Dorothy Miles (1931 - 1993)
Born in Wales, Dorothy Miles became deaf after a serious illness. As a child growing up, she developed a love for poems and songs and this passion continued after her illness. The unlikely and unusual combination of her love for poetry and for Sign Language has made her an inspiration to many people. When preparing her first collection of poems for publication, she wrote a brief autobiography, and reading this gives a true sense of what an exceptional person she was...
"I've been asked to write my autobiography in two pages, double-spaced, and I tell you from the beginning that's impossible. Let me try, instead to give you a glimpse into the kaleidoscope of my memory.
These things I remember: Hills, first of all - the hills of North Wales where I was born; not the high, wild mountains of Snowdonia, but the more domesticated hills of Flintshire, rolling down towards the Irish Sea. The sea itself, in many different places and moods - but chiefly the sea tamed to ebb and flow at the convenience of holidaymakers along the stretch of "golden sands" at the seaside resort of Rhyl, my first remembered home. Voices - my father singing soldiers' songs, my mother reciting narrative poems, my eldest sister crooning lullabies at my bedside, or reading aloud the poems she wrote herself and the blended voices of schoolchildren, church choirs or football crowds upraised in hymn. Music everywhere - accompanying the voices, blaring from the radio or from loudspeakers of the local amusement park, thumping and per-umping from the instruments of the Rhyl Silver Prize Band, or wafting more sedately from the orchestra pit of the Pavillion Theatre. Theatre - song and dance and drama. The two children's plays my mother wrote and directed and other community plays and pageants that various friends or members of the family were involved in from time to time; a totally fascinating world of make-believe and madness, to which I lost my heart for ever.
Then the coming of the Second World War. A brief memory of air raid sirens being tested for a drill, a of a troop of soldiers harmonising in the dusk as they marched to their billets. Six months later a sudden illness, diagnosed as a cerebrospinal meningitis; and a long quiet convalescence during which I had to learn to walk again. Afterwards, the silence that I had accepted as part of the sick-room remained as a fact of my life.
All these sensations crowded into less than nine years, then a different world. The deaf school in Manchester, a huge industrial city where the air-raid sirens were for real during the long nights of the Battle of Britain. Speech lessons, interesting only if I learned a new poem or song from them; group amplifiers that tickled my ears inside when turned up full-blast and the sign language, Manchester version, learned from other children and enjoyed with them, but never thought of as a means of retaining communication with the receding world of my childhood.
A year after the war ended, Britain established its first grammar school for the deaf, the Mary Hare Grammar School, far away in the south of England. A scholarship exam, passed "with flying colours" and I began my real education; English Literature, French, History, Algebra, Latin and so much else, woven into four tumultuous adolescent years when I was always either gloriously in love or desperately heartbroken. And by the time I left school, my family had moved to live near London and Wales was "home" no longer.
Skip seven years to Gallaudet College in Washington DC, then and still the world's only liberal arts college for a predominantly deaf student body. Thence I came in 1957, drawn by the possibility of being able to act in college productions - and there I fell in love again, this time with the American Sign Language, so much more complete and creative than the British version. It served to bring music and theatre and easy intellectual conversation firmly back into my life and made me a whole person again. For me, there was no going back.
Some of my later experiences are chronicled in the pages, in the introductions to individual poems and in the poems themselves. One final statement: The English language (albeit with a slight Welsh accent) was my mother-tongue. My poems are written from the words and music that still sing in my mind. Of recent years, I have tried to blend words with sign language as closely as lyrics and tunes are blended in song. In such poems, the signs I chose are a vital part of the total effect and to understand my intention the poem should be seen as well as read. This is the difference between these particular poems, and those that have been written for English and are freely interpreted by individual signers."
(Reproduced from Bright Memory by Dorothy Miles)