Will my dream end up as a sign of the times?

25th November 1994 at 00:00
I am a goldfish in a bowl. But wait, seen through the glass are hundreds, no thousands, of people whose mouths are contorting noiselessly and without meaning - surely they are the goldfish? I often experience an overwhelming feeling of isolation and yet equally there are times when I'm thankful to retreat to the safety of my "home" having to cope daily with an increasingly cacophonous world.

I must refrain from telling newly-met people I can lip-read as most usually form an incorrect assumption that little or no effort is required of them. Are they just ignorant, apprehensive or egocentric?

You see, what degree of hearing I have, not what amount, can be likened to tuning into a foreign radio programme - sounds are heard but for these to make sense would be impossible without knowledge of its language. So my "listening" requires absolute and continuous concentration for an awareness of who the speaker is, a "feel" for rhythm and movement of speech as well as an anticipation of what is likely to be said by reading the situation, hopefully knowing the subject and thinking ahead - all these come from just watching the lips?

The first deaf settlers arrived on the east coast of America in the 1690s at Martha's Vineyard. Through a mutation, a recessive gene brought out by inbreeding, a form of hereditary deafness existed for the next 250 years. With one in four residents deaf, sign language was a natural substitute for spoken language so every person here conversed freely, without difficulty, inhibition or suppression.

If ease of communication is the fundamental desire of every human being, when will the world look to this place as the example of how essential sign language is for deaf people to acquire language, and to be used for communication by deaf and hearing people with deaf people?

I dream of hearing children learning it in schools instead of, or as well as, French, German or other languages. They are, after all, more likely to meet a deaf child or adult than a hearing foreigner. I dream also of deaf babies being allowed to use it as they will naturally. I dream of fingers moving in a blur of patterns, of hands drawing elaborate, eloquent pictures in the air, of faces full of ever-changing expressions.

If these dreams were realised now, I would no longer have to try to lip-read. What a relief that would be! No more trying to decipher "fere fis fe fost foffice?" or "Where is the baby?" (and the reply "In the bucket") when the question was meant to be "Where is the paper?" My dreams will come true one day though not in my lifetime, and my satisfaction will come from the chasing.

Thelma Petty is a mature student at Moray House College, Edinburgh in her final year of a primary BEd. She hopes to be a deaf teacher of deaf children - the first in Scotland.

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