Hope Cotton on Belonging & Growing Up Deaf 

by Life at MECCA M-POWER
Thursday 2 November 2023

Here at MECCA, advancing equality through the education and empowerment of women and girls is a key focus of our social change initiative, MECCA M-POWER. In our MECCA M-POWERED interview series, fearless women from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of female changemakers.

Hope Cotton has always wanted to change the world, because as someone who is Deaf, she spent many years feeling like she didn’t belong in it. Now, at the age of eighteen, Hope has become a fierce advocate for a legal captioning standard in New Zealand and she’s determined to change the experience of Deaf people as well as women, and the LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities.     

Hope is one of 25 young people selected for New Zealand-based feminist organisation YWCA’s Y25 programme - a celebration of young self-identified wahine and non-binary people doing amazing “mahi” (work). She might only be 18-years-old and currently studying a Bachelor of Communications at Victoria University of Wellington, yet she’s already worked tirelessly to champion the voices of Deaf, queer, disabled and Christian communities, communities she’s been part of her entire life. She grew up Deaf in a hearing family. Her parents would turn the lights on and off to get her attention. Her school was less understanding. “I would often get into trouble at primary school,” she says.      

“I also found it really hard to connect with my extended family growing up and big dinners or family events were super stressful. I could lipread and communicate pretty well one-on-one but in bigger groups, I had no idea what was going on.” She describes the experience of family functions as being like watching a tennis match. “My head would swivel across the dining room table as I tried to lipread and catch up on the conversation.” While experiences like this were incredibly isolating, with ninety-five percent of Deaf kids born to hearing parents, they are far from uncommon.      

Hope has spent much of her life experiencing what it’s like not to belong. Belonging arrived when she attended a Deaf camp at Ko Taku Reo run by Deaf Education New Zealand. “Everything was set up to be accessible and for the first time in my life, I could communicate with ease. Everything was set up with Deaf people in mind. There were round tables with clear lines of sight, flashing alarms and interpreters for everything. It was amazing! I think this was one of the experiences that really stoked the fire for accessibility advocacy within me,” she says. When Hope left the camp and arrived back at the airport, she remembers the disappointment she felt. She’d landed back in the hearing world, and the sense of belonging disappeared. “The camp was the first time I realised how an accessible world could look. The airport, with the announcements we couldn't hear, unintelligible security staff and uncaptioned in-flight entertainment, was a shock to the system. It showed me just how inaccessible our world really was and filled me with a longing to make things better,” she says.       

Hope was fifteen when she started learning New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). “When I went to my first night class, the floodgates opened and I was introduced to a whole new world,” she recalls. “I often describe trying to communicate orally as like wading through jelly. It's a lot of extra effort and brain power. Learning sign language was incredibly freeing because it gave me a way to communicate that I could fully access and understand. It was a huge weight off my shoulders. The other big impact of sign language was that it enabled me to connect with the Deaf community. I cannot put the significance of the love, support and friendship the Deaf community has provided into words that would do it justice. There is a beautiful innate kinship between my Deaf friends and me. There is a really amazing connection built through shared experiences that results in an unsaid understanding that you all really get each other.” 

Navigating being Deaf is just one of the challenges Hope has had to overcome.   Her faith – something that had been a constant companion her entire life – failed her when she came out as queer. Rather than giving her what she most needed – support and understanding – she was insulted, excluded, and shamed by clergy, teachers, mentors and peers.      

“Part of having such an intersectional identity is that I feel I belong to so many diverse spaces,” she says. “Being queer in the church is very difficult and I can completely understand why some queer people choose to turn away from it,” she says. “Whilst I have an accepting family, I lost many friends and mentors from within the church. I didn't expect being bisexual to be as big of a deal as it was. I really struggled to continue having faith because I was so hurt by the church.” She began to have panic attacks at church. “My first panic attack relating to my sexuality happened when I came out to my bible study group. We were doing a session on identity and talking about how God created us all with unique differences that we should celebrate. I quietly mentioned my sexuality and it was like a bomb went off,” she says. Hope was lectured on why being bisexual was a just a “trend”. She was told her desires were sinful, and never to act on them. “As soon as I got into my car I started crying and shaking and I didn't stop for hours. After that experience, I couldn't go inside a church building for years,” she recalls.       

How did she find strength during these times? “Fighting for yourself is a lot more difficult than fighting for someone else,” she says. “Having debates about gay rights is all well and good but while others are arguing a religious ideology, I'm arguing for the right to exist. This is extremely draining. If people tell you you're evil and worthless enough times, you'll start to believe them. In order for me to have the strength to fight back, I needed a community behind me. By fighting for my friends and younger queer kids that I saw myself in, I gave myself the motivation to keep on going. My friends and family were also an amazing part of my community.” 

As a teen entering adulthood, she feels the weight of what it’s like to be a woman. The pressures. The expectations. The frustration. “Society both praises and demonises femininity,” she says. “We must be beautiful but never vain. We must wear girly clothes, but never draw too much attention to ourselves. We must be desirable, but we cannot be promiscuous or a prude. It is impossible to fit into society's idea of a perfect woman, and all the while being a woman means that no matter what we do some people will never take us seriously.” Yet she also feels the power and potential of being a young woman. “Don't let anyone tell you who you are or who you should be, you get to determine that for yourself. Enjoy what you enjoy. Follow your passions. Be yourself. None of this makes you any worse or better at being a girl. Being a girl is many things, and it means something slightly different for everyone, but it is never something to be ashamed of. Own your girlhood, whatever that means to you,” she says.     

In 10 years, she’s hopeful New Zealand will have a legal captioning standard and actionable accessibility legislation. She’s a passionate advocate for a more accessible education and health system, so Deaf and disabled people are enabled to reach their potential. “At the moment the key change I'm advocating for is an actionable legal captioning standard so that news, broadcast media, streaming content and educational media are all accessible to Deaf, hard of hearing and neurodivergent kiwis,” she says. Currently, New Zealand is one of the only countries in the OECD without a legal captioning standard, which puts them in direct violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Being part of this year's Y25 cohort is a huge achievement for Hope. “I feel incredibly blessed to connect with and learn from so many amazing young women. It is a great feeling to have my work acknowledged and uplifted by an organisation like the YWCA,” she says. 

To find out more about the Y25 programme, go to www.ywca.org.nz/y25/