Claire lost her hearing after contracting meningitis as a small child.
She started her undergraduate degree three times and is currently working as a research chemist at the Université de Rennes in France.
There is a place where the hearing live and a place where the deaf live. I have fought against this separatism for my entire life. I wouldn’t say that there have been barriers: ‘barriers’ implies that someone had some sort of blocking intent. More often, it’s just a complete and total lack of awareness.
The first time I went to University was Strathclyde in 2002. In those days, it wasn’t enshrined in law that they had to help me. They didn’t. I went to Uni, sat in the lecture hall and realised that the lecturer was too far away to lip-read.
The lecture-theatre had very steep seats, so I’d often be looking at the top of their heads rather than at their mouths. I tried to ask them to stop walking up and down when they were talking, but they didn’t listen. In analytical chemistry, the lecturer would ask the class questions and choose who would answer. One day it was my turn and I didn’t expect it. The lecturer was convinced that I was pretending not to understand.
I used to feel as though I was hanging onto the hearing world by the tips of my fingernails, desperate to prove to everyone that deafness is not a disadvantage, but at the same time being severely disadvantaged by it and proving the exact opposite.
One of the issues at Strathclyde – and, indeed, later at Bristol – was that I was not aware that palantype existed. Palantypists provide real-time speech-to-text reporting, delivering live streaming of text that I can read. Nobody sought to make me aware, but probably they didn’t know about it themselves. I wasn’t integrated into the deaf community and didn’t find the information online. The specialist disability staff were clueless as to how to support a deaf person. Other people assumed that because I could speak, then I really must be able to hear them.
I also found it hard to have a social life. I watched a lot of DVDs because the subtitles made them accessible to me. DVDs are probably just another form of entertainment to the majority of people. To me, they were much more than that. The actors in the films stopped me from going insane with loneliness. They provided a group conversation around me that I could follow by way of the subtitles. In short, the films kept me company.
Eventually, I decided that I was just too deaf to carry on with my course. It seemed obvious that in the immediate future I couldn’t do what I wanted, so I started not to care what I did. I got a full-time job with John Lewis, who transferred me to the partnership hotel in Ambleside, so that I could work at the hotel and live in their staff-house.
I was apprehensive at first, but actually it was the happiest time of my life so far; the hotel became like a family. I hiked most of the Wainwrights, but I missed chemistry. I applied to University again, this time to Bristol. The people at the hotel thought I could do it, even if nobody else did.
My Dad has diabetes and couldn’t drive, so I was moved to Baydock University halls by Parcel Force. I timed it perfectly because as I arrived, the porters were running around looking for me. At Baydock, I had my first experience of a ‘deaf’ fire alarm: there was a horrible strobe-light. I hadn’t been warned about these: I just hid under my bed.
I began to find a social-life; I was put on a floor with 2 deaf guys visiting from the USA. Me, them and a guy from physics called Stuart were all friends. Stuart had a messy room and liked to make things that shot oranges. I also joined the Explorers, the University hiking club, which was where I met my friend Emma. Emma wouldn’t always look at me when she spoke, so that friendship was slow to begin.
By April I didn’t have any money left. I got a job at a fish restaurant called Fishworks on Whiteladies road. I was a kitchen porter who was promoted to a chef. I met one of my note-takers there; Cheryl Fish (apt name!) She was a chemistry PhD student.
Communication support in 2003 consisted of bothering PhD students until they agreed to work for you, then marching them off to the Students Union to get them registered as your support workers. They were, of course, subject specialists which was helpful, but their PhD took priority, so they weren’t at every lecture. Anyway, I averaged about 80%.
I also entered into the Deaf community for the first time. I’d had no idea about it before. The people in halls found the deaf clubs and groups. We all wanted to learn British Sign Language (BSL); they were American and they knew American sign-language (ASL). I know both now; I learned BSL to speak to a deaf boyfriend who didn’t speak, and ASL in Boston, when I did a one year Fulbright Scholarship as a PhD student at Harvard.
But I’m getting ahead. I was hit by a motorbike in Bristol. The guy was on the wrong side of the road at a yellow-bollards, central-island crossing. So, I didn’t see him and I couldn’t hear him. I’d been cycling, so I was wearing a helmet. No-one stopped to help me, but a homeless person under a bridge called an ambulance.
The docs were great. The Uni apparently couldn’t be more helpful because I didn’t CALL them. It was back before everything was done by e-mail and anyway, I couldn’t even turn on the internet on my phone. They asked why my partner hadn’t called them; my partner was also deaf. They kept asking if he could ‘translate.’
Anyway, I missed some exams and was somehow unable to sit them as ‘first attempts’ at the resits, even though I hadn’t sat them before. This meant that my mark would have been capped and I couldn’t have done a PhD from that, so I quit. It was a difficult time and I became quite depressed. I eventually went to Newcastle Uni and got a first class degree after two years.
As a postdoc at Manchester, I finally had increasing access to a palantypist paid for through Access to Work. A palantypist is necessary for me to participate in group meetings, talks and conferences and sometimes just for interactions with people I haven’t met before.
I then worked as a post-doctoral research assistant at the University of Manchester studying photoresists for next generation lithography patterning technique. Now I’m in France, a Chercheurse Postdoctorale at the Université de Rennes. I work on ligand design for photo-switchable single molecule magnets, which might have implications for data-storage and quantum computing. It currently only works between 4-60 degrees Kelvin so right now, it is admittedly more blue-sky.
It’s been difficult with Covid; you can’t lip-read through a mask. There are ones with plastic windows in, but they just get steamed up and the water droplets roll down your chin (yuk!). So it’s hard. I am lucky to have a job where I go to the lab everyday. In the UK at the moment, at some universities you can only go to the lab every other week; it’s 9 day weekends.
Many of my deaf friends got fired this year due to covid-19. Even those earning over $100,000 in the US. In the UK I only know two deaf people working in academia. They’re in well-established jobs. It is challenging to convince universities that a deaf member of staff can deliver a chemistry lecture course to students via an interpreter (Lecturer signs and interpreter speaks). Without this interaction with students it can be difficult to attract PhD students. There are some issues with specialist scientific vocabulary in BSL, but one of these academics has done a huge amount of work to address this issue and has collated all the signs for scientific terminology into an online glossary. Given the hurdles deaf people face as undergraduate students; ending up facing a room full of students without the provision of an interpreter is saddening.
And yes, I’m doing well, but the guilt trip is also valid. The truth is, that people listen to me because I speak and I have a proven track record in the (hearing) system they’re familiar with. I’m easier to handle for the unaware than deaf people that communicate in BSL, who may well be far more intelligent and talented.