What London Is Like When You're Deaf

By Liam O'Dell Last edited 16 months ago

Last Updated 11 January 2023

What London Is Like When You're Deaf
Liam peers into a window illuminated with a Theatre Cafe sigh
"Being a Deaf and autistic young person moving around the capital can be like being in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." Image: Happy Clegg

If you've ever seen one of the stage adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, you will recall one particularly powerful and intense scene when the protagonist Christopher navigates the complex and noisy London transport network.

Obviously neurodivergent (though never actually confirmed in the book as autistic), the teenager is overwhelmed by the flood of bright colours, chatter from other passengers, and mumbling announcements over the tannoy system.

It's an experience not too far removed from my own, as a Deaf and autistic young person moving around the capital.

Full disclosure: I don't actually live in London, but in the fairly unremarkable nowhere county of Bedfordshire. Funnily enough, though it is normally my passion for reviewing London theatre on my own website which gets me out of my quiet town and on a train into the city.

However, the vibrancy of London and its contrasting hubbub to that of Bedfordshire is as much a blessing as it is a curse.

"Train drivers mumbling details over outdated, crackly tannoys"

A  circular tannoy in the ceiling
Crackly, past-their-best speakers on tubes and trains are not helpful. Image: iStock/Christa Boaz

If people saying "never mind" or getting frustrated when repeating themselves (and that happens to me a lot, by the way) had a geographical equivalent, that place would be London. I regularly make the case that we live in an impatient world, what with the rapid consumption of information on our smartphones and computers. In London, people can be doubly impatient.

This is detrimental for Deaf people like me who can miss information, only to have hearing people quickly move on and say "it doesn’t matter" or something similar. It's an incredibly frustrating response, given it certainly seemed to matter a few minutes prior — and it matters to the Deaf person what was being said.

Anyway, such is the way we process information these days that there's a strong reliance on audio-based information. In fairness, the tube network is pretty impressive in its balance of the audial and the visual. Look no further than the Elizabeth line — designed with the input of disabled people — which has screen displays rich with travel information alongside what is said over the speakers.

An Elizabeth line platform, with screens above the doors showing departures
The Elizabeth line has screen displays rich with travel information alongside what is said over the speakers. Image: Curran Brown/Londonist

Unfortunately, when delays occur (something not too uncommon given the current disruption to rail and tube services), the same approach isn't followed. I've had staff opting to yell advice over the heads of commuters in rammed promenades; train drivers mumble details over outdated, crackly tannoys in carriages; and vital info about alternative services only being conveyed last-minute over speakers.

Fortunately, my moderate-to-severe deafness means I have a fair amount of what's known as 'residual' hearing, but I've missed replacement trains thanks to having to listen extra hard and process what I'm hearing. And I dread to think about the heightened anxiety I would have felt on a broken down train out of London had I not heard they were switching all the lights off…

"E-scooters fill me with dread"

A man in a suit whizzes by on an e scooter
E-scooters can be bad news for those already struggling to navigate a hectic city. Image: Shutterstock.

London is immediate. I accept that, though I hate the fact that I don't see it adapting to be more accommodating of Deaf people any time soon, because this approach works so well for so many people. The efficiency argument is compelling.

The problem with it, however, is that it breeds a mindset whereby information must be shared and digested as quickly as possible. There'll be instances where visual displays complement what we're hearing, but it would be silly of me not to accept that on the whole people are probably more likely to comprehend information quicker when it's a sound, compared to something we have to read at speed.

It's alright for the hearing world, but not for Deaf folk like me.

A cyclists's view on London Bridge, towards the Shard
Cyclists don't make life easy for Deaf people, although the solutions aren't always obvious. Image: iStock/piola666

There are times where cyclists have either brushed past without a sound, or rung their bell behind me to tell me to get out of the way. A sensible action, of course, but for many Deaf people, we're more likely to be aware of or hear something if it's in front of us. Shouting at us when our backs are to you doesn't exactly help matters as opposed to a gentle tap on the shoulder or facing us. I understand cyclists can't exactly dismount and do either, but it's a pretty terrifying issue for me when walking the streets of London. TfL's current trial of e-scooters also fills me with dread, like it does for many other disabled people trying to manoeuvre in a very inaccessible capital.

Ultimately, I'm having to process a range of different information and stimuli at speed — some of which may well be inaccessible to me. Think of it like one of those hazard perception videos you have to do on your driving theory test, but perhaps with someone calling your name every five seconds while you're trying to complete it.

The mental prioritisation of information all while getting from A to B — both as an autistic person and as a Deaf person — is utterly exhausting, and I'm usually relieved when I find myself in the familiar comforts of a plush red theatre seat.

"There's café in Waterloo where you can order a drink in British Sign Language"

The author - headshot in a light tunnel
"For all its flaws, London has an appeal for Deaf people like me." Image: Ant Belle

On that note, London theatres have been exceptionally accommodating of me as a Deaf theatre critic (there aren't many of us out there), regularly placing me as close to the front as possible so I can hear what is being said and clearly see the actors' faces.

There are still some ongoing inaccessibility issues facing the UK-wide theatre industry — the captioning charity Stagetext recently shared data on the concerning slump in captioned shows post-lockdown — but I'm hopeful theatres are waking up to the importance of welcoming disabled patrons as they continue to try to recover financially from the devastation caused by Covid.

A tall, glass theatre illuminated at night
It's becoming more common to see Deaf actors on the West End stage, including @sohoplace. Image: Londonist

For all its flaws, London has an appeal for Deaf people like me. Deafness comes with a culture and a lot of the time it sets up shop in the capital. I'm thinking of the Dialogue Hub café [currently moving from its site in Waterloo] where you can order a drink in British Sign Language, a growing number of theatre shows which are casting Deaf actors (Casualty's Gabriella Leon and Strictly's Rose Ayling-Ellis are both performing in @sohoplace's As You Like It at the time of writing), and Deaf pub events where we can come together to socialise.

I was asked if I find myself talking to Deaf strangers in London, and if the situation (and my confidence) allows for it, then I do. Although, my reasoning isn't exclusive to just London; there's a kind of shared appreciation and friendliness towards other Deaf folk whenever we bump into each other. As I glance over what I've written above, I wonder just how much of the camaraderie comes from an unspoken understanding of just how inaccessible the streets around us can be.