Living in a silent world

Even the simple act of visiting the supermarket can be rife with problems for the deaf community.

Steven Mulvaney and Annabelle Xerri
Steven Mulvaney and Annabelle Xerri

For many of us, it may be difficult to stop and think how much music and sounds shape our everyday. We take certain activities, such as going to school, to the grocer and even going out with our friends, for granted, and many of us can’t fathom why some people harp on about lack of inclusion.

MaltaToday spoke to two people who have spent their life, or at least the most part of it, in silence. Annabelle Xerri and Steven Mulvaney, who are both members of the Malta Deaf People Association, spoke about the challenges present in their lives, and how society at large can help them surpass them.

29-year-old Mgarr resident Mulvaney said that he was born deaf, to deaf parents, and that he has been married to a deaf wife for almost a year now. 

“Using sign-language as a first language and shifting between the hearing and the deaf community has always been normal for me,” Mulvaney said, adding that he had grown comfortable using the two modes of communication as a result.

Mulvaney, who gave the interview in sign language, explained that besides communication methods, he was also very thankful for his hearing aid, as it allowed him to identify sounds like an ambulance approaching or even a person speaking.

“One of the things I wish people could understand is that it’s always important that people face me when they wish to speak to me, to allow me to read their lips, even if I have my hearing aid on,” Mulvaney said, adding that most deaf people, whether they were born deaf, or became deaf during their lifetimes, were good lip readers. 

Xerri, who is also 29 and from Ghajnsielem in Gozo, and now resides in Malta, had no problem with her hearing when she was born, but became deaf at the age of six due to a viral infection. 

“I started to wear hearing aids and learned how to read lips by myself, and although I wear hearing aids in both ears, glasses and sight are more important for me as I need to see lips and body language to understand what is being said, otherwise I would be lost,” she said. 

The challenges this often presents form the basis of Xerri’s Facebook page, ‘A Silent World’, where she lists – for instance – the difficulty of talking to someone while walking up the stairs, as well as the challenges of talking to somebody if the lights are weak.

Xerri said she has been surrounded by the hearing community for the most part of her life. She explained that she had always found incredible support and encouragement from her family and friends, and that even her husband – who has no problem with his hearing – made sure she was never left out of any conversations.

Both Xerri and Mulvaney stressed the importance of having a sign language interpreter present throughout their years as students, but they pointed out that even more needs to be done. In fact, Mulvaney said that he had found taking down notes very difficult, given the fact that he had to either read the teacher’s lips or look at the interpreters to be able to follow the lesson.  

“At school, I used to have teachers and friends who helped by giving me their notes,” Xerri added, suggesting however that speech-to-text services would be of great assistance to children with hearing difficulties.

Mulvaney, whose early years had been characterised by extensive use of sign language due to his family background, explained that communicating with classmates had been a challenge until he got used to reading lips properly. However, the challenge of communication has persisted even into his working life as a mechanic. 

“Sometimes it’s difficult to fully understand what I am being told. But my colleagues do know a few basic signs, which is great for me to be able to communicate with them,” he added.

Xerri on the other hand, explained that her biggest challenge in the professional sphere was answering the phone, but that e-mail use had proved a blessing for her. She added that in a social context, getting to know more people in the deaf community had helped her to participate more in conversations and to build a better sense of herself, adding that with her hearing friends she ended up being less active in conversations.

“There must always be someone to repeat for me, so it feels different. When my husband and I are on the way back home from a night out for instance, our conversation is mostly me asking what was being said at different points of the night.”

“There are times when we are in a group setting and someone says something awkward, but since I don’t usually realise, I keep asking someone to repeat,” she laughed, adding that she had devised a simple sign with her husband – a gentle nudge – to signal such situations.  

Mulvaney also said he preferred to go out to entertainment spots with his deaf friends because it makes communication so much easier, since even a trip to the cinema had to be well thought out. 

“Cinemas and TV are always time wasted if there are no subtitles,” he said, adding that Deaf Club is a place where deaf people meet and hang out every Friday evening as an alternative to the somewhat hearing-centred world we inhabit.

Even the simple act of visiting the supermarket can be rife with problems for the deaf community. 

“Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what amount you have to pay unless the shops in question use screens. Many numbers, like 60 and 16 for instance, sound and look the same on the lips,” he said, adding that he would normally ask for the receipt to be sure.     

Xerri added another common occurrence to her list of most irritating moments: sitting in a waiting area. “Ticket numbers are heaven on earth,” she said, believing that the system ought to be introduced in banks, hospitals and clinics, and at dentists’, among others.

Mulvaney added that one of the most frustrating events in his lifetime had also revealed a great need for emergency services for the deaf.

“Once I saw an accident happening right in front of me, where a man ultimately fell off his motorbike and needed medical attention, but I was unable to call the emergency number,” he said, adding that the recently started SMS emergency number (7977 0112) had proved a blessing for deaf people, adding that he hoped a new service that will enable deaf people to contact emergency using sign language instead of SMS would be introduced.

Xerri added that deaf people also had to pay close attention to the car breakdown service they chose. 

“If they do not offer SMS contact details then I rule them out because how else can I contact them if I’m alone when my car breaks down?”


Sign-Language Interpreters and the way forward 

In recent weeks, sign language has been in the headlines a number of times, with parliament approving a bill to give Maltese sign language official recognition, and Agenzija Sapport launching a publicly-funded sign language interpreter service, and sign language lessons being offered in Gozo, among others. 

Welcoming these events, Xerri said that they ultimately mean that the deaf community is being given more opportunities to participate in the hearing world. She added that the “historic” recognition of Maltese sign language in particular, means that sign language will essentially be more present and more visible in the social, educational, and cultural settings of our islands. 

Xerri, who will be receiving an award as a Queen’s Young Leader, highlighted that although she was and would always be thankful for the support she found from the hearing community, the fact that the world is geared towards the hearing community often means that deaf people need a keener sense of belonging, which meeting deaf peers had offered her.

“Today I am not afraid to show my deafness, I find a way round any challenges that pop up, and I speak out publicly to motivate others and to raise awareness,” she said.

Looking forward to further initiatives, Xerri and Mulvaney said that there is still a lot of work and investment that needs to be done, and lots of commitment will be required even by the general public.

Leader of the Maltese sign language project and professor in sign linguistics, Prof. Marie Alexander, said that one of the keys towards creating a better future for the deaf community in Malta was encouraging more people to study sign language. 

“One of the incentives for this, besides having someone deaf in the family of course, would be the possibility of a career involving the deaf community,” she said. 

Alexander added that it would also be helpful for the newly appointed Maltese Sign language council to design a plan about the way forward in terms of sign language interpreters, and that the University of Malta has now asked the Institute of Linguistics to design a full sign language interpreters’ course, at the request of Parliamentary Secretary for Disability, Justyne Caruana.