Signs of Hope now available in paperback


Cambridge Scholars Publishing have now made Signs of Hope available in paperback.


As you can see, if you order online from CSP, you can get a 20% discount on both the hardback and the paperback. Both are also available on Amazon.


Review in ‘Sociology of Health & Illness’


“Signs of Hope” has been reviewed by Dr Sara Louise Wheeler, of Glyndwr University. The review appears in Sociology of Health & Illness, 35 (7) pp 1130-1131, Sept 2013 (click on SHI Book Review in new window for pdf).

“I cannot say enough good things about this book, which is both erudite and scholarly, yet also accessible to anyone interested in Deafhearing family life.” 

Wheeler, S. L. (2013), D West. Signs of Hope: Deafhearing Family Life. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2012. xxxiv + 247pp £39.99 (hbk). ISBN: 978-1-4438-3654-8 . Sociology of Health & Illness, 35: 1130–1131. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12086

I am a “social scientist”


I wrote this following a research conversation with Thomas. With thanks to Kimberley Dark.


I am about to throw up

Officially, I am wearing my researcher hat

I. Am. A. Social Scientist.

A. PhD. Student.

I. Am. Conducting. A. Research. Interview.


This boy – I’ve known him for years – is telling me his story

We’re comfortable (kind of) on leather sofas

In good light

Tucked safely next to the window front of the café where he likes to go

Where he feels safe

Where he is known

The steam, rising from the coffee machine condenses on the glass

Kaleidoscoping people

As they drift past outside


This boy – he jumps about, physically and narratively

Twitching, shifting

His fractured life-story skips, pauses … yawns

Enlightens, entertains, tortures

Between cigarettes and coffee

Text messages and tea

A connection is forged and strengthened

Between us

Across the table

Across deaf and hearing life

Across generations


I am a Social Scientist

I have activated that file

But, sitting here

With him

I am struggling to keep hold – of him, his life

Our connection, this moment … my body

Am I fit for this? Can I really do this?

Something is giving out


Shifting, I pull at my collar

            Is it me, or is it hot in here?

My thermostat gives out

Electronic pulses surge through my brain

Short-circuiting beneath the strain of responsibility

Of being here

Doing this                        with this boy


I find myself rising slowly from my seat

Taking in the warm coffee-and-bacon air

My heart complaining

Blood in my ears

I start to weave, tunnel-visioned

Knocking against chairs

Brushing against strangers

Somehow, I reach the toilet – free, but reeking of piss and cleaning fluid

Sensory overload, I throw up into the bowl … again … and again … and again


I am a PhD student

A Social Scientist

(You’re not supposed to throw up)

Beads of sweat, the shakes and

All I can think of is the boy

I am responsible for him

For this

I left him there

I abandoned him, mid-outpouring …


I check my hair, my face, my teeth

Rinse. Flush. Pat. Smile.            And return …

He has p a u s e d – mid-air, mid sentence, mid-cigarette

I wonder what he’s thinking

Slowly, tentatively, keeping my head level

I lower myself, teeth clenched, yet forcing a smile

To the still-warm seat I left but two minutes ago

I am a Social Scientist

A PhD student

d-e-e-p b-r-e-a-t-h

Sorry about that.  So … where were we?”


Qualitative Book Award 2013


I recently received the news that Signs of Hope has won the International Congress for Qualitative Inquiry Book Award for 2013.

This award is conferred annually to a member of the qualitative and ethnographic community who has published the English-language book that best represents an important contribution to qualitative inquiry. This year ICQI is dedicating the 2013 qualitative book award to the memory of H. L. (Bud) Goodall, a charter member of the awards committee judges.

I was not able to fly to the US to accept the award, but luckily, Jonathan Wyatt and Ken Gale were there to do it for me.  They read out my short speech, the video of which can be viewed here:

I am very sorry not to be at QI this year to receive this award. Please somebody buy Ken and Jonathan a couple of beers for pretending to be me for a few minutes. I trust they are dressed appropriately for the occasion.

This small book, Signs of Hope, is based on my PhD at the Narrative Inquiry Centre, Bristol, and tells a story of an intimate inquiry with three amazing deafhearing families. I promised them that if they told me their stories, I would write them down  for others to read. People who know me know I tend to get quite shouty and soapboxy when it comes to the discrimination and ignorance deaf people and their families have to face and deal with on a daily basis. The stories recorded here in this book are but a drop in the ocean. The UK government finally ‘recognised’ British Sign Language as an indigenous language 10 years ago, but since then, more and more deaf schools have closed, mental illness and unemployment within the deaf community are on the increase, and deaf people are being denied access to basic and vital services. Deaf people’s voices are being catastrophically lost in the noise of the normalising rhetoric of wealthy right-wing, public-school-educated politicians.

Can books like this make a difference? I don’t know. But I got in touch with Bella last month: she is a young deaf woman who told me her family story when she was ten years old. She said you all should read this book so you can learn to see people in a different way; “deaf’s way”. Her faith in the ability of stories to change the world for the better pretty much sums up how I feel about this work being recognised by the QI community. I’m secretly a little relieved that Ken and Jonathan are there doing this for me as I’d be in floods of tears by now.

Thank you to the nominees and judges. I’m still in shock writing this. But the recognition of this book makes me want to march to 10 Downing Street waving a copy and shouting at the top of my voice, “SEE!!”

Deaf Children’s Wisdom: Raising money for the Family Centre for Deaf Children in Bristol


Newly (self)published via Kindle is a short ebook based on a small research project I was involved in a few years back, called Seeing Through New Eyes, at the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol.  This book is a record of the voices of ten deaf children. All profits will go to the Family Centre for Deaf Children in Bristol. You can find it here.

And here’s a sneak preview:


BETWEEN 2003 and 2005, I spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around with a small group of deaf children. They, perhaps predictably, were totally unfazed by my presence, by my ignorance, by my often ‘stupid’ questions (I am hearing, after all) and by my turning up at their houses in the evenings, or at the weekends, armed with my videocamera, tripod and tapes. We started off with me asking general (“boring!”) questions: about school, about BSL, about friends and family. But over the months we went deeper, exploring issues of ethics, ‘voice’ and translation, and the future of the deaf education and indeed the Deaf Community. By the end of the project, I was completely overwhelmed, humbled, awestruck and troubled. I suspect they weren’t. They carried on with their young lives and forgot about me and the project. And rightly so. They have now grown up. They’ve gone through school, college and university. They’re working, they’re travelling, they’re in relationships.

I am writing this book towards the end of 2012. I am not entirely sure why it has taken so long, but suffice to say, the intervening years have not been plain sailing. I have mixed feelings about this book. Its (self)publication is driven by some deep, unresolved emotions, largely to do with the fact that I am neither deaf nor a parent of a deaf child, and I gave up being a Teacher of Deaf Children many years ago. It is driven by the fact that I made a promise to each child that I would write down what they told me and tell it to other people. It is driven by the fact that, alongside the work with these children, I had the utter privilege of learning from a very special group of deaf educators, who (regrettably) for reasons of confidentiality, cannot be named here. These are the educators to whom the children refer in these pages. These are the educators who, often as Teaching Assistants and Deaf Instructors, do their best to create and sustain bilingual environments in the classroom and school, often with few training opportunities and even fewer resources. These are the educators who also foster deaf children, who are trained counsellors, who run youth community programmes at their local Deaf Club, who volunteer in their local Deaf Community through the school holidays (“24/7/365” as one of them put it). My debt to them is immeasurable and my thanks long-overdue.

The children with whom I worked for two years, I believe, enjoyed telling me about their lives. Many times they relished the opportunity to poke fun at hearing people, to express irrational, impossible hopes, to bemoan what they perceived as dark clouds threatening to overshadow their worlds. Their signs left me at times shocked, shamed, indignant and bruised. Their philosophies on deaf life still blow me away, some seven years later. Their turns of phrase often jolt, bewilder and puzzle. It is difficult to know how to respond to a 10-year-old deaf child who, banging fists on the table, or the arm of the chair, talks with no small degree of outrage about their ‘language rights’. I know several hearing ten-year-olds, and their preoccupations are generally far less extremist and worldly. I try to recall my framing of interview questions, and cannot ever remember starting up a conversation about, say, the Threatened Linguistic Status of British Sign Language. These children come from hearing-signing homes, which I would argue necessarily politicises—to a greater or lesser degree—their upbringing, whether unconsciously or not. They have also spent many hours in school and in Deaf-Community spaces exposed to a very specific deaf rhetoric; one that they internalise, chew over and experiment with. It is, at times, eyebrow-raising, sharp-intake-of-breath stuff. It is at other times profoundly moving and, philosophically, astonishingly sophisticated.

Looking back, I have vivid memories of particular interview moments: Chrissie, sat cross-legged on her bed, explaining to me the difference between hearing and deaf people’s storytelling styles; Kimberley in the sunshine in her friend’s garden, relaying her fears about the future for deaf babies; Ben, laughing, eyes wide in wonderment, recalling the moment where he realised and understood that he was deaf. I could go on, but perhaps you should find out for yourself.

Ben, Chrissie, Dominic, Edwin, Hadi, Kimberley, Kumar, Michelle, Natasha, and Phoebe; this is for you. Sorry it took so long.


THIS book re-presents the views of bilingual, bicultural deaf children who were asked to talk about their experiences of school, friends, family, Deaf Club, sign language and their futures. Ethnographic interviews, combined with extensive periods of participant-observation were carried out in connection with a larger project that investigated what was originally termed ‘Deaf Ways of Teaching’, and later recognised as ‘Deaf Pedagogy’ (see Afterword). The children were involved in many of the decisions regarding how their signs  might be recorded and re-presented.They each commented on and approved earlier drafts that now come together in this book. I have done my best to bring their individual and collective voices to the pages that follow.

The Children

This book is therefore for, about, and from ten deaf children: Ben, Chrissie, Dominic, Edwin, Hadi, Kimberley, Kumar, Michelle, Natasha, and Phoebe. They are aged between 10 and 15. They have all attended Deaf Schools (either day or residential) and had both deaf and hearing educators. Some of them have also experienced mainstream education. They all use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language. Their parents are all hearing. Two of them have deaf siblings. Three of them are the only child in their family. All their families use sign language in the home.

The Triptych

The stories and messages these children conveyed over two years of interviews fell quite beautifully into three parts and so structuring their contributions in this way—as a triptych—aims to reflect, rather than to over re-present, the seemingly effortless simplicity of what they taught me about their young deaf lives. However, it is on closer examination that we are able to observe the complexities behind and within each picture, and how the imagery of the three intersects to tell a series of interwoven stories. Displayed together, we are free to observe through our own eyes, to draw on our own life experiences, and to make our own subjective sense of what we see, remember, imagine and feel. The children’s creation is therefore subject to multiple interpretations, as their own opinions, observations, thoughts and feelings resonate with each observer—deaf, hearing, adult, child, educator, parent, friend—in an infinite number of ways.

Taken directly from their own signs then, the three parts of the triptych are: “Perfect-what?”, “Difficult-what?” and “Future-what?” The main aim is for this book to remain as far as possible in the space of the children themselves. It is often tempting to layer on interpretations and meanings from what others—adults, educators, parents, researchers—say and think, thereby lifting it from one space, and attempting to locate it within another. Once we start to weave in adult-researcher-expert perspectives, the danger is that we over/misinterpret the children’s views by framing them too closely, say, to the work done with deaf educators as part of the wider inquiry, or by seeming to place them in direct line or conflict with the views of adults.

While the children’s descriptions, narratives and viewpoints are compelling, insightful and perhaps unwittingly profound, my task was to frame them faithfully as children’s work, while honouring and doing each of them justice. There are many startling insights that are undeniably and intrinsically linked to the work, experiences and worldviews of deaf educators. This reveals not only the extent to which the children are young deaf people, members of a visually and spatially orientated collective community who share similar experiences of being in the world, but also the extent to which they should rightly be granted autonomous conceptual status as social actors (see Corsaro, 1997) and research collaborators (Grover, 2004). I am therefore faced with a task to be tackled with care and sensitivity if I am to treat the knowledge and wisdom of the children with the respect and dignity it deserves.

Artworks are traditionally hung on gallery walls or displayed alongside a brief description, providing contextualisation or the curator’s interpretations. In line with this, the Afterword comprises my reflections, as self-appointed curator of this work.


How did I get here?


I still wonder… But, ‘How Did I Get Here?’ is the story of how I came to do a PhD and then turn it into ‘Signs of Hope’.  I have mixed feelings about this.  It is a true story (mostly … in a postmodern, narrative sense). I’m not going to reproduce the whole chapter here.  For that, you really should buy the book.  (Hey, why not buy the book?)  But here are some of my favourite parts.

I chose to write this story in the privacy of my room rather than speak or sign it to another person, into a microphone, or towards a camera. As I wrote it, I noted my responses. I found my heart beating faster, tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat. It suddenly struck me how my family narrators might feel, telling me their story. I also began observing the choices I was making about what to tell, what to leave out, and why. Again, I thought of my narrators. I realised that, for all sorts of unanticipated reasons, it was vital that I included something of my story here. This was both exhilarating and terrifying. I could tell a story; I could script it, direct it, stage it, I could be in charge of a story that, until now, had had a powerful control over me. However, I was getting into deep water. I would have to treat my narrative with the same care as I did the family stories. I changed all names, places and details. It is crafted and considered. It is also an angry story, a much-needed personal corrective, perhaps a small victory even. I have mixed feelings about its inclusion here. It reveals a side to me I rarely acknowledge, barely recognise. I decided to take the risk. Ultimately, and most importantly, I sought to align myself with Georgina, Toni, Thomas, Brigit, Bella, Dora, Luke, Harper and Maisie, who took a leap of faith in telling me their stories. I took up the position of storyteller alongside them.

So when did you become hearing?

Like many people I know, I have hazy, bleached out memories of learning to fingerspell. Andrew-something was his name, a small boy—tiny in fact—and a couple of years younger than me. He had dark hair, small, piercing black eyes like raisins, flying hands, and a jolting, frenetic energy. There was a box strapped to his chest, with white braces, and wires hanging from his ears. I think I knew that he was deaf. I never heard his voice, but used to watch his sister, brother and mother sign to him. And him sign to them. I remember it didn’t seem strange. Sometimes their voices sounded odd—they didn’t switch them off when they signed—but I remember intense discussions, arguments, jokes, communication.

1993: Alex

I am a Teacher. Alex was eleven when I met him. Again, dark hair, but this time, blue eyes and freckles. Alex had a friend called Laurie. The two of them used to hang out together. I think Laurie saw himself as Vital To Alex’s Well-Being. They were both loners who hooked up. I used to see them shuffling around together, in the corridors, the playground, and they always sat next to each other in class. Alex didn’t sign. Neither did his family. No-one had ever mentioned it to them. No-one was available to teach them. Alex used his hearing aids, and, after all, was only severely deaf. “Put this transmitter round your neck, make sure it’s switched to the right frequency and he’ll be all right. Any questions, just leave a note for his teacher of the deaf. She comes in once a week to help him with his English.”

I made an appointment with his teacher of the deaf, a peripatetic member of the borough’s Audiology Service, who saw Alex for an hour a week. In this hour, she checked his hearing aids and corrected his English homework. “What can you tell me about Alex? Is there anything I should know? Does he use sign language?”

“No. None of the children in the borough do. It’s policy.” Sometime later, however, all the teachers of the deaf in the borough were invited to attend a BSL Stage One course even though they would never use sign language with the children they taught. There were no courses for the children, or their families. I managed to get a place because of my growing interest in Special Educational Needs, and because of a very supportive headteacher, and I passed.


I find myself, on the back of my BSL Stage One success, applying to work as a teacher of the deaf in a very large comprehensive school. I was the only one to apply for the post. I messed up my interview horribly, but they offered me the job. I was also offered training on a part-time university course in Hearing Impairment in order to qualify as a teacher of the deaf. For the one remaining term I had at my old school, I stumbled upon an Open University course called Issues in Deafness. I enrolled and dived headlong into course material about deaf history, education, welfare, mental health, about sign language, about deaf culture. I started to write essays.

My first day as a teacher of the deaf was a training day. I think we were still in those days calling them Baker Days. Part of the training was an IT session. Something to do with timetables. There were about ten of us in the room. The walls were spotlessly white, reflecting the sunlight that streamed in through the blinds. After an introduction from someone in a tie and a moustache, we were to pair up, and work through an activity. My new boss assigned me to Sam, who had been sitting in the room with us. Suddenly, it struck me. Sam’s deaf.

There is a sign in BSL for confidence—the thumb and forefinger form the shape of the letter C, which is placed on the chest. If you are feeling confident, the C rises up towards the throat. If you are suddenly filled with confidence, the movement is fast and sure. Over-confidence often results in the C continuing to rise and float above the head like a hot-air balloon. My C-for-confidence not only dropped like a lead weight; it crashed through the floorboards, into the cellar below where it bounced comically, ricocheted into a dark corner, and wasn’t discovered again for several weeks. I have no idea how we got through that training session, let alone the whole day. That afternoon, however, a bond was formed. And over the following weeks, it was Sam who found my confidence—my lonely C—cowering in the corner of the cellar, picked it up, dusted it off, gave it a bit of a slap, and restored it to its rightful place next to my heart.

My deaf-sister, my deaf-conscience, my deaf-mentor, role-model, teacher, sanity-saver, my deaf-kick-up-the-arse; I owe everything that followed to Sam. She initiated me into deaf clubs, deaf pubs, deaf weekends. Entering deaf spaces—it’s a cliché but—there is nothing like that ‘sea of signing’ that hits you as soon as you walk in the door of deaf club. And the sound of deaf laughter; deep belly laughs, high-pitched screeches, it’s infectious. In deaf pubs the lights are on, the jukebox is blaring out God-Knows-What, but unlike hearing conversation—people shouting, bending their heads to listen above the racket, trying to order drinks—noise doesn’t matter. You can hold a conversation with someone outside, through the window, you can order a drink from the far corner, you can tell someone on the first floor balcony that you love them. And deaf nightclubs—I’ll never forget the first time I saw deaf people dancing. You tune in and feel the beat in your chest; your ribcage pulses and hums, your feet sense vibrations through the floor, you listen through your eyes and hear through your body. Quite a baptism—I proudly perfected the art of signing, and (almost) understanding deaf people while thoroughly inebriated.

I soon passed BSL Stage Two while both teaching in school and studying at university. I found myself working with an amazing group of children: Kevin, from Trinidad, Jaffar and Mahdi, newly arrived from Bangladesh, Mark, obsessed with cricket, Simon, who came out at 15, Halitha and Kaarthik, Adilah, Sabina, Ifra, Parveen, Shazmah, Aadil and Jawad. Patiently, we worked together, as I started to find my way and learned to sign better, as Sam and I took some of the children to deaf club, as we shared jokes in Science lessons, spluttering to smother our laughter, or as we ploughed our way through Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, quadratic equations, plate tectonics and Beatles’ songs (signing Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da at a terrifying pace is seared into my memory, thanks to Mr Phillips).

I became immersed—not waving but drowning—in Special Needs legislation: Annual Reviews, Individual Education Plans, hearing-aid technology and testing, audiology, audiometry, linguistics, classroom management, deaf awareness. Being a teacher of the deaf in a mainstream school often meant interpreting lessons (in spite of my rudimentary skills). At the same time, it meant constantly monitoring lesson delivery, language, noise levels, facilitating group work, advocacy, inclusive practice, acting as keyworker for some of the deaf children and getting to know their families. Those of us in the staff who could sign (there were only four of us) became safe people for the children to turn to. Our room became the secure space within the entire school—so large it was on two separate sites.

First week of the new school year

Thursday lunchtime. I was heading down the corridor of the lower school towards the canteen. A group of new, year-seven boys had gathered at the bottom of the stairs. “Miss, Miss!” As I approached, I saw Kevin. He was dressed in his PE kit, facing the wall, sobbing. Every time a boy went up to him, put a hand on his shoulder, he shrugged them off. They didn’t know what else to do, but were concerned and were trying to help. None of them knew any signs; they were a bit lost.

I reached Kevin, and put a hand on his shoulder. He was shaking, tears and snot running down his cheeks and chin. I needed eye contact, but he wouldn’t look at me. I kept my hand on his shoulder and sent the boys away. Slowly, they wandered off. Both hands on his shoulders, I turned Kevin away from the wall. I bent down, then kneeled on the floor and looked into his eyes, all puffy and sore, “What is it?”

Slowly, in between sniffs and huffs, hands shaking, Kevin told me he had wanted to try out for the Year 7 football team. The first thing I ever found out about Kevin when I visited him at his Primary school was that he was football mad. He worshipped Eric Cantona, and for years teased me mercilessly about my fondness for a certain, glamorous West London side who looked rather fetching in blue. In his journal for today he had hurriedly written ‘fotbll’ to remind him of the trial. His form tutor had read out the announcements during Monday’s tutor time, but there had been no-one to interpret, so Kevin copied the one word he recognised from the boy next to him. What he didn’t know, however, was that to try out for the team, you had to turn up in Games kit, not PE kit. Kevin had gone to the changing room (arriving late as he wasn’t sure where it was), put on his brand new, very white T-shirt, shorts, socks and trainers, and had run out onto the field. The teacher took one look at him, shouted something incomprehensible, the other boys all laughed, and Kevin was sent back to the changing rooms.

We couldn’t stay like this in the corridor. Children were staring and we were being jostled by the lunchtime crowds. Our room was just a few doors down. “Come on,” I coaxed Kevin. As I opened the door and we entered, I saw the boss, sitting there, eating his sandwiches. “Out!” he ordered to us both. “This is lunchtime and the children are not allowed in here. They’ll never integrate into the school and the wider world if every time they get upset they come in here.”


Jawad and I had a reading lesson. He was, at 13 years old, working his way through a Primary School reading scheme. We found a table in the corner. Over the far side of the same room, beyond the bookcase, Anita was taking a Year 7 E2L class who were reciting, as a group, English sentences written on the whiteboard. Over and over, becoming more rhythmical each time, and louder. One or two of the children were beating time on the table, with hands, pencils, rulers. There was a fierce energy to the lesson and a smiling Anita was almost dancing round the table. I turned to Jawad. Pale, with dark shadows under watery, deep brown eyes, he switched his hearing aids off. I was about to—automatically and without thinking—remind him to leave them on. But I didn’t. I stopped myself. As usual, he took the left aid out. His ear was bright red where he’d been rubbing it. “Pain,” he signed. I didn’t know what to do. This didn’t feel like school. I got up to fetch him a glass of water. We’d wait for five minutes. He closed his eyes. His bag was still over his shoulder, unzipped, and full to bursting with books, trainers, pencil cases, a packed-lunch box. As we sat there, I realised I was envious that he couldn’t hear the E2L class. My head was starting to throb. A few more minutes and Jawad opened his eyes. He looked wiped out. “Are you ill?” Shake of the head. “You want to read?” Sigh. He twisted and tugged the flimsy, dog-eared picture book out of his bag. Something to do with a cat and a dog and a missing necklace. I had planned, in my notes, to try and work on comprehension today. I’d pictured us working together; we’d silently read a sentence, and then discuss it. Or maybe even a paragraph. A page, a whole chapter.

Before I could do anything, Jawad opened the book at his bookmark, and mechanically started to bark at the words, stabbing each one with his finger. He nodded his head in time to the syllables, and moved his mouth to the shape of the words. I tapped his hand. What was he doing? He ignored me. I put my hand on his shoulder. Still, he carried on. This was horrible. He was getting louder and faster, unwittingly mocking the class on the far side of the room. He turned the page and read on, word-by-word. I just sat there, defeated. Defeated, but impressed by his rebellion. This is how this school wants me to read, so that’s how I am going to read. I am not signing, I am using my voice! He turned the page. More words. And again. And again until he reached the end. He closed the book and looked at me, pained yet defiant.

Leaving, moving on

I left my job. I didn’t want to fight any more: I could no longer make sense of the system in which I was working. The children held a party for me. It was in our room at lunchtime on my last day. Some of the older children had been shopping to buy party food and had spent morning break either decorating the tables, or keeping me out of the way. We had Sri Lankan snacks and Indian sweets, cake, biscuits and squash. There were cards, ribbons and balloons. Towards the end of the party, as the afternoon bell flashed, Halitha stood up on a chair in front of everyone because she had prepared a goodbye speech. She started to sign. And my boss interrupted: “Use your voice!” I was speechless.

I moved to a different city, to a different school. Too many stories. Why am I telling you this? After only seven years of teaching, I fell ill. I was having terrible dreams. I was fraying at the edges. I wanted to teach my class of children and everything was getting in the way. I was told to make sure teenage deaf children in my class wore their hearing aids at all times and when I offered that I simply couldn’t do this, it was clear I was not complying. I was therefore not a very good teacher. I carry the guilt with me to this day. Temporal distance merely blurs the mess of memories that play over and over in my bluer moments. I try to remember the successes, the achievements, the lasting bonds that were formed in my final 18 months as a teacher, but I was falling out of love. My doctor advised me to quit teaching. I failed, drowning in a sea of politics, disappointment, joy, despair, confusion,  and even more disappointment. And anger. At myself. The system. At bureaucracy, misunderstanding, indifference and short-sightedness.

I took flight and landed, albeit with the wrong map, in the world of academia and Deaf Studies. Confronted with the History of Hearing People’s Oppression of Deaf People and encouraged to ‘academise’ my emotional responses to my place in this history, I felt myself withdrawing; uncertain, confused, inarticulate, the rug pulled out from under me. At the same time, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of being and seeing, of identity, language, communication and history. I was hungry for knowledge and desperate to learn more. A constant negotiation, on the edge, not fitting in, yet wanting so much to be there.

And so I found myself working and surviving in deaf community and academic spaces where the going—still rough—became more navigable. But rather than chugging safely in the estuary, I was now out on the high seas; the ups were huge and the downs terrifying, full of tears, doubts and some very strange dreams. But there were also times for forging deep and lasting relationships, for talking and sharing, for reflection and introspection—how did I get here?—and time to appreciate that I did get here, under my own steam eventually; guided, prodded and encouraged by a long line of generous, intelligent, insightful and inspirational people. Maybe I was finally starting to find my place.

I picked up my C-for-confidence, pinned it back where it belonged, and fell in love all over again.

A few stories …


Narratives of deafhearing family life, written in a poetic way, can be found at the heart of the book, Signs of Hope.  I wrote them this way to draw attention to the rhythms, repetitions, pauses and emphases of speech and sign.  I wrote them this way to draw attention to the fact that this is my writing, constructed by me, based on the signs and words of the families.

I have chosen one short story each from Brigit, Bella, Georgina, Toni, Thomas, Dora & Luke, and from Maisie & Harper and posted them for you to read here.  They’re little windows onto a whole world of stories of family life, of sign language, of deaf and hearing life …

Bella’s penguins


Today, deafhearingfamilylife, and Signs of Hope got a mention on Donna Williams’ blog, DeafFirefly. The reference to Bella’s penguins may be a little obscure. Some background: Bella (aged 10 at the time) was reflecting on her experience of being deaf, and of growing up in deaf and hearing worlds. She told me she thought deaf people were like fish, happily swimming underwater and that hearing people lived on land and couldn’t swim. Signing hearing people were like penguins.

But one day, perhaps we’d all get into space together. Who knows?


Donna West


Donna West is a sometimes researcher/lecturer, based in Bristol/London. This is a first attempt at wordpressing about her most recent project. She would like to stress that none of this would be possible without the generosity and trust of three fantastic families who invited her into their homes and lives for four years. Honorary doctorates all round.

Pigs can fly


Recently, an article appeared in the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, entitled ‘Language Planning for the 21st Century: Revisiting Bilingual Language Policy for Deaf Children.’ (by Knoors and Marschark). Here is a response to that article, by Maartje de Meulder. Well worth a read.

Research on early language acquisition for deaf children (a no brainer)


This via “Most agree that the earlier you expose a child to a language, the easier it is for that child to pick it up. The same rules apply for deaf children.”

Research by Kearsy Cormier, Adam Schembri, David Vinson and Eleni Orfanidou.

The conclusion–from the article which can be found here–states:

“The current study supports many others showing that early exposure to accessible language is much more likely to result in successful language acquisition than later exposure. The advantages of early sign language exposure remain clear even with rapid advances in hearing aids and cochlear implants (Mayer & Leigh, 2010). Bilingual education is the best way of ensuring that deaf children have early exposure to both a signed language and a spoken/written language, which will provide the deaf child with the best chance for successful language acquisition, in either or both languages (Grosjean, 2001).”