A letter to Liz Jones

Journalist Liz Jones hasn’t exactly covered herself in glory recently, or, thinking about it, at any time in the last few years.

After making her name with a weekly column that covered her failing marriage in cringeworthy detail, she moved (alone) to the countryside, where her weekly dispatches (later compiled in a book called The Exmoor Files) helped her alienate herself completely from everyone in her village (to the extent that someone shot her postbox).

More recently, her moan about not being able to get instantly vaccinated at her local doctors surgery before a trip to cover the famine in Somalia was met with disbelief and ridicule by commentators (though some jumped to her defence).

But if there’s one thing Jones has written that I liked, it was the column in 2008 where she came out as being deaf, explaining how she has “at best, 30% hearing in both ears” before  before detailing her struggles to “appear normal” (not the best word to use, but I got what she meant) through school, work and relationships. She even explained how, as a magazine editor, she made her long suffering PA act as her interpreter, sitting next to her in editorial meetings, “translating what was going on.”

Though I cringed at one or two things she said, the column hit the nail on the head and simply because so many people read what she has to say on the pages of The Mail, it did a great job of raising deaf awareness.

Jones was right – people do tend to think deaf people are stupid, whacky or plain mad, just because they can’t hear too well, and she was also right that this is very wrong indeed.

And the column was funny. I feel guilty about this, but I laughed out loud at this line: “There are advantages to being deaf, too. In London, if a party was going on next door or people in Hackney were shooting each other, I would be blissfully unaware.” It ended on a positive – if cheesy – note, saying that “sometimes a weakness can make you stronger.”

At this point, I was quite pleased that Liz Jones was deaf. Pleased that someone with a high profile (albeit what might be best described as a Marmite level of popularity with the public) had written about deafness in a realistic way.

But I didn’t feel quite so pleased when I read Jones’ Mail column last Saturday: ‘I’m deaf but that’s no reason to treat me like a cloth-eared bint.’

In the column, Jones had a good old moan about all things that annoy her about being deaf. Which is fair enough. Except for the fact that her column not only got a fair few facts wrong, but also placed the blame for things that annoy her in some frankly unusual places.

Reading it, there were so many points when I wanted to tell her “but Liz, haven’t you heard of -?” that thought the best thing to do would be to write a little letter- to tell her about a few things she’s clearly not heard of (no pun intended) that might help her live a happier deaf life. So here goes.

Dear Liz,

I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue.

In your column last weekend, you complained about a number of things related to being deaf that annoy you. We haven’t met but being diminished of ear, like yourself, and having been ‘out’ as being deaf since birth (compared to 2008) I thought I’d write to you with a few solutions to the issues you’re facing. Hope you don’t mind.

In your column, you said: “I hate being deaf. Despite being disabled, I get absolutely no perks at all.”

Liz, whisper it quietly but there are one or two perks. For one thing, you could apply for a Disabled Person’s Railcard, to get a third off your fare  – that is, if you’re planning on using a train anytime soon. You could also apply for a card that enables you to take someone to the cinema with you for free. Deafness means you can also sit in relative silence in noisy situations, like on the tube or bus, and sleep soundly at night even if you have a partner that snores (or as you said, while people are being shot in Hackney). There are other benefits to deafness too, but those are the main ones that my wife enjoys (I’m the snorer).

You complained that “I’m not allowed to park anywhere near the entrance to a supermarket.”

Liz, strangely, being deaf doesn’t have any effect on your legs, so since you are able to walk,  you won’t be able to park (legally) in a disabled parking space anytime soon. However, if you really want to park nearer the supermarket entrance without amputating a limb, you could do what I’ve done to solve the problem, and have a couple of kids. Family parking’s almost as near to the entrance as the disabled parking is. The kids can be a hassle to drag round in the trolley, though.

You said: “I don’t get to sit in the front row at concerts or the theatre (in fact, I have given up going to the theatre as I never hear a word anyone says – whatever happened to projection?).”

Many theatres will sit you near the stage if you tell them you have some level of deafness, though not if you give them as much notice as you gave the health centre you tried to get your vaccinations from. You don’t necessarily have to depend on your ears though, a charity called STAGETEXT provide captioning live on stage (a bit like the subtitles you use on films and TV) so you can go and see all manner of plays without missing a word. You might need to come into London or another city though, as there’s not so many captioned plays in the countryside. And if you happen to see me sitting a few seats away from you, do say hello.

You said: “A few weeks ago, my ten-month-old Apple MacBook Pro froze, so I took it to the Apple store at the Westfield shopping centre in West London. The hip young gunslingers with iPads at the ready showed no interest when they learned I had a problem and was not buying the iPad 2.”

Liz, is this problem related to your deafness? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all situations that annoy you are a DEAF THING.

You said: “Remote headsets, which most companies now use to avoid lawsuits for repetitive strain injury, are to a deaf person what a step is to a wheelchair user.”

Liz, I’m unclear about how this affected you considering that you don’t currently work in a call centre, but if you’re worried about the occupational health of the (presumably deaf) person you spoke to at the insurance company, you can tell them to buy any of a number of gadgets to help them hear the phone better. Try the Action on Deafness shop or even Connevans shop for some products that may not look as cool as a bluetooth headset, but should make those phone calls crystal clear.

You said: “While the subtitles on Sky TV are very good, those on Virgin Media are badly spelt and hopelessly ill-timed.”

Liz, Sky and Virgin don’t actually create the subtitles – basically, they just pass them on. Spellings and timings should be roughly the same no matter who your set top box came from – though there’s always a chance that the box is faulty. Blaming your television provider for the spelling of your subtitles is a bit like blaming your pizza delivery guy for the type of cheese your pizza’s been topped with. It makes you feel better, but essentially, you’re shooting the messenger.

You said: “The subtitles on iTunes don’t work at all, while the maximum volume setting is uselessly low.”

Liz, thanks for raising awareness of the lack of subtitles on iTunes. Deaf friends of mine have gone as far as returning brand-new iPads to Apple because they’ve realised how few subtitled films they can actually download on them. One tip is to download foreign films, which are already subtitled. With regard to the maximum volume setting on iTunes or your computer, it may well be set at a level that prevents you from becoming more deaf. In which case – since you don’t like being deaf – you might owe your friends at Apple a debt of thanks for saving you from yourself.

You said: “Being deaf leaves you permanently bewildered. Boarding announcements at airports are just a noise. I can’t tell you how many flights I’ve missed because of mumbled messages.”

Liz, deaf people aren’t helpless little lambs, and nor are you. Airports now, and for as long as I can remember, have screens in them explaining what time people need to get to the departure gate by. If you’re deaf, and you find yourself in an airport, as you seem to do quite regularly, why not look at them from time to time, and check the information on the screen against your flight ticket? Or if you can’t trust yourself to do that, set an alarm on your mobile phone to remind you to start walking to your gate if you get distracted while shopping in duty free. And set your phone to vibrating alert so you don’t miss the alarm going off, just to be sure. If all that’s not enough for you, then tell your airline you’re deaf – they often (and whisper this one even quieter) give deaf people priority boarding and take extra steps to make sure you get on your plane.

You said: “Will there be special races for the deaf at the Paralympics? I doubt it. We deaf are life’s losers, always missing the good bits.”

Liz, you might not believe this, but there’s something called the Deaflympics. Like the Olympics, there’s summer and winter games, which are held across the world. So why not try out for a race or two? (that said, the Deaflympics have fallen on hard times of late, so you might, albeit not in the way you intended, have a point about us being life’s losers).

You said: “Shall I tell you why deafness gets no truck, no special treatment, no politeness? It’s because it is seen as the disease of the old.”

Liz, for the first time in nearly this whole column, I agree with you. There’s very few positive deaf role models out there, and  we could really do with a Harry Potter style character who wears hearing aids rather than glasses, to make deafness cool in some way for the first time like, ever.

We could also do with better researched articles that don’t make deaf life out to be harder than it really is. We want other people to help us sometimes, but we also need to help ourselves.

Anyway, hope these tips help. Good luck with your training for the Deaflympics.

Best,

Charlie

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24 Comments

  1. Great letter Charlie – good points made with good humour.

    Wonder about the call centre issue though. I think Liz is meaning that people wearing headsets in call centres are harder to hear than those who used the old fashioned telephone handset.

    With the old handset people tend to literally place their mouths onto the mouthpiece and so their voices sounded louder, clearer and there was less background noise from nearby call centre staff. In fact the old practise meant that I always felt that I needed to wipe the handset with an antibacterial wipe before using a public telephone or borrowing someones home phone to make a call. One disadvantage was that if someone was a heavy breather through being a bit porky or having a cold you could hear that too!

    The modern headset often carries a small mic which can be several inches (ooh will I get told of for measuring in the old money?) which can make a considerable difference to what you hear the other end.

    I think thats what Liz meant but maybe she can clarify?

    Also another benefit of deafness for some with more severe levels of loss is that it may qualify them for a concessionary bus pass allowing free bus travel. It certainly is the case in Wales, Scotland and I believe it is in England too!

    Another benefit of deafness is that you meet or social network with other inspiring deaf people and others from the world of people who have a disability. Some of my favourite people would not be known to me if I had normal hearing. I would of couese have been blissfully unaware and most probably would be breaking all the rules of equal access like many ‘normals’ out there.

    Also I grew up on what some would call a sink estate. Being deaf meant I avoided going to the local school with others from the estate. Some of those people have done well of course but many didnt achieve and some probably ended up selling their sinks to score whatever gets them high. I feel that being deaf steered me on another course and while my achievements are modest I suspect they would have been less had I not been poked, prodded and goaded by my school’s Teacher of the Deaf who urged me to do the best I could. I should have listened harder but I thankfully I did listen a bit and did ok.

    Ah well thats my contribution.

    Keep on writing Charlie – always good to read your articles.

  2. i was given a hearing aid at 11….thats it.

    No support, nothing.

    If i was to get involved with the “wonderful” deaf community, presumably i’d have to learn BSL. Currently costing 1k upwards to get to a level where i, as a deaf person can understand an interpreter. All that to join my local deaf society, that usually boasts 1/2 dozen OAPs.

    Sorry to pour cold water on your statement that deafness is “not that bad”. To me its been a life and career destroying affliction.

    ps Where did you get your degree in Journalism (just out of interest)?

    1. Hi Chris,

      I’m sorry to hear that. I think it’s scandalous that you were offered no support. I had a great support teacher through school which I really valued. Were your family not offered any support at that time? That seems unbelievable.

      Where is your local deaf centre?

      You’re right that BSL classes are expensive – along with lipreading classes, it’s an issue affecting a lot of deaf people, of varying degrees of deafness.

      I know everyone has a different point of view on deafness – my blog was focusing on the impression Liz Jones gave in her article, which didn’t seem well researched and actually gave a great many people the wrong impression about many aspects of deaf life. We can catch planes on time, we can go to the theatre… and so on!

      I have a degree in Politics, for your interest 😉

      1. thanks for the reply. As you said, everyone has a different opinion.
        My parents were deaf, so i can only assume that they lacked the information and ability to communicate that would have got me support i needed.
        My local deaf “club” is Burnley. I say “club” cos it doesn’t exist as a club any more, just monthly coffee mornings.
        A family member has a degree in Journalism from Manchester so i thought you mite have met them at some stage

      2. My parents were deaf too – did yours sign?

        The thing about deaf clubs closing down is it means people find it much harder to meet other deaf people now. One man I met this week solved the problem by getting into deaf rugby – he’s travelled the world playing for his country’s national team! So in his case, he had to go through some tough tackles and scrums to mix with other deaf folk (!)

      3. my parents did indeed sign, but chose not to teach me. Back in those days (i’m 46) my parents were quite reluctant to sign in public cos they feared being mocked amongst other reasons.
        Its tragic in a way that they were so deaf that they didn’t even realise that i was too, and very severely at that.
        My mother has passed away now, but to this day, my father will not openly talk about deafness as the hurt is there forever.
        I was mainstreamed obviously, for as long as i could stand it and failed everything miserably. My main worry at the moment is facing an ATOS exam for my benefits. I can only hope that they consider deafness to be a serious disability.

        l
        pp

  3. Biased reporting and comment, liz has a right to say it as she sees it, if access is hard for her, who is Charlie to say different, just because it isn’t for him ? The majority with hearing loss have huge issues, we’d rather not Charlie trivialise that for cheap column inches. No one-size fits all.

    1. While there are value-based bits in there, a lot of what Charlie says is factual. Why should she park close to the store just cause she can’t hear?

  4. Charlie, I had to stop reading part way through a I couldnt see for giggling. This was both factual and written with excellent subtle humour from the perspective of someone who KNOWS first hand.
    On a more serious note I do think maybe there are a whole batch of ‘lost’ deaf people out there though, I have come across a few myself: they have slowly lost their hearing. they have grown up in a hearing world, become hearing aid users (and grown their hair to cover them) and been in complete denial. When someone points out deafness is a disability, maybe thats why they think they can park close to the supermarket ‘generic thinking: no understanding’?
    Excellent letter!

  5. Fantastic article. I’ve just read Liz Jones’ latest claims on being ‘deaf’. She might be hard of hearing but she’s not deaf – how amazing that she can suddenly hear the TV with hearing aids… My very HoH mum wishes she had Liz’s level of ‘deafness’ as she’d love to be able to hear the TV again.

    I would respect Liz more if she were more honest about her condition, didn’t use it to try to get sympathy or a better parking space and actually bothered doing research about deafness/HoH when being paid to write about it.

    My mum’s been very lucky in that there are a lot of different HoH clubs in her area. She’s taken the time to learn sign language, although she couldn’t get on with lip-reading. Deaf culture has opened a new world to her and she’s made some great friends but struggles a lot, especially when people laugh at her when she asks them to repeat themselves because of her hearing problems.

    I wish Liz used her platform to help people other than herself – and not just assume only people of a certain age have hearing problems.

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