Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Deaf Talkabout: How a 'tomato group' offered free expression

About 25 years ago a small monthly meeting for deaf people called "The Tomatoes" was set up in Belfast.

The moniker was suggested because a tomato can be described as either fruit or vegetable and the members of the group were people born with normal hearing who had become deaf in later life after acquiring spoken language.

There were eight of us and most of our hearing loss had occurred between the ages of five and 18.

The official name for such a group is " deafened" and from research at Queen's by Dr Roddy Cowie we know there are approximately 2,000 Northern Ireland folk in this category.

What made the Tomatoes different was that we had become assimilated into the deaf community and developed competence in sign language.

This made communication a doddle and we were able to chat about books and current affairs without the reliance on electronic aids experienced by most other deafened folk.

It was good for us; we were different and needed this freedom of expression. It may be an odd thing to say about deaf people but we marched to a different drum.

But the years have taken their toll and for one reason and another the numbers diminished, and a recent death means that most of the original tomato group have passed on.

It was brought home to me the other day when my son mentioned how few deafened people come to our house now. Signing deaf friends are always made very welcome and we get on well with family and hearing friends by lip-reading but that special bond with people in the same boat as ourselves has now become a very rare occurrence.

David, my son, asked me if this was because medical advances meant fewer people were losing their hearing to the diseases such as mumps, meningitis and fevers that had brought deafness to his mother and me in early childhood.

I don't know about this but I do know girls are now being inoculated against German measles, a main cause of hearing loss to an unborn baby during the last century. On the negative side doctors are warning of the danger of an epidemic of mumps and measles because some parents are worried about the possible side effects of the MMR injection and are refusing to have it done.

Audiologists are now able to give parents early advice on the best treatment available to suit the hearing loss. One aspect of this is that an early decision has to be made on what age the child will undergo a cochlear implant operation - if the parents approve and the doctors agree.

Over the past few years we have all become more aware of the different interpretations of the word deaf.

This is important when arrangements come to be made for the deaf child's education. Some deaf adults, however, would argue that sign language is an important adjunct to education in a happy and fulfilled school and social life.

Hearing loss in later years is perhaps the most traumatic of all and I have been extremely fortunate in sharing my life with a fellow tomato - a soul-mate. I was 11 when I lost my hearing from typhoid and Evelyn, my wife, was just five when stricken with mumps. I spent six weeks in Larne fever hospital and lost nearly a year at school while my parents tried to get to grips with the blow.

Evelyn tells me of thinking her father had stopped talking to her, and memories of travelling by boat for the first time to see a London hearing specialist. We met at a small private school when I was 12 and she was nine and after college and university for Evelyn, we have been together ever since.

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