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Inside Deaf culture

October 20, 2004 By Carina Dennis This article courtesy of Nature News.

Kate Nelson, an actor, is deaf. She explains to Carina Dennis what becoming part of Deaf culture has meant to her.

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The Deaf (with a capital 'D') are a tight-knit community. They view deafness not as a medical condition to be cured, but as a cultural identity to be celebrated.

It's a view that the hearing find difficult to understand. But Kate Nelson, an actor with the Australian Theatre of the Deaf (ATOD) in Sydney is ideally placed to try to explain it.

While some are born into the Deaf community, Nelson was born into a hearing family and has only come to Deaf culture relatively late in life. Now, she says she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm proud of my deafness," she says. "I don't see myself as having a disability."

Nelson was born profoundly deaf, meaning that she could hear some sounds, but not enough to understand speech. She was brought up completely in the hearing world -- she wears hearing aids, can speak clearly and lip reads. She did not discover sign language until she was 21. "Suddenly, the whole Deaf world opened up," says Nelson. "It was amazing - like coming home."

Suddenly, the whole Deaf world opened up. It was like coming home.
Kate Nelson
Australian Theatre of the Deaf
Now in her 30s, Nelson's hearing is deteriorating further, and she finds herself increasingly identifying with the Deaf community. "As the frustrations of the hearing world become greater and greater, the Deaf world is a place where I can relax," she says.

Means of expression

Far from being limited in communication, Nelson finds Deaf culture richly expressive. Sign language is much more than creating hand shapes, she points out. It incorporates facial expressions, posture and other body movements. When Nelson switches from speaking to signing, she becomes more animated, with her whole face and body conveying meaning and feeling.

The impetus to learn sign language came from encountering deaf people overseas. "I was embarrassed that I didn't know my language," says Nelson. Although initially self-conscious, she now finds that sign language complements her naturally expressive personality, a strength she draws on in her acting.

Nelson writes plays as well as performing them, and her experiences during her transition from the hearing to the Deaf world also provide rich fodder for her work. "I went through a period of being angry at the way deaf people were treated through history," she says. "That was all part of coming to terms with it."

There were tensions with her hearing family, although they are now coming to accept her needs and starting to learn some sign language. But Nelson says she will always keep a foot in both worlds: "I'm never going to walk away from my hearing world, my family and friends."

Her attitudes to the Deaf world are still evolving. "I never used to think I would prefer a deaf partner, but recently I've been thinking maybe it would be better," she says. "A hearing partner would at least have to be very accepting and understanding of how important my involvement in the Deaf world is."

Two worlds

I'm never going to walk away from my hearing world, my family and friends.
Kate Nelson
Australian Theatre of the Deaf
Nelson now uses theatre to explore the interface between the hearing and deaf worlds, and how the deaf relate to each other. "People think there is one kind of deaf - they don't realize there is a spectrum of attitudes," she says.

Next month, Nelson performs in a play, Friction, which explores the concept of private versus public self and includes 'visual music', which involves playing music at the same time as representing it visually. It brings together a mostly deaf cast with a hearing director, instrumentalist and scriptwriter, and is aimed at a hearing audience. Creating live music on stage with deaf actors is a challenge, she says.

In the future, Nelson wants to explore more deaf issues, such as the desire of some deaf people to have deaf children.

But her ultimate goal is to establish a Deaf theatre group in a developing country. "Theatre gives deaf people a lot of pride about themselves," she says.

  • 'Friction' will be performed at the Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney, from 17-27 November 2004.

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