Vow of Silence: Day 2

Surgery performed on Deaf people without their consent. Signers unemployed or under-employed, their talents wasted. Shockingly frequent mental health problems as Deaf people struggle to live within a hostile social system. Deaf children in classrooms where they can’t understand the language of instruction. Police, prisons, banks, Inland Revenue – an endless list of institutions not bothering to make sure they are communicating effectively with British Sign Language users.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

In a publication some years ago (alluding to a comparison with the struggle for racial equality), I described this picture as ‘institutional audism’. These things don’t happen because individual non-signing hearing people want Deaf people to suffer. They happen because the social world we inhabit is designed to suit hearing people.

So how could things be changed? Today, the British Deaf Association launches a report www.bda.org.uk pressing to enhance the legal status of BSL (and, because it’s used in parts of the UK, Irish Sign Language). Drawing on extensive research, and sources including the range of international Deaf and hearing students on Heriot-Watt University’s programmes (eg www.eumasli.eu),  I’ve been a member of the task group assembling this discussion document over several months. What alternatives does it offer?

  • Portugal, Uganda and Venezuela have recognised their signed languages within their constitutions.
  • Pro-sign acts of parliament have been passed in Brazil, Poland and Slovakia.
  • Robust official recognition has reached Estonia, Iceland, Latvia and New Zealand.
  • Austria, Finland and Hungary exemplify best practice by meeting the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

And Westminster’s response? ‘We already have adequate legislation’.

Oh really? If you’ve got it covered, how come people wait for days in hospital before anyone thinks to book an interpreter? How come child after child is struggling to follow their lessons because no decent support staff can be found?

And how come no-one who knows the first thing about the linguistic richness and complexity of BSL gets to talk to parents before they’re expected to offer up their children – when they’re just a few months old – for expensive, invasive cochlear implant surgery (initiating years of speech training and neglect of their prime time to learn to sign)?

Why aren’t you ensuring that those children get to know Deaf adults who will inspire them with the confidence that a Deaf life is a good life?

It’s not as if BSL users have failed to tell you what you’re missing. We want the right to live secure, culturally Deaf lives, and to pass on this heritage to deaf children – even those born into hearing families. We want ‘equal access’ to mean what it says: nothing more, nothing less. And we want you to take seriously your obligations to us as citizens, always.

The National Union of the Deaf told you in the 1970s that your approach amounted to linguistic genocide. The BDA issued a manifesto in the 1980s, articulating the case for BSL as Britain’s fourth indigenous language. The Federation of Deaf People marched in protest through the UK’s major cities at the turn of the millennium. Here we come again. We’re not going quietly.

Why so frightened to learn from those who obviously understand best what it means to be Deaf?

Author: Graham Turner

11 thoughts on “Vow of Silence: Day 2

  1. I think what is concerning me here is that many of these issues affect deaf people who do not sign as well as those who do. If BSL got optimal recognition and support tomorrow, a majority of deaf people who don’t use BSL would still struggle with lack of educational support/opportunity, prejudice and discrimination, limited access to communication support etc.

    I’d like to see more shared-issues such as access to adequate and appropriate education, suitable trained communication professionals, access to services via suitable methods being framed as ‘deaf’ not ‘BSL’. More people would be included and it would make a stronger case this cause. Non signers need hospital communication support and deaf awareness. Non signers have their educational support hours and quality cut and unqualified staff working with us in schools.

    I do support BSL legislation, but most of these issues aren’t just about BSL and are more about deafness and access. I’d like to see BSL offered to all deaf and HOH children alongside cueing and lipreading lessons and other tools in the toolbox that enable us to live and survive in a hearing world.

    • The problem is, Natalya, that every single time BSL users allow themselves to be won over by the ‘stronger together’ argument, the result FOR US, is a less effective outcome. For the non-signing hearing majority, the clarity of the arguments is lost as soon as the discussion appears to be about ‘communication methods’ and ‘awareness’ in general. So there’s a time to combine forces

      • …and a time to keep the focus simple. This being Sign Language week, I choose to make BSL, and only BSL, my topic for the week. We’ve been nice and polite for years. Right now, I’m trying to tell it plain and simple.

  2. Absolutely agree with Natalya – I support BSL legislation but these issues do affect those of us whose first language isn’t BSL too. We need more of a cohesive and multi-approach way of doing activism that includes all deaf issues, for BSL-users and non-BSL users (and bi-lingual). There’s no ground lost when we look at everything, in fact I think it would make the case stronger and also raise awareness that all deaf people are different but we all have similar issues.

    • My reading of history – and that of most BSL users I know – says otherwise, Liz: ie there IS ground lost, and it has happened too many times to be a coincidence. (PS Are you a BSL user? 1st or 2nd language?)

      • I’m bilingual – ie. I grew up learning SSE and BSL but I also speak. The problem is, that for BSL and deaf culture to continue, it needs to adapt and move with the times. I’m in my late 20s and a lot of my peers feel the same way. The ground is probably lost because people can’t agree, and there are too many past unresolved issues. Regardless, as a whole, the community needs to adapt and organisations like the BDA also need to adapt and see how things are changing. BSL recognition and legislation is admirable, but we need to also look at the bigger picture.

        • I agree that ground is lost because people can’t agree. That, for me, is a reason to keep the focus narrow sometimes – because BSL users, on the whole, CAN agree about BSL issues. But you’re quite right about change and about the bigger picture.

          • Maybe Graham Turner’s vow of silence is actually a separate thing from the wider campaigning about things like communication support and BDA stuff that’s been going on in the last week…

            I think you’ll find even some of us (I know not all of us) who don’t necessarily sign well (cos we weren’t allowed access – thanks oralist agenda!) as deaf adults also agree with BSL promotion as a language, culture, community etc…

            But that’s not the same as “deaf experience”.

            And should it make a difference if we were bought up oral or signing? Surely the whole point is exactly as Paddy Ladd said on See Hear ep 30 last week – that all of this conflict boils down to structural audism… Telling or implying that someone who grew up deprived of signing that their views about inclusion in the deaf world are less valid than someone who grew up signing seems the antithesis of the bilingualism aim that I hope we all share.

            I am hoping to open some dialogue across a range of deaf people to try and work out what should be BSL-primarily and what should be ‘all kinds of deaf’ and indeed how everyone can be good allies for campaigns which are more narrow and focussed rather than bickering at one another online.

  3. The problem sometimmes is that so called clever people who have never signed in their life what to make decisions on other peoples behalf.

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