loss, which focus on communication, education and empathy.
“There is a huge push to get British Sign Language (BSL) into the national curriculum as a Foreign Language option at GCSE so I would like to see this happen.
"I would like to see a rise in workplaces taking Deaf Awareness Training because you never know when you may have to interact with a deaf person. Even just learning the signing alphabet or some basic words in sign would help.
"I think hearing people need to be made more aware of what it’s like to be deaf, by showing them that simple, day to day things they take for granted are challenging for some deaf people, for example, ordering a take-away or talking to a shop assistant.
"I think hearing people should be taught about how to interact with a deaf person. Some people will speak louder, slower or over enunciate their words which doesn’t help most over the time and it can be quite hurtful. You can shout and scream until the windows shatter but they still won’t hear you!
"I would like hearing people to try and make a bit more of effort in their communication. It’s important for hearing people to try not to cut deaf people out of conversations or say things like ‘it doesn’t matter’ if they have had to repeat something several times.
"You can’t tell a deaf person to listen harder. It’s like telling a blind person to try and see better! If anyone has to make more effort, it is the hearing person.”
We are extremely grateful to Ceara for sharing her story and views with us, so that we can help raise awareness of what it’s like to live with deafness. As Ceara proves in her everyday life, deafness and hearing loss do not have to be a barrier to hobbies, education, family life, or career. We really hope her views on how to communicate with someone who has hearing loss are taken on board and if you’re interested in further tips, be sure to visit the Action on Hearing Loss website.
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