There are more than 800,000 people in this country who were born deaf or lost their hearing before they learned to speak. But until recently totally deaf people were obliged to struggle to talk like the rest of us. With tragic results.
It is understandable that we in the hearing world should wish the deaf to be able to join us. To communicate easily with us, and we with them, to share our aural pleasures. In 1880 an international conference passed a resolution banning the use of sign languages and proposing that deaf children should only be taught by hearing teachers. But, well-intentioned though the hearing people who drew up this ‘oralist’ policy were, it was a disaster for people who lacked hearing.
If you are profoundly deaf from birth you are never going to pick up a spoken language to a socially acceptable degree, any more than British retirees in Spain or old Mrs Bibi from a rural village in Bangladesh will pass as a native in their adopted country. They will always be outsiders. Deaf children were academically deprived and socially excluded, living a poor quality existence on the margins of the hearing world. In many countries they still are. Patrick, aged 15, lives in a Ugandan village. He has never had a conversation. But see him at his first lesson at the Deaf School, watching everyone signing. The dull expression on his face turns to joy as he realises that he too will be able to communicate.