Vow of Silence: Day 4

Having committed to a week of silence to demonstrate solidarity with the UK’s Deaf sign language users, Professor Graham Turner has made it to Thursday without a squeak. Will everyone else’s luck run out before the weekend?

Imagine you’re completely blind. Can you do that? It’s not too difficult: you start by closing your eyes…

Now imagine you’re stone deaf. Not just a wee bit fuzzy round the edges, like your granddad or when you come out of a loud gig. Deaf as a post.

You can’t, can you? We don’t have ear-lids. You can’t switch your hearing off, no matter how hard you try.

This is at the root of the hearing world’s inability to comprehend what Deaf people are on about. Three key things follow from being Deaf.

One, everything the hearing world takes for granted about receive incoming information from the world through hearing, doesn’t apply. I’m on a train. The tannoy says the café closes in five minutes. If I’m Deaf, it could be a long, stomach-rumbling journey to Edinburgh.

Two, fortunately, the eye is a fantastic device. Persuasive evidence shows that Deaf people’s eyes are sharper and wired more responsively to their brains than hearing people’s. The way Deaf people do ‘being alive’ is re-jigged from top to bottom to exploit their different biological make-up.

Notice: not ‘deficient’ – just DIFFERENT.

Three, the kind of language that perfectly suits the bodies of Deaf people is signed language. British Sign Language has evolved naturally over centuries to match Deaf capabilities. Just as spoken languages work for the hearing, signing is perfectly designed to exploit the visual nature of Deaf people.

My ‘vow of silence’ hasn’t turned me into a Deaf person. If I had a heart attack right now, I can confidently predict that I wouldn’t wait for an interpreter to show up before communicating with the paramedics. I’d speak. (And I can’t NOT know that the café has now closed. Fear not: I brought my own biscuits.)

But as I can sign, and I’ve taken the time to learn from Deaf people what their experiences are like, I can get that much closer than most to seeing the world from a Deaf perspective. Our languages powerfully influence the way we think. Language both shapes and reflects our identities. I’m not Deaf, but – bearing in mind that it’s taken me over 25 years to develop my understanding – I do begin to ‘get’ what it means to be Deaf.

What about that heart attack scenario I just envisaged, though? The hearing world has often treated Deaf people as being in need of medical treatment. The urge to ‘fix’ those different ears runs deep… Deaf people say – SHOUT – “Leave us alone! We’re perfectly OK! We don’t need to be cured!”

But when a Deaf person suffers a heart attack, the real nightmares begin. The British Deaf Association’s discussion paper, launched yesterday, reports again  on the life-threatening barriers BSL users face when they actually do need healthcare.

However, it being the 21st century, new ways are being found to bridge this communication gap with Deaf people. In Scotland, NHS24 has piloted the use of video technology to bring ‘remote interpreters’ into the frame. It can work, but of course it depends upon a supply of competent interpreters.

They’ve thought of that, too.

In a UK ‘first’, NHS24 is seconding a group of its staff to Heriot-Watt University’s BSL interpreting degree. That’s a commendable commitment on the part of the service. Investing in four years’ full-time training per student underscores a really serious response to the problem.

And it shows that they know it’s THEIR responsibility to make healthcare properly accessible to BSL users.

That perfectly illustrates what we need to see across the board. Public services – health, education, social services, the legal system – facing their lawful obligation to ENSURE their own accessibility.

Not just by hoping for the best, but by nurturing skilled professional interpreters. And, when it makes sense to use limited resources in this way, to provide frontline practitioners who can sign, fluently and directly, with Deaf citizens.

It’s not a pipedream. It’s a perfectly achievable goal, as other countries have already shown. It just means paying attention to informed advice, especially from the BDA, which represents BSL users nationwide. And then, when you say you will treat Deaf people fairly, it means putting your money where your mouth is.

Now that’s what I call using your imagination.

Author: Graham Turner

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