Isolation among deaf ‘more deadly than smoking’

Visitors to the deaf and hard of hearing cafe sign conversations with each other.
Visitors to the deaf and hard of hearing cafe sign conversations with each other.

Our reporter went along to one of Derbyshire’s Deaf Community Cafes for the day, to find out how they are helping to end isolation among the hard of hearing.

Derbyshire’s Deaf Team and Deaf & Hearing Support are popping up all over Derbyshire with their new Deaf Community Cafes.

There’s already one in Chesterfield, Swadlincote and Clay Cross, a new group is meeting in Buxton on every month, and now the cafe is moving to Matlock as soon as the new Meadow View care centre in Darley Dale opens, as well others to come in Bolsover and Shirebrook.

... 70 PER CENT of people over 70 live with have some level of hearing loss.

... 4 MILLION people in the UK would benefit from hearing aids but don’t use them

... 10 YEARS is the average time it takes someone to address hearing issues

... 2,200 PEOPLE in Derbyshire are registered deaf

And as deafness and hearing impairment continue to isolate people, we find out how these regular meetings can be a lifeline for people who struggle to be part of their local communities.

At Foolow Court extra care facility in Chesterfield they give a group of people a fantastic place to connect who would otherwise suffer from terrible isolation.

Michael Davis, 71, isn’t deaf, but even being heard of hearing has made him feel isolated, and he doesn’t really socialise outside of the cafe.

He says: “I find it very hard to communicate. No one has shown me how to communicate with sign language.

“When my brother talks to me I have to say pardon, and then he shouts at me, and that quite annoys him - but it’s just hard for me to hear him.”

So much of the issue arises not from struggling to communicate, but simply from other people’s lack of understanding of what hearing impaired people live with.

Sue Mitchell, senior practitioner with the deaf time gives me a taste of what it’s like to be left out of a conversation. She starts miming words as she takes her cup of tea, and while everyone else around the table can understand her because they can lip read, now I’m the outsider.

Sue says: “You’re finding it quite difficult, which is good, because now you’re getting a taste of that. Every day of a deaf person’s life they struggle like that. This is why we started the cafe.”

And this loneliness can be deadly, adds sue: “Isolation now is a bigger killer than smoking. You might as smoke 15 years a day as suffer the isolation that sensory loss creates.”

And all that needs to improve is a shift in perceptions, and we just need to make small changes to be inclusive of people who find communication difficult.

“We can all make adjustments - Val lip reads, so you just have to look at her when you’re speaking and she can understand you.”

Val. 58, is a resident at Foolow Court - she used to be incredibly isolated by her hearing, but since learning sign language she has turned her life around, and now even volunteers with the group.

She says: “My hearing isolated me a lot when I had two hearing aids. People talked to me as though I was an idiot, so I isolated myself because nobody would talk to me, they’d say, oh she’s not listening. It was so unreal, I had depression, and the doctor helped me look at ways to pick myself up.”

For Irene Thompson, 72, her deafness has been incredibly isolating.

Irene has been profoundly deaf since she was eight months old, after having meningitis. She can lip read but communicates only through sign.

She even withdrew from the local deaf club after some unfriendliness, and she’s had experiences in the past which have knocked her confidence, she says.

Sue signs to her: Why do you find it hard living with deafness.

Irene says it’s just because people don’t know how to talk to you, and to face up to you.

Community care worker Pauline Marsh adds: “Generally the public don’t know how to talk to her. She says even her brother just tries to shout at her, but she’s deaf, she can’t hear anything.”

So what’s helped you to be more social?

Well, interestingly, while visually impaired have told us in the past how technology is leaving them behind, the unstoppable march of progress is helping to connect deaf people with the world like never before.

Video-calling like FaceTime and Glide are allowing people to sign to each other down the line.

And Irene says tech has helped her a lot - she’s an avid emailer and texter, which might be unusual for your average retiree, but it’s become necessary for her to embrace the world of cyber-space.

Now she’s looking for a companion to spend her life with - and he has to be a dog-lover. She winks at me when she find’s out I have a chocolate Labrador.

Irene flirts: “Why did you get a chocolate one? Were you hungry?”

“Don’t worry, you’re safe,” says Pauline. “She doesn’t want a toy-boy.”

Being misunderstood may be an issue that runs deeper for deaf people, says Sue: “It’s a problem in the deaf community that the medical profession want to make them hear again,” says Sue, who is hard of hearing herself. “But actually often they don’t want to hear - what the deaf community want is access to their language which is British Sign Language.”

So even the professionals who seek to care for them aren’t listening, so there are numerous services Derbyshire County Council can provide tot hose that want them.

It’s so important that the Deaf Team grows around the county and reaches more people - particular in rural areas like High Peak and the Dales, where isolation is made even worse by distance.

Pauline adds: “We want people to be aware that these cafes are up and running. We can offer advice on benefits or equipment. Interpreters and signers are available to have a natter and offer advice.”

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What would sign language sound like?

Even if deaf people could speak and hear sign language, listeners-in might find it difficult to understand. While British Sign Language is a boiled-down English, relying on saying very little to convey a lot, which means that all the detail in a conversation is in how you express yourself through body language.

“There’s no joining words, so If I ask you what is you’re name it’s just ‘name, what’,” says Sue.

Does this mean a lot of the character in language is lost?

“Well it does mean, at least for people who are deaf from childhood, they didn’t have access to English, so they’ll still text and email with a very condensed language.”

Community care worker Pauline Marsh adds: “In everyday conversations, we don’t really pay attention to other people when we’re talking, but when you’re deaf - you’re signing, you’re watching their facial expressions, body language all sorts of gestures.

“And even in signing there’s different dialects. There’s a different accent almost between here and Sheffield.”

Organisers and helpers at the deaf and hard of hearing cafe meeting, from left, Karen Wilson, Janet Millard, Ann Sullivan, Sue Mitchell and Pauline Marsh.

Organisers and helpers at the deaf and hard of hearing cafe meeting, from left, Karen Wilson, Janet Millard, Ann Sullivan, Sue Mitchell and Pauline Marsh.