By Jonny Cotsen

12 August 2019 - 11:58

Jonny Cotsen holding hearing aids
'I realised how profound my Deafness was, and that my mum had known but had never told me.' Photo ©

Kirsten McTernan 

Theatre-maker Jonny Cotsen's parents raised him as though he were hearing, but when he became a teacher he realised the extent of his Deafness. 

Why did your parents make the choice to raise you as though you were hearing?

It was their way of integrating me into society. I have a hearing brother, and my family changed their lives in a way that would make my life easier.

They acted as though I could do everything, the same as everyone else. It wasn't a positive thing, but it gave me confidence. 

So in everyday life, for example, I can’t use the phone, but am happy to write, and meet people and have a chat. 

You understood the extent of your Deafness later in life, when you became a teacher – what was that like?

Before I was a teacher, I was a graphic designer, and I was made redundant. I had experience in the arts, which I love, and I also love communicating with people, so I decided to become an art and photography teacher. 

When I told my mum that I planned to change careers and go into teaching, she said that it was absolutely impossible. I was surprised, because she had always told me that everything was possible.

I did well in my teacher training. But when I went into my first classroom, I remember a child asking me a question, and I had no idea what he was saying. I realised how different it would be from communicating with adults. 

I’d communicated with adults all my life. As adults, we make allowances and have strategies to understand each other. With a child in a classroom, I had to understand every word.

I realised how profound my Deafness was, and that my mum had known but had never told me. That’s also when I started to find my identity.

I decided to continue teaching, and I built a non-verbal teaching strategy. The kids wrote answers to questions on mini-whiteboards. I created Power Point presentations with numerical options to answer questions. When I did peer assessment, I got my colleagues to write things down on paper.

I found that the kids liked it. It also improved their literacy, because they were writing more often in the classroom. 

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How has your identity and involvement in Deaf culture changed over the years?

Before I became a teacher, my identity was connected with the hearing world.

In group situations, I sometimes couldn't understand what was going on, but I was a good communicator, and I could speak and read confidently, including with hearing people. I had travelled around the world on my own.

I met a Deaf person for the first time at university when I was 22, and I felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t sign. I'd like to meet him again to apologise, because I was rude to him. 

Since I became a teacher, my identity has become more like a corridor. The hearing world is on one side, the Deaf world is on the other, and I can go through the hearing door or the Deaf door.

Although I can go through either door, it's difficult to find a place in the Deaf world, because I don’t sign. It's also difficult to find a place in the hearing world, because I can’t hear what they’re saying.

How does your work as an artist link up with your personal story?

My show touches on that feeling of being in a corridor. It takes the audience on my journey, of being able to enjoy things like nightclubs, but at times feeling isolated. It’s also about entering the Deaf world.

I tell stories using elements of British Sign Language, which is a huge riTE of passage for me. I was nervous about the show offending Deaf people, but I've had acknowledgement from the community for the show.

Jonny's show Louder Is Not Always Clearer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase 2019

Follow @JonnyCotsen on Twitter.

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