The first time I met a Deaf person was in 2006 as a PhD student. I was asked to help out with BSL exams in Heriot-Watt, to make sure examiners were there
and to look after the candidates. The Deaf examiner made me think how inspiring
it was for someone to overcome a disability and communicate confidently with
hearing people like me, who cannot fingerspell to save my
I was, of course, wrong.
Not about the examiner, who was indeed wonderful, but about deafness being a disability. It is not. That’s the first thing I learned from attending “Send
the Deaf to Orkney!”, a debate starring our very own Director of Research, Graham Turner, organised by Beltane during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Arriving at the venue, I saw colleagues Gary Quinn, Robyn Dean and many others waiting outside to see the show. They were signing all at the same time, laughing and looking very excited. I wanted to join in, but then again I didn’t want to spoil their fun by being the only person who couldn’t sign. Robyn could have interpreted, but I would still feel like I was intruding. I guess that’s how Deaf people must feel in hearing environments.
We were given miniature Orkney flags to wave in lieu of clapping or cheering and, shortly after, comedienne Susan Morrison came on stage to introduce the debate. Susan’s introduction was interpreted into BSL by Jemina Napier. Now, you know Jemina is brilliant, not because she is a Professor who has published over 50 papers, written 6 books and holds a Chair in Intercultural Communication at Heriot-Watt, but because she can interpret Glaswegian jokes into BSL with no sweat, having just moved here from Sydney 12 months ago.
To add to the wow factor, Jeff McWhinney came on stage. Hurricane Jeff – more like! A Deaf entrepreneur and leader in the UK Deaf community, Jeff started signing his way through his argument for sending Deaf people to Orkney in such a vivid and engaging way, I almost didn’t need to listen to the interpreter! Ok, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the sign for ‘tokenistic’. Deafness with a capital ‘D’ is a culture, a way of life with its own values and language. Deaf people are immensely proud of their language and heritage and it is precisely the protection of this language and heritage that was central to the idea of having a separate, defined space for the Deaf to live in. Their own homeland – a Deafland, away from the tyranny of the hearing world.
But why Orkney? Well, it is an island, and Heriot-Watt already has a campus there, so it would kind of suit us! A Deaf Orkney would at last offer a place where signing came first, and the life of the community could be organised in BSL. The future of the language – in its heritage, visual form, not mixed uncomfortably with English – would be assured.
Jeff was so convincing, I started waving my flag like a maniac.
Graham Turner came on stage and he started signing as well (I’m guessing to remove any communicative bias from the debate). In my naivety, I thought sign-language was all about using your hands, but I soon discovered that you have to use your whole body, the muscles of your face and your mouth. Graham and Jeff were ‘performing’ in the eyes of hearing people, so to speak, but for Deaf people this was just signing. Sign language is a performance in itself, requiring creativity and imagination, which makes it even more fascinating.
So Graham questioned Jeff’s approach by stating that BSL is now valued by hearing people, too. That’s why it’s been recorded as the second most popular adult evening class (after First Aid), and why a BSL GCSE qualification is under serious consideration. So why hide it away on Orkney? Keep Deaf people here, so that our culture is enriched by
Ok, well, that was easy enough. I want the Deaf here.
Not so fast. The argument is not so simple and linear. Graham and Jeff went back on stage and took turns to make the case for each side again, but reversing their roles. Graham recognised that on Orkney, Deaf families could freely decide not to opt for cochlear implants for their children, without pressure from doctors. Hurricane Jeff protested – attitudes have changed, haven’t you noticed? This is the 21st century! Implants or no implants, you can choose to sign if you want to. And can you imagine such a close-knit Deaf community? Divorce rates in Orkney would skyrocket, as there would be no privacy and everyone would be involved in everyone else’s business!
Hear hear! I say, let’s vote!
But there was more. The economic dimension of a Deaf homeland in Orkney is crucial. Think about education in BSL without the cost of interpreters, or mental health provision dramatically reduced because Deaf children would be brought up with no identity crisis. And think of the tourism: every Deaf person the world over will want to visit Orkney’s signing haven!
But wait, said Graham, raising his finger. Video interpreting is now possible and a BSL GCSE would ultimately mean more and cheaper BSL interpreters.
Still, the idea of Deaf people having a place to call their own seemed more attractive in the course of the debate. Maybe not Orkney (I’d pick a sunny island in the Mediterranean), but, as it was pointed out, the issues of control over one’s own life and the right to self-determination are equally important. An official Deaf constituency in the UK would mean Deaf parliamentarians contributing to major decisions at the local level.
But do we need a designated Deafland for this to happen? The idea of a public sphere is in our heads anyway. It doesn’t really exist, it emerges with communication. And as long as Deaf people communicate to raise awareness about Deaf issues, their public sphere will be kept alive.
So I wouldn’t book a one-way ticket to Kirkwall just yet.
Author: Katerina Strani