Hands dancing in front of her, her face mobile and expressive, Tina is full flow – ignoring her husband who is tapping his fingers to get her attention. So when she explains how he needs to be the centre of attention, while she is “more reserved”, it’s hard not to laugh.
Despite their confidence and photogenic looks, it wasn’t hunger for the limelight that propelled the couple to star in an innovative documentary airing on BBC4. Subtitled without a soundtrack or narration, Life and Deaf follows four members of the St John’s Deaf Club as they go about their daily lives. All four are profoundly deaf and communicate using British Sign Language (BSL). Tina Costi and her husband, Marios, are expecting a baby – and waiting to see if it will follow the Costi family “tradition” of deaf sons and hearing daughters. Then there is Memnos, Marios’s football-mad brother, who is intent on taking the St John’s team to the final of the English Deaf Cup. And finally there is Abigail, facing a decision over whether to have a cochlear implant to improve her hearing – much to the disquiet of her deaf mother.
The film is a celebration of a community too seldom on our screens. What comes across is the pride all four feel in their deaf identity. It was this, says Tina, that convinced her to take part in the filming, despite feeling that pregnancy was a “private time”.
The 31-year-old outreach worker says too many people make the assumption that deaf people cannot live independently. “I don’t want hearing people to see deaf people as lower-class citizens, who can’t work or drive, or need carers. We can look after ourselves. Marios and I both have good jobs, we have children, we have good lives.”
It’s something she experiences even walking down the street, she says. “People panic when you say you are deaf! It’s really annoying. If someone asks me for directions, and I say I am deaf, they just walk off or say: ‘It doesn’t matter.’ If they had been patient for a moment, I could have told them the way – if they had given me a chance.”
The film is also a showcase for deaf culture, which is, in part, based on its unique language. Marios and Tina agree that, in the deaf community, people tend to be surprisingly direct – something we see most clearly in the arguments between Abigail and her mother. Tina says that this could be because: “Growing up, some deaf people have been dismissed and pushed to the side, so when they enter the deaf world, they are so much more confident.” Marios points out: “You have to be careful not to be too blunt – because we can be offensive!”
The lively, broad humour radiates from the film. The four spar and tease each onscreen relentlessly. Tina, who grew up in “the hearing world”, says there is a difference in the humour of deaf and hearing people. While she will watch standup comedians and laugh, Marios, who has always been part of the deaf community, will be blankfaced. “We are so much more visual – we use our facial expressions more,” he says. “We have deaf standup comedians and I don’t think hearing people would laugh at them, because it is about the linguistics of BSL.”
At the heart of the community are social clubs such as St John’s – but many are closing, in part because technology such as FaceTime has made it easier for deaf friends to arrange to meet up elsewhere in smaller groups. Yet it is also, Tina says, because the deaf community is shrinking, thanks to the increasing prevalence of cochlear implants. We see Abigail trying to overcome her mother’s opposition to them, reassuring her that her choice is not a rejection of the deaf community.
Tina explains that while cochlear implants can be a useful aide for some people, there is a feeling that they are offered as a miracle cure suitable for everyone. This is for her another sign that the hearing world sees deaf people as a problem to be solved, rather than altering its behaviour, for instance by encouraging more people to use sign language. “In hospitals, they push cochlear implants and trying to make children talk – it’s a medical approach. Some need to sign and some need cochlear implants. At the moment they just try to ‘fix’ the child, not society itself.”
This refusal of the hearing world to adapt to deafness is something Tina feels strongly about. “Although my mother is deaf, I grew up in the hearing world. I had to make so much effort to fit in. I struggled to lip read and no one would meet me halfway. At deaf school, it was so easy and I felt so relaxed. So, when I went back to the hearing world, I thought, ‘How did I manage all that time?’ I can lip read and speak, but I would rather just be immersed in the deaf world.”
The inability of the hearing world to see deafness as anything other than a calamity is captured on film during an antenatal appointment. Marios expects that if they have a son he will be born deaf, like all the males in his family. Tina worries that, if this is the case, the nurse will console them “as though it is a negative thing”.
Following Tina to her antenatal appointments, the documentary also highlights problems of access. We see her explaining that during labour she will not be able to lip read and will need an interpreter. She tells me that, for the birth of her first child, Ollie (now a sweet 11-year-old), she – like many deaf women – had no one to interpret the instructions of the medical staff. As lip reading can be imprecise at the best of times, let alone when you are in pain – and because English for some deaf people is a second language after BSL – it was worrying.
“I didn’t understand anything. They gave me medication, and I didn’t know what it was for. How could I consent to things? I couldn’t. It’s hard to even know when to push – it depends on the midwife being confident enough to be visual. I wanted to breastfeed and they passed him to me, but no one explained to me how to do it, and so I panicked and gave him a bottle.”
Ten years on from having Ollie, Tina was determined her second birth would be different. After six frustrating months, she finally met the hospital’s head midwife, who was “brilliant, very proactive and organised”. Thanks to having an interpreter, her second birth was completely different, “wonderful”.
Marios says such experiences show the importance of improving access for deaf people and not underestimating them. “If I was hearing … there would be more doors open. But I am very proud of being deaf. Hearing people think we can’t do anything – but we are equal.”