I was in Australia in January when l first heard about coronavirus. Like many, all l knew was that it originated in China, felt like a bad dose of flu and was nothing much to worry about. Then in mid-March, as l returned to England, life became increasingly restricted. There were unprecedented social dictums, food shortages, morbid predictions and suchlike, all finally culminating in total lockdown.
I had a real advantage however, a head start over the rest of the population; I’ve been social distancing from the age of four.
An attack of meningitis left me able to hear an airbus taking off at a distance of 100 metres, but little else. A hit and run driver when l was 17 took that last tiny vestige of hearing. So this new-fangled concept of social isolation is actually something l have grown up with almost all my life. I had the world’s first cochlea implant in 1984 and heard well enough to accurately sing back musical notes being played to me, but an infection three weeks later led to its removal and, as far as cochlea implants went, that was that; it was back to where I started.
I was the only deaf member of my family and was brought up to communicate through speaking and lip reading. I’ve never known sign language and I went to normal hearing schools until l was 12. But I could often be found reading alone at lunch or in the playground instead of playing with other kids. I was rarely, if ever, bullied. Mainly I was just left alone by my peers who had little idea how to include me in games that, for the larger part, relied on being able to hear.
I used to tell myself l didn’t particularly want to be popular, or that my younger sister Natasha was such a good best friend that l needed no others. I even convinced myself that the world of imagination unleashed in me via books was compensation enough for any deaf related loneliness, but deep down l knew l was missing out on something the other children took for granted and thought nothing of.
It was only when l went to a grammar school for the deaf, aged 12, that l overcame these social barriers, learnt how to communicate properly and started to make friends. I gained two things at that school: not only was I educated by a set of brilliant teachers, who didn’t talk with their back to the classroom while writing on the blackboard, l also gained a sociable friendship group and a positive outlook on life. I’ve never forgotten however, even some thirty years later, the acute loneliness I always used to feel as l watched my hearing classmates in primary school play happily and collectively in the fields.
So, when Boris announced strict lockdown rules one sunny Monday evening in late March I told myself not to worry, that l, an expert in social isolation, had it all sorted. Obviously, I worried somewhat about trying to lip-read people from a greater distance of 3-4 metres; I was used to face to face, about a metre. Also, and more seriously, the complete impossibility of lip-reading someone, especially medics, wearing a face mask; this still terrifies me should l ever need to be admitted to hospital. But looking around me, as everybody adjusted to the new normal, I saw the TV news giving huge amount of coverage to the effects of loneliness on human beings, with an emphasis on its effect on mental health.
A report dated 2013 was cited in a news report which had found that feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of death by up to 45%, and that deaf people and seniors in particular, are especially at risk. Furthermore, a Dutch research project found that every decibel drop of hearing ability in people under 70 increases the odds of becoming severely lonely by 7%.
As a deaf person, I know just how awful it can be to feel isolated. I’ve had to struggle with it almost all my life. But many, many people are suddenly experiencing the side effects of isolation for the very first time. The cure I’ve relied on for years has been to find one person with whom I can have a face to face conversation (or video call in these times), or an activity such as cooking, Pilates, reading a good book, reading a trashy book, going for a walk or watching a DVD. Anything that will in fact distract you and give you something to focus on other than how lonely or bored you feel
Much has been made of Zoom and video conferencing but these can exclude deaf people like me who can’t hear enough to follow what’s being said and who cannot lip-read in two dimensions without a rewind/replay button. It’s even worse when people all talk at once, and the lack of subtitles make the whole affair something of a busman’s holiday. As for telephone conferencing, common sense dictates that we won’t even go there.
I realise how petty it seems to complain about something like the lack of subtitles on social media or the absence of a BSL interpreter at the daily briefings for those who, unlike myself, communicate by sign. The current crisis is one where doctors, nurses and care staff are daily risking their lives, when the hospitals are short of face masks and ventilators, the economy is grinding to a halt, and people are losing jobs and loved ones. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my health, my work and the knowledge that my loved ones are — at least at the time of writing this — safe and sound. But my reason for writing this isn’t to complain, or even to simply share my unique experience of this surreal world. Rather, I want to remind everyone to focus on the bonds that we can continue to make and nurture with others even when we are apart. Think for a moment about who might be struggling in isolation right now: your grandmother, your friend who lives alone, the single parent, the new mother who’s forced to be apart from the practical and emotional support of her family, while acclimatising to life with a new-born, your cousin who had to go home early from college, your friend whom you suspect might be in an abusive relationship, your elderly neighbour or your friend who suffers from depression and anxiety. Reach out to them. Whether it’s by text, email, FaceTime or even having a meal delivered, go out of your way to connect with them in a way that will make them feel less alone right now.
I’m still deaf, but that’s the least of my worries and well, there have been consolations. The politicians still chat to each other out of earshot while in full camera view meaning they can be lip-read. I’ve had so much fun lip-reading unsuspecting people in many years of forensic lip-reading. The best involved two brothers who had masterminded and carried out a £3 million robbery at Heathrow.
Paranoid that their house might be bugged (it actually was, thanks to heavy police surveillance following suspicions that these brothers were involved) they sat on a wall outside their house where they had no idea a camera was recording them from behind the net curtains of a house down the street. They chatted for a good half an hour about how successfully their plan had worked, they named others who had been involved and, best of all, they detailed where all the loot from the raid was hidden. I duly wrote everything down and police raids early the next morning recovered 95% of the stolen money, all of it in foreign currencies. The brothers had been planning to organise associates who would traipse round bureau de changes in central London changing a few thousand each time. Once arrested and faced with the evidence they put their hands up. At their sentencing, amidst constant laughter from the press bench in the courtroom, the judge described them as “hapless” and their crime as “shambolic”. I was invited to the celebrations with the flying squad in the pub which went on well into the night.
The good news is that subtitles are to be made possible on Skype and Google meet. Given that briefings around the world are being held with a sign language interpreter present, the British government is being repeatedly shamed by not including one too. Hopefully, they will soon increase accessibility for those that rely on signing. I’m also finding that through having all of my conversations with friends via WhatsApp chat groups I now never miss a thing. It might not be easy being deaf in addition to being in the middle of a pandemic and a national lockdown. Like anyone else l can feel anxious, impatient, bored and restless, but l do not feel isolated thanks to years of experience at social distancing together with my family and my friends.