Deaf motherhood

Virginia Kanka (Ginny) from South London, UK, talks to Helen Chown about her experience of deaf motherhood.

She has a fourteen year old son, Willam. Ginny was born profoundly deaf. Both her parents had been in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Ginny’s deafness was due to a preconceptual injury observed in some children whose parents had spent considerable time close to starvation. Ginny’s parents decided that she must grow up to fit into the hearing society into which she had been born. Although hearing aids were theoretically pointless, she wore them and learned to lip read and speak almost like a hearing person, so that people are hardly aware of her deafness. Last year, she received a cochlear implant. The change to her hearing is subtle but very significant.

“I went to antenatal classes near the end of my pregnancy. I told the physiotherapist who was running them that I was deaf and would be doing my best to lip-read her. I asked if she could give me notes on the classes. Not a thing. She was totally useless. I went mad! She even used some kind of bleeper to represent contractions so that the women could practise breathing, and of course I never heard it at all.

“A deaf person can’t eavesdrop. When a group of mums gets together to have a natter about how the babies are doing, you can’t follow what’s going on. It’s worst when you ask a question and the group takes it over and discusses it without remembering that you can’t ‘hear’ what they’re saying if you can’t watch their mouths. Even if someone does try to tell you what’s being said, they tend to tell you only what they see as the important bits, perhaps because it’s hard work enunciating clearly. You miss out on all the trivial gossip that seems to make chatting such fun. It would be great if everyone could remember to try and keep deaf parents in the picture.

“Then there’s the telephone. I use the telephone exchange for the deaf, which works through an interpreter who types people’s answers. It’s fine for making arrangements, but no good at all for ordinary conversation. People can’t chat through an intermediary. William was terrific on the phone from very early on.

“I made some good friends at a pre-school music group. We’re a completely unmusical family but I didn’t want William to miss out on any opportunities, so he had a go at violin and piano lessons. It didn’t come to anything.

“It was fairly easy to understand William’s friends until they were about five. It felt as if I lost track of what they were saying after that because they started to gabble quickly to each other. It was very frustrating missing out on all that. By the age of about twelve, some of them were able to enunciate slowly for me, but I only get to hear what they choose to tell me.

“Lots of things aren’t too much of a problem because I have a hearing husband. He can interpret for me after a fashion at parents’ meetings at school and so on, but I always feel I’m the last mother to know the flavour of the month in the school playground. Just once, the headmistress gave me a transcript of a speech she was making to parents.

“William’s fourteen now so I don’t often drive him to school. It would be very helpful to get a bit of feedback from other parents with adolescent sons. There are plenty of communication difficulties, but not many of them to do with my deafness!

“Over the last few years, my main source of information has been television with subtitles. That has made a huge difference.

“There are a few helpful things like putting a second rear-view mirror in the car, so that I could lip read William when he was sitting in the back seat. I always sit with my back to the light so that it’s shining on the person I’m trying to listen to.

“The cochlear implant is just as non-directional as an ordinary hearing aid. You can’t tell where sounds are coming from. That’s why it’s so very hard for blind people who go deaf. They can no longer orientate. It will always be nearly impossible to lip read satisfactorily in a noisy, crowded room. The main benefit of the implant is that it has stopped the tinnitus which was becoming a really serious distraction.”

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 22, April 1998.

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