usually feel empowered as a young, Deaf, and fiercely independent woman living
in London. I love my work as a professional musician, I have a great group of
friends and an amazing fiance, and I enjoy campaigning for greater Deaf
awareness in my free time. The only problem is that I suffer from severe
anxiety, exacerbated by the public harassment I often endure at the hands of
strangers. The harassment I’ve experienced ranges from a man more than twice my
age shoving hand-written notes in my face on the tube (saying things like
‘you’re so gorgeous for a deaf girl’ and ‘will you go for a drink with me?’),
to the numerous people who insist on speaking for me, thus taking my voice
As a Deaf individual, I use spoken English and British Sign Language to communicate. In some situations – especially noisy environments – I will choose to gesture and/or write down my order on my phone.
Any method of communication that differs from the norm (spoken English) has the potential to attract unwanted attention, and I would like to share something that happened to me recently:
A few months ago, I was in a noisy pub, so I typed my order onto my phone ready to show the barman. As I was waiting for my turn, a large man approached me from behind and tried to grab my phone. I called out and held onto it tightly.
After what felt like several minutes (but was in fact probably seconds), the man finally took his hand away and began to sign in very basic BSL, telling me he was hearing and he would place my order for me.
Still recovering from the shock of him grabbing my phone, I replied with a firm “no”.
He insisted that he would place my order, telling me to put my phone away and sign what I wanted to him instead. Again, I told him “no”.
At this point, he began to get upset. “WHY?” he yelled and signed.
“I am deaf every day – I think I know how to handle these things myself”, I signed back. “I really don’t need your help.”
The man continued to argue with me about why he, as a hearing person, was better placed to order my drink for me, despite my (now numerous) requests for him to stop and leave me alone. He also expressed frustration about how ‘ungrateful’ I was being.
When the barman approached to take my order, the man proceeded to tell the barman that I was deaf and he would place my order on my behalf.
Again, I said “NO”, this time raising my voice. I then informed the barman that I was being harassed.
The barman told the man to leave me alone, and he finally backed away.
Now, as I reflect on the incident, a whole host of questions come to mind. What part of ‘no’ did the man not understand in the first place? Why did he continue to disrespect my boundaries and ignore my requests to be left alone? Why did he only back down when a warning came from another (hearing) male? As a (Deaf) woman, am I not allowed to have the same boundaries as others?
This is just one of many incidents, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Criminologist and Co-Director of Centre for Gender Studies at University of Sussex