[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Dave-Brendon de Burgh on The Deaf

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Dave-Brendon de Burgh! – Sarah Chorn


Dave de Burgh wanted to be an artist and speak French, but Fate saved him and pointed him in the direction of writing. He is a bookseller, so-parent to three wonderful Pekingese “kids,” reads Speculative Fiction voraciously, and is the luckiest guy in the world because he has a blonde, blue-eyed woman in his life who supports his need to write and be crazy.

He lives in Pretoria, South Africa, and when he’s not writing he’s probably secretly laughing at cognitively challenged bookstore-customers. He’s on Blogger, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, and Instagram, and he’s also a paranormal investigator with Paranormal Research Investigators of Pretoria.

His debut novel, Betrayal’s Shadow, was published on the 25th of April by Fox and Raven Publishing.

The Deaf

by Dave-Brendon de Burgh

When Sarah asked me to write a guest post for this excellent column, I suffered about ten seconds of ‘What do I write about?’ After all, I’m one of the lucky people – I don’t have any ‘disabilities’ at all (except perhaps for not being able to do Math even if I was faced with a firing squad), and I work in retail, which means I don’t get much exposure to people living with disabilities – not as much as, say, someone working in a hospital or community center.

But then I remembered that I am, in fact, very close to people with disabilities, and that I have been for years. You see, my girlfriend works with the deaf – she’s a teacher at a school for the deaf, and she straddles both worlds. Before I met Leana I had only the most basic (and biased) knowledge of the deaf community.

I knew that I couldn’t communicate with them, since I never had the need to learn Sign Language. I knew that they were ‘louder’ than the rest of us, since they couldn’t hear themselves. And I knew for a fact that they were one of the most marginalized groups in South Africa.

The first time I had a face-to-face encounter with a deaf person ended up being one of the most illuminating experiences of my life – his name is Johan, and we struck up a conversation while having a cigarette. Yep, we chatted. You see, I found out that you don’t need to know Sign Language to be able to communicate with a deaf person. After all, how easy is it to explain the shape of a house, or a car, or a dog, or mime writing something down, or running or eating? Not difficult at all. How difficult is it to explain or mime what you love, what your hobbies are? I read a lot – easy. I’m a big dinosaur fan – easy. Think about it – you might think you look like a complete idiot for acting out these things, but you are communicating. It takes effort, and imagination, and a certain loss of ego, sure, but it can be done. Just because the hearing community bases communication of hearing what a person has to say doesn’t mean that we can’t communicate with the deaf. The only problem that we come up against is an unwillingness to try.

Another thing that counts against us (the hearing community) is the absolutely incredibly stupid opinion we of the deaf – most of us think they’re dumb. You see, the deaf verbalize, too, but it doesn’t sound right, does it? Our first reaction is to think, “Oh boy, there’s another retard.” And we end up doing everything that we can to not pay attention, and thereby show interest. We utterly and completely forget those times that we communicated something to someone across a crowded room, i.e. all the times we communicated with someone else when verbal communication wasn’t an option. So, the reactions of many people in the hearing community towards the deaf stem from fear.

We’re scared we’ll embarrass ourselves, scared that we won’t be able to explain something properly, scared that people will give us weird looks or walk up to us and very loudly and slowly ask, “ARE. YOU. DEAF?”

That’s another thing to remember, folks – the deaf cannot hear you. Speaking loudly doesn’t work.

So, the question is, why did I chose to write about the deaf for Sarah’s column? That should be clear enough – the deaf live in a world without sound. How strange and special is that? Incredibly so!

Think about it – a deaf person can focus in a way no hearing person can; they don’t unconsciously (or consciously) follow conversations going on in the background; they don’t ‘listen in’ or listen to gossip; compared to us, they see colours more vividly, experience the sense of touch more fully, taste food and drink more exquisitely. They may be bereft of one sense, but their remaining senses are heightened t such a degree that we can’t imagine it at all. I’ve seen deaf people dance at parties, because they can feel the vibrations of the music, they can feel the rhythm. Many hearing people I know can’t dance to save their lives, and they’re not deaf! J

So, yes, the deaf are incredibly special, and they deserve everything we can do to fully include them. I can’t speak about how things are in the UK or USA, but here in South Africa the deaf community is shoved so far into the background that they might as well not exist, and it’s sickening. The only movies with subtitles are foreign-language movies, which excludes the deaf community. Most teachers in most schools haven’t deigned to learn Sign Language, even when they’ve got deaf kids in their classes. Most of the emphasis is placed on forcing the deaf to shape and vocalize words even though they haven’t been fully enabled to communicate in Sign. And because the kids here struggle to communicate, they struggle to learn, too – most deaf kids in South Africa can’t read or write properly, and it’s not through any fault of their own.

The hearing community excludes the deaf in almost every way, and when we don’t, we want them to fit into our world. Shouldn’t we be the ones doing everything we can to include them? Shouldn’t every big-screen movie and every television channel and every YouTube video have subtitles by default? Shouldn’t people working in retail (or in any industry where working with people is a given) be taught Sign, to better communicate with the deaf? Shouldn’t we be doing so much more than we already do?

I’ve been struggling for years to come up with a story where every character is deaf – I think it would be incredibly interesting to explore a Fantasy or Sci-Fi setting without sound. But it’s very difficult, short of copping out and using telepathy. The only instance I’ve encountered a type of sign language in Fantasy was in The Wheel of Time, wherein the Maidens of the Spear use a secret sign language among themselves. The characters weren’t deaf, though. So yes, it would be incredibly difficult for a hearing person to tell a story, using the written work, but excluding sound.

But perhaps I’ve been looking at this the wrong way – perhaps what is needed is for us to let the deaf know and understand that they, too, are storytellers. How special and strange would it be to read an Epic Fantasy tale, written by a deaf person, from the point of view of a character that hasn’t ever experienced sound? Something to think about, eh?

And I sincerely hope that a deaf person is reading this and has been writing a tale that we will one day read.

So, the deaf – the strange world they live in is a world that hearing people have mostly excluded them from, and they are incredibly special, and have special needs. I don’t feel sorry for them – I respect them, and am in awe of what so many of them have accomplished in a world that places such a massive emphasis and importance on sound.

It’s way past time that the hearing world found and implemented as many ways as possible to include them as fully as possible.

2 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Dave-Brendon de Burgh on The Deaf”

  1. Very interesting post, and very interesting view of disability from a non-US-centric perspective. As a writer I find it really useful.

    As a person with a profound hearing loss who lives in the hearing world but whose brother, with a much more moderate loss, lives as Deaf, I have enough thoughts for a blog post of my own. I’ll only say here that “Deaf” is not, in the majority of cases, total silence. It’s hearing impairment rather than complete loss of hearing. The “deaf” person may have some or even a fair amount of hearing, but that hearing is damaged in ways that render it difficult or impossible to correct. (Which if we’re talking about future societies may become a moot point. And that’s a story in itself, since Deaf is a culture as well as a disability.)(And then there’s the nature of Sign as a language, and how and why it affects the Sign speaker’s command of spoken language, and…)

    Even a profound loss may not be totally silent. My profound loss is complicated by severe tinnitus. Without an aid to enhance the tiny amount of hearing I have in one ear (which by pure luck of the draw is in the speech range), I can go shrieking mad from the ringing in my ears. Phantom sound. Like a phantom limb.

    Whereas my brother, with more hearing, can hear sounds, but they’re so distorted and the filters so impaired that if enhanced at all, they’re like a spike through his brain. I have that in my other ear–can’t wear an aid in it without either throwing up or falling down.

    There’s a lot of nuance, in short. And a lot of misunderstanding of what the disability actually is.

  2. Adding to Judith Tarr’s post, ‘deafness’ can also be the result of Auditory Processing Disorder, a Specific Learning Difficulty (i.e. same group as dyslexia) where the difficulty is not in hearing sound, but in processing that information. I have several friends with APD diagnoses and it’s just as limiting as ‘conventional’ deafness.

    I winced* at the description of deafness (as I would for any disability) as ‘incredibly special’, try profoundly normal! To truly integrate disability into society through addressing the Social Model of Disability, which says that disability is the failure of society to adapt to our impairments (and Dave-Brendon De Burgh gives a very good example in his description of the position of the deaf community in South African society) we need to reach a position in which disability becomes no more noteworthy than having brown eyes; a society in which failing to provide reasonable adjustments to impairment is so normal as to be unthinkable not to (and which acknowledges some people will still be limited by impairments such as fatigue even when adjustments are in place). And implementing that Social Model world doesn’t just mean ramps or subtitles as adjustments, it also means changing the way organisations react to disability (‘I never thought about a disabled person applying’, to quote the people interviewing me at a satellite builder with a Google-like rep for ahead of the curve HR practises), and the way that people think about disability.

    There’s an awful lot of thought in the disability movement about needing to change society to normalise disability, but I rarely see any evidence of that when SF/F talks about disability – do the research, people! (Though kudos to John Scalzi, who nailed it in Locked In and, especially, Unlocked)

    *But not as much as I did over the use of the R-word (‘retard’), the R-Word is disability’s N-Word, please don’t ever use it, about anyone, that just perpetuates the negative stereotyping of disability.

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