I’m one of the 11 million people in the UK who has some form of hearing loss – that’s one-sixth of the population – and 45,000 of those are children. Deafness comes in so many forms, from total deafness to a partial loss, and despite many deaf people choosing to use hearing aids, it’s still an invisible disability. Countless people have argued that I’m not really deaf, I can hear them, or miming talking in an attempt to be funny.
I’m also someone who’s gone through the state school system’s sexual education lessons and I don’t know why I’m surprised at the lack of talk around disability and consent when we didn’t even touch on LGBT+ issues. Granted, for most people, their only experience of deafness is with their grandparents (I was one of a handful of deaf people at school), but for a school who knew I was deaf, there was little in the way of conversation around how my disability affected sex and consent.
The biggest issue I’ve had with lessons about sex in school is I just couldn’t hear anything they were saying, and the (cringey and graphic) videos shown had no subtitles. This was long before I had any technology to give to teachers like microphones, and there were definitely no wire loop systems in place, so I just had to sit and struggle to hear while everyone watched a video that “isn’t that important anyway”, or they were told about things that I just couldn’t hear.
Aside from school though, there are deeper issues. As my education around sex developed from puberty to contraception to consent, I was left not really knowing a lot and also without many resources. Everything seemed to be about safewords and talking, which is fine unless you can’t hear someone. Or you don’t want to wear your hearing aids during sex. Or any number of reasons. And if you’re wondering “Why don’t deaf people just wear their hearing aids during sex?”, there’s nothing worse for a hearing person than when a deaf person’s hearing aids come out and they hear the high-pitched, shrill “wheeeeeeeeee” of feedback. Kinda a mood killer.
A recent report published by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Deafax, found that deaf young people were missing out on basics in sex education, and just didn’t have the resources they needed to find out about things for themselves. 40% didn’t know about contraception, less than half knew the age of consent, and this is mainly because their education had minimal visual aids, no British Sign Language interpreters, and so much of the information simply wasn’t accessible to them.
Visual aids should have been thought about and provided, a BSL interpreter could have been organised by the school considering those teaching were always outside nurses anyway, and making information accessible is the point of teaching. Furthermore, research done by Deafax in their 2012 EARS campaign found that deaf people have more STIs and pregnancies than average, with 36% learning through direct sexual experience.
And yes, you can argue “why don’t deaf people just ask questions in class?”, but sex ed in school is already embarrassing and awkward enough for 13-16-year-olds – they should just be given information in an accessible way.
So, what can be done about this? Firstly, the Defax website is a fantastic resource for deaf people looking to learn more about sex in a deaf-friendly way – they also have resources for teachers and parents. Secondly, communication between people before any sex is super important so the deaf person/people can lay out the best ways to communicate during sex and make sure they’re on the same page about consent. It can be as simple as making up physical signs to replace safewords, or for whatever you want to communicate during sex. Deafness doesn’t have to mean sex is placed on hold, it shouldn’t hold anyone back.
Being deaf might be a disability but it’s not a learning difficulty. Deaf people need information on sex as much as everyone else – they have the ability to gather information about it, but often just don’t have a real chance to. Learning about sex and consent should be empowering, and equip people for their futures when they will have to give consent, it should fill people with the confidence to make informed decisions, not be excluding to people just because they can’t hear.