'I heard us being called names like 'the dummies'' – What it feels like to grow up with deaf parents

What is it like to grow up as the child of profoundly deaf parents? It might not be something you’ve ever given any serious thought to unless you’ve met one.

But if you have, the questions will come thick and fast: ‘If your parents sign, how do you learn to speak English?’ ‘Do you always have to interpret for them when neighbours or strangers come to the door, or relay what someone on the telephone is saying?’ ‘Can you make as much noise at home as you like?’

After that might come the quick judgements: ‘It must be such a drag having to help your Mammy out with stuff like booking a doctor’s appointment.’ ‘You must have to grow up fast.’ ‘Hey, at least you can turn the music up full blast at home and get away with all kinds of things because your folks can’t hear you!’

It’s surprising, then, that until now the fascinating subject of hearing children born into deaf families had never really been explored by mainstream media, but it was pure gold for the producers of a new one-off documentary on RTÉ One this Thursday.

This hour-long film, called Mother Father Deaf, is beautifully made and shot by Sundance-nominated director Garry Keane and producer Anne Heffernan for Mind The Gap Films, features the very human stories of three adults whose upbringing has given them a unique perspective.

They are sometimes called CODA – children of deaf adults, or in sign language: ‘Mother Father Deaf’.

As you might expect, there are lots of things about their experiences that they share, but in many other ways they are also starkly different, including how they each dealt with the unique pressures that often come with being a CODA.

Shane O’Reilly believes he was ‘in training’ all his life for his career as an actor. When interpreting for his parents, he describes stepping in and out of a variety of ‘roles’ and the strong element of performance that comes with using sign language.

“The relationship between being a CODA and being an actor is that sign language is naturally quite performative; the language itself requires facial expression and it also requires being observed, being watched,” he says. “And so as a young interpreter and also a young signer you become very comfortable with commanding attention, asking people to look at you and then employing a performance of a kind… in order to communicate.”

It’s no surprise to learn that a good few other Irish CODAs have pursued artistic careers, including Amanda Coogan, a well-known performance artist; Declan Buckley, AKA drag queen Shirley Temple Bar; and visual artist Fergal Dunne.

Shane has a younger sister who is also a CODA, but Catherine White grew up in a huge deaf family in Tralee, Co Kerry. Although she and her five siblings are hearing, their parents were deaf and Irish Sign Language (ISL) users, as was their uncle and aunt, who lived nearby and had five children, all of whom are deaf.

If that wasn’t enough, they also had a lodger who was deaf, as did her aunt and uncle. “Both our homes were always full of deaf people coming to visit on a regular basis from all over the country,” says Catherine. “When we didn’t have deaf visitors, we were off travelling in two cars to endless deaf community events around the country.”

Such was Catherine’s integration into the deaf world of her extended family, even today she considers ISL her first language. She also later became the first Irish person to qualify as an ISL interpreter.

“I didn’t grow up with just deaf parents, I grew up with a huge deaf family and community. I cannot imagine what it would be like to just have deaf parents,” she says. “Our neighbours were nothing short of fabulous. They never treated them any differently.”

That said, the White children were never able to get away with murder. “We got away with nothing, including them knowing when we got home late because we had a squeaky gate and the neighbours would tell our parents.”

You might expect that a common milestone for CODAs growing up is the point when they begin to realise that they are different from their parents by virtue of being hearing rather than deaf.

As a young child, Shane says he never felt different to his parents, but it was only when he became a teenager that things changed.

“I think the beauty of being a CODA certainly as a child is that you don’t see yourself as different. You learn to be the same in two worlds so I never thought that I was different to my family and I also didn’t think that I was majorly different to my friends until other people start to tell you you’re different. So that’s the thing… I didn’t think I was different until I was told I was.”

But he’s keen to stress that his childhood was a very happy one. “Still to this day I feel very much like deafness is part of my culture. I’m very comfortable in an environment where people are predominantly deaf and it’s something that was part of my childhood. My memories and my experiences of that world are very positive.”

All the same, he talks of how, during his teenage years, he preferred to separate his two worlds as one of the ways of dealing with the growing pains that every teenager goes through.

“So instead of feeling like I needed to bring my hearing world into the deaf world all the time, I just felt it would be easier to maintain them as separate as a teenager because there was so much to deal with in terms of my growing relationship with my parents as an adolescent and my independence and my identity being asserted at home, and then also finding my place socially.”

For Catherine, the question of when she realised she was different is more difficult, but once again the trigger was the ‘input’ of people outside of their network of family, friends and neighbours. “I heard us being called all sorts of names like ‘the dummy’, ‘the dummy White family’, ‘the dummy tailors’, ‘deaf and dumb’ or ‘monkey signers’.

But she also suffered some of the same attitudes and discrimination that deaf people have endured for generations. “I was discouraged from furthering my education and aspirations simply because I had a deaf family,” she says.

While realising she was different didn’t change her perception of her parents or extended deaf family, she had an epiphany much later in life when she realised that being a CODA was a thing and that there were others like her. Once she was able to quickly bond with other CODAs, she successfully explored complex feelings of identity that she had struggled all her life to put her finger on.

Indeed, Shane describes meeting with a group of other CODAs for the first time as “like being reunited with very good friends from a children’s summer camp”.

Among the shared experiences they bond over is how they deal with the burden of responsibility that CODAs can bear; how they have to ‘grow up faster’ in certain areas – something that Laura O’Grady, the third CODA whose story features in the film, struggled with.

But all three are agreed on one thing: being part of the deaf community and the richness of deaf culture is something they wouldn’t change – for either of their two worlds.

‘Mother Father Deaf’ will be broadcast on Thursday at 10.15pm on RTÉ One

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