Can a hearing person ever really know what it is like to be deaf? Sam Wollaston spends 24 hours with a deaf family – meal times, school run, play and discipline – and discovers what it feels like to be the one who can’t understand.
Ramon Woolfe teaches his daughter Layla, 3, how to sign the word ‘owl’. Photographer: Sam Frost
I should have been prepared for it, I suppose – the silence. But it strikes me immediately. And, to begin with, I find it difficult. Here is a family behaving exactly as every other family in the country behaves every morning – having breakfast, getting ready for school, putting the wrong shoes on the wrong feet, not wanting to put coats on. But someone has hit the mute button, and it is all happening in silence.
Well, not quite. After a while other, non-conversation sounds – the hum of the fridge, birdsong outside, the crunch of cereal being munched – begin to emerge out of what I originally mistook for silence. All that is missing is the conversation, the talking, whining, yelling etc that normally goes with such a family situation. It is like a song with the lyrics removed.
Of course, there is exactly the same kind of conversation going on as any other family would have every morning. It’s just that the words are being signed instead of spoken verbally. I don’t know sign language, though. That is why I am here: I don’t really know any deaf people, have never been exposed to deaf culture. I am in at the deep end, the deep end being a smart house on a new development on the edge of Swindon.
This is where Ramon Woolfe lives with his fiancee Louise Fitzgerald and their three children – Jasper (four), Layla (three) and Spencer (15 months). There is another on the way. All of them are deaf. They have invited me to stay, to get a glimpse into their lives.
Later on, Ramon tells me about the first time he spent time alone with only hearing people. He was in his early 20s, and he went to Thailand to act in The Beach, the film of Alex Garland’s book, a part that didn’t make the final edit. Anyway, as someone whose family is all deaf (they have been for eight generations), and who had always been surrounded by deaf people, this was his first experience of having no other non-hearers around him. He found it hard to begin with: he was lonely, excluded, bored. It was the first time he properly realised that he was deaf, he says. But then he saw that he just had to get on with it. And, to be honest, looking at his photos of his Thailand trip – surrounded by glamorous movie stars at glamorous parties, in a matey embrace with Leonardo DiCaprio – he seems to have coped quite well.
My situation here is hardly the same. Ramon was a long way away for three months; I am an hour or so up the M4, for 24 hours. But it is the first time I have spent only with deaf people, the first time I have really thought about not being deaf.
But for now, the correct shoes are on the correct feet, coats are on, and it’s school time. Red Oaks primary school is just a five-minute walk away, with two small roads to cross. As Jasper and Layla scuttle about the place, Ramon and Louise, unable to get the audio clues to their whereabouts, probably have to do more meerkating than hearing parents would. Jasper, the dreamer of the family, is reminded to look both ways before crossing the first of the roads. At the second, there is a lollipop lady who signs “Good morning”.
Red Oaks is about as good as it gets for deaf children – a new school, with an open-minded headteacher, who was especially welcoming to ideas about how to make school more inclusive for deaf kids. A lot of the impetus came from Ramon and Louise. Now the school has a sign bilingual inclusion manager, a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, and specialist teaching assistants. All the hearing children are given the opportunity to and are encouraged to learn BSL, as well as to learn about deaf culture.
It’s not just the school and the lollipop ladies who are deaf-friendly round here. On the way home, we meet a neighbour who says she is starting BSL classes next month. I get the impression that having Ramon, Louise and their kids around here has done a lot to make this small corner of Wiltshire a little less scared of deafness.
Back at the house, we have coffee, and Louise makes a victoria sponge cake. I am getting used to the silence – in fact, enjoying it. Once you realise that no one says anything round here, it is actually really nice. When little Spencer bumps his head, he cries – aloud, but not loudly. If a hearing 15-month-old cries at volume 11, Spencer is on about six. Perhaps that is the natural default level of crying and hearing kids just bawl louder to get more attention. There is no point in Spencer bawling any louder, and he knows it. All in all, and even with Spencer’s bumps, there is a lovely peace about the house.
But communication is a disaster. Well, not quite a disaster, but it is a slow and tiring process. I am a mumbler, so difficult to lip-read. And when Ramon and Louise speak, I find it hard to understand. Together, that is not an ideal recipe for a good chin-wag. They are both excellent and patient teachers, but I am slow to pick up any sign language at all, and I forget it easily. It goes in one eye and out the other. The most frustrating thing about it is that our level of conversation remains pretty basic. We are saying things that are easy to say rather than anything we want to say. That is the same with any language barrier.
Ramon takes me to his office upstairs. His Hollywood career over (for now), he jointly runs a media company called Remark that does pretty much everything, from TV production to internet design and BSL training. He is also on all sorts of boards and panels – a very active member of the deaf community. Louise works two days a week as a senior early years practitioner at a deaf school in London, but she has just gone on maternity leave.
Here, upstairs, the level of our conversation picks up because Ramon has a computer in front of him: he types so that I can read on the screen. This is a bit of a cop-out, I know, but it is hard work the other way and it would be nice to say more than just “London” and “coffee”. He tells me about how strong deaf culture is, how language is essential to it – more than essential, language is deaf culture – and why it is vitally important to provide his kids with sign language from a young age so that they can communicate with the world naturally. And we discuss whether Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov will fit into Alex Ferguson’s team. Ramon has two prime-location season tickets and on his Facebook page, where it asks for his religion, he has put Manchester United. It’s a shame: I was really liking him until this point.
It’s interesting how you get to know about things happening round at Ramon and Louise’s. If they are near each other, they will wave or touch a shoulder to attract attention. But if someone is some distance away, or has their back to you, you do not want to have to walk all the way over in order to communicate. So a thump on the table, or a stamp on the floor works. It can be quite startling if you are not used to it. Sometimes they flick the light switches. The sound – and, more importantly, the reverberations – of extra banging in the house indicates more people.
Aha, visitors. It is Ramon’s parents, who live close by. I find Ramon’s mum easiest of all to understand: when she signs for me, she does it slowly and exaggeratedly with special extra facial expressions. It is like a cross between BSL and charades. She is one of the BSL teachers at Red Oaks, so she knows a thing or two about what novices will and will not understand. Grandad sits on the floor and plays with Spencer, then cuts the grass.
It is interesting seeing all of them together over lunch. With four, the dynamic obviously becomes more complicated than with just two, and involves turning to different people, checking and bringing each other in. There is a musicality about it, like a string quartet working closely together. It is quite beautiful to watch.
I realise that these are the observations of an ignorant observer and could be seen as a bit crass, but an ignorant observer is what I am, so crass is what you get. Here is something they may not thank me for pointing out: deaf people eat quite loudly, especially four of them together. Actually, they probably won’t mind. Why should they care?
In the afternoon, with Jasper and Layla now home from school, it is time to go to the pool. Layla has been on about it ever since I arrived this morning. Swimming is one of my first BSL words (it is not a difficult one), and from the start she makes it clear – with her index finger – that I am expected to participate. It seems that I am going to be in at the deep end literally this time.
At the local health club, the swimming instructor takes charge of Layla while Ramon encourages Jasper, swimming backwards up and down the pool with his son splashing after him. There is a lovely intimacy about Ramon teaching his kids stuff – because of the eye contact that is needed, the focused attention, the closeness. The results are so obvious and rewarding, and not just in the pool. He tells Layla that we are going to go to a place called The Owl to eat, and she copies the owl sign (two big round eyes, basically). Then, when we get there and she sees the carved wooden bird, she makes the owl sign and looks to Ramon for approval. Lesson learned.
It is just as impressive when he needs to tell them off. All the shouting is done in the look – he looks them in the eye and does a three-two-one countdown, to indicate how many seconds they have got to get into line. It as all about eye-contact: you could not be afraid to look someone in the eye if you were deaf.
The learning, the chat and the eye contact do not stop in the car, either. When he is driving, Ramon can see the kids in the back in the rearview mirror, and he is constantly checking up on them, communicating, teaching. Hey, you may want to look at the road in front from time to time, Ramon (although he does explain that he has heightened peripheral vision). I ask him if he ever uses the horn. No, he says, why bother?
Later, on the way to The Owl – actually The Tawny Owl – I am in the back with the kids. In the front, Ramon and Louise are talking away to each other. For the whole day, they have included me – not just included me, it has really been about me, and everything they have done has been directed towards me. This is probably the first time all day that they have had the chance for a little chat between themselves. And guess what? I feel left out, excluded – especially like this, with their backs to me. They are laughing, too. Maybe they are laughing at me. And saying how much they hate me, and what a nightmare it has been having me there. Oi! Hello? Hearing people like to know what’s going on too.
It is a pathetic comparison to make, really, but perhaps, in those few minutes, I get just the tiniest hint of what it is like for the deaf among the hearing, all of the time.
In the pub, we are all seated round the table, and I am the centre of attention once again. As I should be. Sam the photographer is with us now, and I feel strangely resentful that there is another hearing person around. Louise, Ramon and their kids have been so nice and welcoming and inclusive to me – maybe that is why I feel cross that there is someone else around to share it. Encroaching on my territory.
The kids are getting a bit tired now. Time to go home and bed for them. How do they know if Spencer or either of the others is crying, I want to know. Louise shows me an electronic device she has pinned to her. It will vibrate if someone rings the doorbell, if the house is on fire, or if one of the children is crying. During the day they do not really bother with it, because the kids are always around and they just know if one of them needs something. But at night they put it on.
We have a cup of tea and Louise watches EastEnders, with the subtitles switched on, while Ramon watches a film on his laptop, one that he is going to do BSL interpretation for. They can do this at the same time, in the same room, which is nice. At one point the sound on the telly comes on – I don’t know why, perhaps someone hit a button or something. It is probably at the same volume as I would normally have EastEnders on in my house, but it feels incredibly loud and intrusive, and it ruins the atmosphere in the house. It is not bothering them, of course, but I ask Ramon to turn the sound off. Even after one day, I am really appreciating the silence that had worried me only this morning.
Right, that is me done for the day. It is hard work, being at the deep end, both metaphorically and literally. At least I will sleep well in this lovely, silent house.
In the morning, Louise asks me if I was woken up by Spencer crying. No, I didn’t hear a thing.