Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
PAUL CRIPPS (# 11)
Born in Barnet, England
Father unknown / Mother born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father: unknown / Mother: English
Paul’s life story is one of extraordinary perseverance, determination and tenacity, despite the almost unimaginable obstacles that life has thrown in his path. Paul suffers from Usher’s Syndrome, which causes retinitis pigmentosa and congenital deafness and is the most common cause of deaf-blindness. Though congenitally deaf, Paul’s vision seemed initially to be unaffected.
It is not clear whether it was simply the realisation that her baby had been born with a serious disability, or if it was economic or emotional pressures that caused Paul’s mother to reject him, but he was left to begin his tender, fragile life in a care home, the first, it seems, of about seven homes/foster families he had to contend with. “It was all very confusing; at one stage, I remember being on a farm, somewhere in Devon I think, and seeing beautiful yellow chicks being hatched.” That was certainly a loving family but communication was difficult.
At the age of three, Paul was taken in by foster parents in Chingford; they were deaf like him but communicated well with sign language. It was a rather conventional, almost old-fashioned home and while Paul was the only child in the family, and was well cared for, it would have been hard to see it as a ‘loving environment’. “It was at that stage when I became aware of being adopted. It was a painful time, full of anger, and I wanted to know why I should have been excluded from my real family. I felt that too many truths were being kept from me and I had no wish to be an ‘unknown person’.” Paul has three biological sisters and one brother but he has never managed to trace any of them.
Paul began his primary education at Hawkswood School for the Deaf, in Chingford, and thinks of it fondly: “I loved that school and the other kids, loved to learn how to communicate with sign language, enjoyed sports and perhaps, for the first time, felt that there might be a future for me. I was full of energy and mischief: I remember vividly hiding with the girls in a treehouse and having to stand in front of the headmaster, asking to be forgiven.”
At the age of 11, Paul entered secondary education at the Partly Hearing Unit of Heathcote High School, a mainstream comprehensive school in Chingford. In terms of his disability, Paul should have gone to a school for the deaf but the Council refused. The experience of mixing with hearing people was both confusing and enlightening. “I was bullied, of course, but fought back, I’m sure, and that made me stronger.” Paul was good at English and Maths. “The teachers gave me a difficult time, insisting that I worked hard and aimed high. While it was tough at the time, I was to be grateful to them later. When I passed my 7 GCSE’s with excellent results, I really felt proud, and so did the teachers. And I was no longer seen by the other kids as stupid or thick.”
Paul went on to Barking College and obtained an NVQ in Leisure & Tourism. He enjoyed the College a great deal: he loved the students and the teachers - the interpreters who helped him were good too. Paul learned a lot but afterwards failed to get a job in his chosen field, putting up with what employment he could get and changing jobs a number of times - the working life of a deaf man is always full of pitfalls, sometimes outright discrimination, and Paul feels he encountered them all.
At one stage, Paul taught sign language for two years at the College of North West London, in Kilburn, which was great experience.
Paul’s spirit and determination shone through when, aged 25, he valiantly took part in auditions for Big Brother on Channel 4. Competition against literally thousands of other hopefuls was never going to be easy but he almost succeeded in becoming one of the ‘housemates’. The final culling process he found quite brutal though, feeling strongly that he was knocked out purely because the selection procedure failed to take his limitations into account. The case reached a national newspaper and Paul observed: “Big Brother has been running for seven series, and I thought, ‘Why not get a deaf guy involved?‘ I wanted to show people what my experience was like with sign language and I thought Big Brother should be aware of what the deaf community is like.”
Four years later, during the Swine Flu panic, Paul was thrust into the media spotlight once again, when he successfully managed to publicise the NHS’s failure to inform the deaf community in an accessible way about the potential danger. At that time, Paul was sharing the running of a rather special place for deaf people in North London, the Deaf Unlimited Club at the Lion and Key pub in Leyton. Many of its members were to become his closest friends to date.
Paul has recently come to prominence once more: in May 2013, together with Ms Domani Peir and Ryan Groves, he opened The Deaf Lounge on Seven Sisters Road. This is a place where deaf people not only socialise with one another and order drinks in sign language, but they can also mix with the wider community of hearing people, who are positively welcomed. There is music too which is important to draw in the visitors. Paul is distinctly excited about this new venture and, together with his team, hopes to grow the business and perhaps franchise the concept.
Regrettably, Paul’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and his mobility has started to be affected; even more problematically, his vision has also been deteriorating. It is remarkable to watch how he contends with daily obstacles - he is clearly someone with great determination and positive spirit, not to mention the strength he has gained through his many earlier skirmishes with adversity.
Asking Paul if he feels himself to be an outsider is to verge on the absurd, of course, as the disadvantages of suffering deafness at any age are obvious and can be severe; being born unable to hear at all would seem to most people an insurmountable obstacle, an almost unimaginable impediment to normal life. Some might perhaps imagine that deafness would spare them the endless bombardment of irritating ambient noise, unwanted music, banal public announcements, and suchlike but, on the contrary, being deaf is not living in blissful silence.
“I have a busy social life and, despite all the limitations, I enjoy my life. I am very optimistic about the success of out latest venture, The Deaf Lounge, and I hope it will become a place both for deaf people and for those who are not, so they can socialise and just enjoy life. I love breaking down the barriers between communities.”
Interview Date: 10th June 2013
Updated: 27th June 2013
Paul’s life story is one of extraordinary determination and tenacity, despite the almost unimaginable obstacles that life has thrown in his path. Paul suffers from Usher’s Syndrome, which causes congenital deafness and is the most common cause of deaf-blindness. Though being unable to hear would strike most people as a huge impediment to normal life, Paul combines seemingly inexhaustible positive spirit with the strength he has gained through his many earlier skirmishes with adversity. This has enabled him to pursue a number of pretty unusual initiatives, most recently the launch of The Deaf Lounge on Seven Sisters Road, where deaf people not only socialise with one another and order drinks in sign language, but they can also mix with the wider community of hearing people, who are positively welcomed.
Photography: London 10th June 2013