Sign Language in Action

by Jemina Napier

Click here to see this blog in International Sign, British Sign Language or Irish Sign Language

Jemina book

Sign Language in Action is a new book just published by Palgrave as part of the Research & Practice in Applied Linguistics series.

The book is co-authored by Jemina Napier and Lorraine Leeson, who both have extensive experience as sign language researchers, educators and interpreter practitioners – Jemina in the UK and Australia, and Lorraine in Ireland, with briefer stints in Belgium, the UK and the USA.

We have both conducted research and written extensively on various topics which can be considered under the umbrella of applied linguistics, including sign linguistics, sign language discourse, sign language and identity, sign language learning and teaching, and sign language interpreting and translation.

After many conversations on our mutual research interests, we decided to collaborate on writing this book to draw together all the threads from our research into one overview.

So the book defines the notion of applied sign linguistics by drawing on data from projects that have explored sign language in action in various domains. The data sources have been drawn from various studies have been conducted by us both.

As well as defining key concepts and giving an overview of existing research, the book provides clear guidance on conducting applied sign linguistics research, with suggestions for new research topics.

The book is targeted at sign language and sign language interpreting students, sign language teachers, researchers, interpreter practitioners and educators, Deaf Studies teachers and students, educators working with deaf children, and policy makers.

It will also be of interest to other people working with minority language communities and to scholars and practitioners in applied linguistics research more generally.

Following on from an earlier blog post by Jemina that discussed the ethics of conducting sign language interpreting research without deaf people involved, we feel it necessary to position ourselves in relation to the focus of this book, as neither of us are deaf.

So here, we discuss our role as hearing people doing sign language research, and our goals in writing this book.

The involvement of non-deaf people in the deaf community has been an on-going and vexatious issue. There has been long recognition of the value that ‘hearing’ people bring to the deaf community if they embrace the values of the community and can sign fluently enough to engage with deaf people.

There have been attempts to separate the identity of hearing people that are involved in the deaf community from those ‘other’ non-deaf people who do not use sign language and who are considered as ‘outsiders’ (see Napier, 2002; Ladd, 2003).

In the USA, there is currently much debate about the notion of interpreters having ‘Deaf-HEART’.

Others have suggested that there should be no reference to audiological status, and instead we should refer to a community of ‘sign language users’ (Bahan, 1997), ‘sign language persons’ (Jokinen, 2001) or ‘sign language peoples’ (Batterbury, 2012; Batterbury, Ladd & Gulliver, 2007).

Whichever convention you prefer, we identify ourselves as hearing people; we align ourselves with deaf people and their values based on our long involvement in the community, and we bring that subjectivity to our research and our writing.

There is also much debate in the deaf community and among researchers about the potential oppression that deaf people face in having non-deaf people conduct research on their community, with emphasis on the need for research to be with deaf sign language users (Sutherland & Young, 2014; Turner & Harrington, 2000) and to adopt a ‘community participatory approach’ (Emery, 2011; Napier & Sabolcec, et al, 2013; Young & Temple, 2014).

Consequently there is an emerging body of work that explores the need for ethical approaches to conducting sign language research in order to ensure that there is involvement from deaf sign language users in conducting the research; that deaf people’s views are taken into consideration; and that the research is ‘deaf-led’ (see Harris, Holmes & Mertens, 2009; Hochgesang , Villanueva, Mathur, Lillo-Martin, 2010; Mertens, 2010; Singleton, Jones & Hanumantha, 2012; Singleton, Martin & Morgan, 2015)

We do not see ourselves as positioned only in Deaf Studies. As linguists and interpreting studies researchers we see our work within a broader context of applied linguistics and intercultural communication, and the languages that we work with happen to include signed languages.

Thus our focus in our book is on sign language use, and not deafness.

We acknowledge though that although we are allies of the deaf community, we are not deaf, and therefore do not have shared life experience with deaf people. We are guests in the deaf community (as suggested by O’Brien & Emery, 2013), but we do have a strong philosophy of collaboration with the deaf community collectively and individually in all our research and practice.

We believe that it is important for deaf and hearing researchers to work together for the best interests of the worldwide deaf community, but we recognise the power we have as hearing people in the community and the historical backdrop of hearing researchers dominating the field.

We have ‘hearing privilege’, but privilege does not always have to occupy a negative position. We would assert that we accept the responsibility of having hearing privilege (Storme, 2014), and we use our hearing privilege positively to broker engagement and educate inside and outside the community.

 Because of our hearing privilege we get invited to do things like write a book, but we believe that we act in a way that is congruent with deaf cultural norms and values, and one of those values is reciprocity.

Adam (2015) talks about the importance of disseminating information about sign language research in sign language, and you will notice that the majority of blog posts about sign language research on the LifeinLINCS page have links to signed versions (including this one).

We would like to take this one step further – all the royalties from this book will be donated to the World Federation of the Deaf to support their on-going work with deaf sign language users throughout the world. So we are using our hearing privilege to give back to the deaf community.

This book focuses on sign language in action; where and how it is used, who by, and how we can research sign language in action in order to better understand the relationship between sign language use, culture and identity. For us, we have deliberately focussed our discussion on how deaf and hearing people use sign language, and the implications for learning and teaching and professional practice, in the hope that the information in the book will benefit all sign language users and the values of the deaf community worldwide.

Mental health interpreting – considering some of the challenges

By Yvonne Waddell

Work in mental health settings is often unique from other settings the community interpreter works in. When we consider that language is the principal investigative and therapeutic tool in psychiatry, (Farooq & Fear 104: 2003) the interpreting process will have a direct impact on the way that therapeutic tool is applied. As interpreters working between languages and cultures, the approach we take to interpreting utterances in this area should be considered, especially when a change in a patient’s language may have implications for their mental health state (Pedersen 2012).

As my colleague Jonathan described in his recent post, during the mental health session the interpreter will have access to the form of the language and specific linguistic information that the clinician does not since they do not understand the language of the patient. This information may be lost in translation where specific patterns of speech (such as clanging) are of a different form in the interpretation. If these types of examples are not discussed between clinician and interpreter, the subtle language-based cues indicative of illness may be missed. In addition to these linguistic and paralinguistic considerations, the area of mental health contains many challenges for the community interpreter.

The idea of considering the thought world of the other participants in the interpreted interaction is not a new one, the term first being introduced by Namy in 1977. The participant’s thought world as part of ethical decision making has been developed more extensively by Dean and Pollard (2013) in their textbook for interpreters as practice professionals.  For those of us interpreting in the community for minority languages, I would suggest that we most often consider things from our minority language users’ point of view, so it can be useful to take some time considering the thought world of our majority language user/hearing participant. Working with interpreters is rarely a daily occurrence for mental health professionals. Bear in mind that this type of interaction is probably new to the professional, and the vast majority of medical professionals are only trained in the typical medical interview, where there is one other person in the room (the patient) and they share a language and culture (Rosenberg et al 2007).

Those of us in interpreting studies are aware of the advances the profession has gone through in terms of the role, degree of involvement and appropriate strategies of the interpreter. However, professionals express a preference for a conduit model of interpreter and consider a word-for-word literal translation as the most accurate (Dysart-Gale 2005, Rosenberg et al 2007, Hsieh 2010). While this fixed translation approach may be problematic for ensuring accuracy of meaning, this preference may reflect the importance of how something is said both by professionals and patients in mental health settings. The mental health professional will use deliberate and considered phrasing in their approach, and they are keen for that to be preserved in the interpretation.

However, mental health professionals who are unfamiliar with the grammar of a minority language may not realise that literal interpretations of terms are not always possible and perhaps two words in English may require several sentences in the minority language to accurately relay the meaning. If we consider an example of BSL (British Sign Language) as one of those minority languages, professionals who do not realise that BSL is a full and distinct language from English and assume that BSL is simply ‘English on the hands’, may expect the interpreter to stop signing once they have stopped speaking.  As the interpreter continues to sign, although they are accurately relaying the meaning of the original utterance, if the professional doesn’t have access to what they are saying in this expanded interpretation, they may begin to feel left out of the conversation, or suspicious of what is being signed after they have stopped speaking.

In anticipation of these moments of tension that can arise, one strategy might be for the interpreter to keep the professional in the loop as to when a term may need expansion in the second language. The ideal time to have these types of discussions would be in the brief meeting the interpreter has with the professional before the appointment, or afterwards at the debriefing.  While best practice in mental health interpreting research may describe the benefits and necessity of these briefing sessions (Chovaz 2013, Tribe & Lane 2009, De Bruin & Brugmans 2006, Messent 2003,) I also work in health boards across Scotland as a community interpreter, and am aware of how rare those briefing sessions can be when you are a freelance interpreter booked for a one-off job, and dilemmas occur often.

When we are faced with a dilemma in mental health settings, being aware of the mental health professionals’ communication objectives is also important in helping us come to a decision.

Let’s take another example:

Imagine you are interpreting at a counselling session. In response to one of the counselor’s questions, the client’s answer lasts for 20 minutes. The counselor actively listens to this narrative but does not interrupt. The client is signing (or speaking) very quickly and displaying strong emotions, and you are struggling to pick up some of the names and other details that are being described. You feel like you should interrupt and clarify because you might have got something wrong, and you are missing details, but you also don’t want to stop them as they are in full flow, it’s the first time they’ve really opened up about this and the counselor does not seem to be making any moves to interrupt them. This is an example of where interpreting values (such as accuracy) come into conflict with the values of the setting (the counselors’ priority of the client’s narrative). This is where dilemmas arise for interpreters. Since both values are valid, deciding which value to forfeit is a process suited to careful consideration of all contextual factors relevant to the situation. I’ve found Dean & Pollard’s Demand – Control Schema an effective taxonomy to frame this consideration of the interpreted interaction.  If we know in advance that the counselor’s goal for this session is to allow the client the space to communicate their story uninterrupted and feel listened to, then we may decide to prioritise the value of the setting over repeatedly interrupting the patient to clarify terms in order to preserve accuracy. This can leave us with an uneasy feeling of, ‘I didn’t interpret properly, I should have interrupted to clarify that name.’ That uncomfortable feeling is due to the forfeiting of interpreting values, which is never an easy decision, but that feeling isn’t something we need to carry around with us, affecting our confidence and making us uncertain over whether we ‘did the right thing’. The feeling can be understood and explored in the context of a supervision session, or in debriefing with the counselor who may assure you that they were more keen on having the person express themselves that having them interrupted for less important details (for more on value conflict for interpreters see Dean & Pollard 2013 and Dean & Pollard 2015).

While interpreting in mental health settings may always be challenging, by continuing to be reflective practitioners, engaging in CPD, conducting further research in this area, and sharing good practice, perhaps we can move towards a more effective interpreting experience for all involved.

Yvonne E Waddell is a registered BSL/English Interpreter, working in community and conference settings. If you’re a regular attendee at the EdSign Lecture series you’ve probably heard her work into English, or seen her interpreting into BSL. She is currently a doctoral candidate in LINCS exploring strategies employed by mental health nurses when working with Deaf patients and sign language interpreters.


Chovaz, C. J. (2013). Intersectionality: Mental Health Interpreters and Clinicians or Finding the “sweet spot” in therapy. International Journal on Mental Health and Deafness3(1).

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. Q. (2013). The demand control schema: Interpreting as a practice profession. CreateSpace.

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. Q. (2015 in press). Re-discovering Normative Ethics in the Practice Profession of Interpreting. In L. Roberson & S. Shaw (Eds.), Signed Language Interpreting in 21st Century: Foundations and Practice. Gallaudet University Press.

De Bruin, E. & Brugmans, P. (2006) The Psychotherapist and the Sign Langauge Interpreter. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education.  11:3 Summer 2006

Dysart-Gale, D. (2005). Communication models, professionalization, and the work of medical interpreters. Health Communication, 17, 91-103.

Farooq, S., & Fear, C. (2003). Working through interpreters. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment9(2), 104-109.

Hsieh, E. et al (2010) Dimensions of trust: the tensions and challenges in provider-interpreter trust. Qualitative Health Research. 20 (2) 170-181

Messent, P. (2003) From postmen to makers of meaning: a model for collaborative work between clinicians and interpreters. In R. Tribe & H. Raval (Eds.), Working with interpreters in mental health. London & New York: Routledge

Namy, C. (1977) ‘Reflections on the training of simultaneous interpreters: A metalinguistic approach.’ In Gerver, D., & Sinaiko, H. W. Eds. Language interpretation and communication (Vol. 6). New York. Plenum Publishing Corporation. p25-33

Pedersen, D. D. (2013). Psych Notes: Clinical Pocket Guide. FA Davis.

Rosenberg, E., Leanza, Y., & Seller, R. (2007). Doctor-patient communication in primary care with an interpreter: Physi- cian perceptions of professional and family interpreters. Patient Education and Counseling, 67, 286-292.

Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1998). The linguistics of British Sign Language: an introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Tribe, R., & Lane, P. (2009). Working with interpreters across language and culture in mental health. Journal of Mental Health, 18(3), 233–241.

As If We Weren’t There

by Jonathan Downie

Neutrality has often been touted as one of the cornerstones of interpreting ethics. The general view seemed to be that interpreters should be so good that the multilingual event would run as if everyone spoke the same language. In other words, it should be as if we weren’t even there.

Now, I have already publicly said that I have serious doubts about using “as if we weren’t there” as a basis for our practice but let’s pretend that it works absolutely fine and let’s simply ask the question: “what does it mean to make the event run as if we weren’t there?”

For many interpreters, the answer will be that, whenever we are faced with ethical issues, we should either do nothing or stay inside our roles as interpreters. If we are asked to hold a baby while a woman has a gynaecological exam, we should say ‘no’ and explain why. If we are asked our opinion by a lawyer, we should decline. If we notice someone being taken advantage of, we should do nothing at all.

The odd thing is that, the more we think about those kinds of dilemmas, the more we realise that doing nothing and standing back is the exact opposite of making it ‘as if we weren’t there.’ For instance, the fact that a witness does not speak the same language as the rest of the court, automatically puts everyone involved in a weaker position than they would be if they all spoke the same language. The jury will find it harder to pick up linguistic cues, the lawyers will find it harder to wrestle the nuances out of responses, the judge will find it harder to assure that the witness is not being badgered and so on. For that reason, if we don’t ask for side benches when necessary, a bilingual court becomes less fair than a monolingual one since not all the necessary information is available to everyone who needs it.

How about mental health interpreting? My colleague, Dr Robyn Dean once shared an ethical scenario presented to sign language interpreters which goes a bit like this.

You are interpreting for a Deaf person who is receiving care from a psychologist. After the meeting, the Deaf person leaves the room and the psychologist turns to you and says, “so what do you think?” What should you do?

The ‘right answer’ given in one handbook was that the interpreters should refuse to comment, since it is not their place or training to pass judgment. Yet, if it is our job to restore things to the way they would be if we weren’t there then refusing to pass on the kind of information that the psychologist would pick up if their patient did not need an interpreter puts both parties at a disadvantage.

Obviously, it is not the place of the interpreter to make clinical judgements on the person’s mental state. There could be a case to be made, however, for the interpreter to pass on the kinds of signals that a trained psychologist could read in a patient who spoke their language. So, it may be useful and relevant to say, ‘his signing space was small’ or ‘he tended to reverse the normal grammatical sentence order’ or, ‘when you asked him about his childhood, his signing became sharper and more intense.’

In this case, the interpreter is not doing the psychologist’s job for them but simply passing on the kind of information they need to do their job effectively. If they don’t, we could easily argue that someone seeing a psychologist with the help of an interpreter would be at a disadvantage compared to someone who didn’t need one.

If these cases seem controversial, it’s only because we are not used to actually thinking about the outcomes of our decisions. We are more used to defending our space as interpreters by telling people what we don’t do than thinking about our responsibility as interpreters and what we should do. We are not used to realising that there are consequences for every decision, especially deciding to do nothing.

In short, if it is our job to make it ‘as if we weren’t there’ then we have to realise that our work would necessarily include addressing the imbalances of power, differences in knowledge, and variations in cultural norms that arise when two people do not share the same language. Doing nothing or declining to act actually makes these differences more pronounced, which would seem to go against what we think we are doing when we try to make it ‘as if we weren’t there.’

I remain to be convinced that trying to do that is a sound basis for ethics. But I am definitely not of the opinion that declining to act is any better. There must be some better basis upon which interpreters can make decisions responsibly, what might that be? Let’s hear your views.

Why Interpreters Should Forget About Quality (and concentrate on value)

by Jonathan Downie

How can we define “quality” in interpreting? What does it mean to be a “good interpreter”? Before I answer that, let me tell you a little story.

I was doing chuchotage interpreting at a wood industry conference. The first plenary talk was given by an economist. This particular economist crammed as many charts as he could on each slide. Added to this was his love of long, complex numbers. Numbers are hard enough when we are in nice booths and have the chance to take notes in advance. When you are doing chuchotage and you have no advance warning, they are practically impossible.

Faced with this task, I decided to concentrate on giving a version that would be useful to the French delegates, even if that meant dropping a few (or more than a few) numbers in the process. I had realised that the purpose of the entire conference was to help people see the economic context they had been in and prepare for the one they were going into. So that’s what I aimed to do in my interpreting.

Now, interpreters have almost universally defined “good interpreting” or “quality” in interpreting as being all about interpreting everything the speaker says, getting terminology perfect, and staying totally neutral. So, following that logic, what I did at that wood conference would count as bad interpreting.

Yet, from the point of view of the people who actually needed my services I did a great job. Actually, the head of the French delegation leaned behind me, while I was working, and said to his colleague “il est bon, cet interprète, n’est-ce pas?” [This interpreter’s good, isn’t he!]

We can now be pretty sure that the reason for such differences in quality judgments is that clients use different criteria from interpreters when judging quality. In fact, even when interpreters and clients seem to be using the same criteria (such as accuracy), it turns out that they are likely to be using completely different definitions.

Now, we could stop at this point, argue that clients are clueless and go on doing what we are already doing. There are two problems with that. The first is that it happens to be clients who are paying our invoices so it is bad manners to call them clueless! The second problem is that, as soon as we assume that we have things right already, we stop learning.

A more useful explanation of the difference between how clients see interpreting and how we see it is that we often talk about “quality” in interpreting in a way that separates it from any context. We describe it in terms of reducing errors, creating standards and maximising productivity. In short, the way we often talk about quality treats interpreting as if it were a product and not a service.

Clients necessarily view interpreting in terms of the contexts in which they receive it and in terms of what they want to achieve in that context. Instead of neutral, depersonalised “quality”, they view interpreting in terms of the value it adds to them. In short, for them, it is a service and not a product.

That knowledge is vital if we are ever going to improve the status of interpreting and stop the relentless drive towards cost-cutting in some circles. For as long as we talk about interpreting as if it were a product that can be described in terms of “quality”, we are actually encouraging clients to look for ways to cut costs and reduce how much they pay for it. If we start talking about interpreting in terms of the value it adds, then we will have a much better platform from which to argue that interpreting is worth investing in. It’s our choice.

Giving it away

by Jonathan Downie

Translators and interpreters know all about being passionate. Most of us arrived in this industry because we were passionate about helping people communicate. Many of us also carry a passion for the industry itself. We get into debates over conditions, working practices and clients. In two words: we care.

This “care” can and does translate into action. Translators and interpreters willingly donate their time, skills and money to helping charitable causes the world over. From refugees in the UK to Ebola patients in West Africa, there is hardly a crisis or cause that doesn’t need information to be passed from one language to another.

Until fairly recently, the idea that translators and interpreters can and should lend a hand went unchallenged an unqualified. As long as the goal was non-commercial and the cause seemed legitimate, there was little discussion as to where the work might end up. Pro bono translators and interpreters took it on trust that they were doing their bit.

All that has now changed. In discussions that have raged across blogs and forums, professionals have started asking big, hard and sometimes borderline aggressive questions about pro bono work. Clearing houses for such work, such as Translators Without Borders, now seem to be the subject of suspicion in some quarters. Increasingly, there is a desire to know who exactly benefits from the work, whether paying for the work might be a better option and to what extent local professionals might be losing out because of it.

These are good and useful questions. There are very good arguments for transparency and accountability that apply across all pro bono and charitable work. Yet, it is undeniable that, since we have the resources to ask such questions, our perspectives are skewed. I doubt very much whether a refugee cares too much about the remuneration of the interpreter who works with them. For them, a listening ear, a truthful representation of their views and a chance to understand and be understood trump any economic debates.

There is no doubt that we need to be transparent about how and when and why the efforts and resources of volunteers are used. In a current fundraiser I am involved with, which aims to raise money for anti-people trafficking charity the A21 Campaign by selling multilingual t-shirts, everything about the campaign from the people involved to the precise donation per t-shirt is online. The problem with this, of course, is that the more that is online, the more decisions are open to criticism.

A similar dynamic can be at work among new entrants to translation and interpreting who list all their volunteer work on their CV. While there are very good reasons for doing this, it is not unthinkable that certain clients may take exception to the precise causes chosen. Some electronics manufacturers might take a dim view of work for civil liberties or pro-privacy groups. Other potential clients might feel uneasy at evidence of campaigning for certain causes. While new translators and interpreters have always been advised to keep politics off their CVs, pro bono work can help it resurface.

Perhaps the solution is to be a bit more realistic. Pro bono work will always be important, both for those who donate their time and those whose lives are changed by it. The necessary transparency that goes with it, however, will always open up the opportunity for criticism. But then, as Andrew Morris points out, standing out and being different has always been a better business strategy than following the crowd and making no waves at all. Maybe the emphasis should be on the opportunities that pro bono work can bring and the lives it can change, over the people who might disagree with our decision to do it.

Interpreting Needs Troublemakers

Author: Jonathan Downie

I was in London on Saturday for a meeting and I got chatting to some fellow interpreters about the ways that research is challenging how we think about and practise interpreting. Here in LINCS, for example, Robyn Dean is arguing for us to fundamentally shift how we think about ethics, Penny Karanasiou is asking tough questions about the role(s) of interpreters in business negotiations and I am beginning to think that experienced clients might have more helpful views of our work than we do!

All this spells trouble. Doing research like this means threatening some of the most cherished ideas of our profession. Who doesn’t like to coddle the comforting thought that we know better than our clients about, well, everything? If you start talking too openly about problems with mainstream interpreting ethics, you remove one of the few firm foundations in our profession. And as for discussing whether interpreters can do more than “just interpret”, it’s probably safer to just leave that well alone!

But the thing is, all the good researchers I know are very bad are just leaving things alone. Safe is not a word we tend to like. In fact, I was accused of enjoying stirring things up on Saturday. Me? As if!

All joking aside, I do really think that challenging preconceived ideas is exactly what our profession needs. If we discover flaws in our practice or training or in the way we sell our work then of course, it must be confronted. This is where research is at its best. When researchers get their hands dirty and ask difficult questions, sparks begin to fly.

Take Robyn’s work in interpreter training. Rather than just sit back and criticise, she actively trains interpreters to apply the case conferencing techniques used by doctors. I know of many other researchers who do groundbreaking research and then take the brave step of presenting it to professionals so they can apply it.

If interpreting is to thrive in today’s high-tech, always-on world, we need to be able to adjust. This doesn’t just mean adopting some new technology or learning to be fashionable. It means asking the though questions about what we need to change in our practice to meet our clients’ real needs and growing expectations.

Is it scary? Yes! Is it necessary? You bet. But that’s why I do research: to do work that can benefit the wider world. Maybe it’s time we all did the same.

Vow of Silence: One week later

(After a week of self-imposed silence, acknowledging the British Deaf Association’s Sign Language week, Professor Graham Turner reflects on a week in a signing world.)

I don’t remember ever being described as ‘Christ-like’ before.

There was a considered and thoughtful explanation. But the starting-point for the person’s comment was a reference to the ‘sacrifice’ that I was making by choosing not to speak for a week.

Which, of course – if you think about it for just a moment – leads inevitably to reflecting on what British Sign Language users experience every day in their encounters with the hearing world. It’s obvious that if I’m ‘making a sacrifice’ by not using speech, it’s considered desirable to speak.

What happens if you don’t?

Well, here’s what happened to me. It’s a kind of insight into what Deaf people routinely face.

People immediately started treating me as if I were invisible. Their logic was, if he can’t speak, then he can’t hear, so he’s irrelevant. Implication? Ouch.

I couldn’t do the everyday things hearing people do just to show that they’re friendly and human. Getting off the bus, I couldn’t thank the driver. When a delivery arrived, I couldn’t pass the time of day with the courier. These things don’t seem to change the world – but they do. There is such a thing as a society. It’s built on these little moments.

At work, too, it’s amazing how much of the important stuff happens in the corridors and the staff kitchen. That quiet word in the Head of Department’s ear. That useful nudge about a forthcoming conference. The deadline for a research funding opportunity.

I published research referring to this very topic over a decade ago.  It was still salutary to get a direct sense of its impact.

I had to rely on colleagues’ good-will to interpret for me once or twice. They knew the score and didn’t mind. But supposing this happened every week? What would that do for our relationship – if I were making frequent withdrawals from their bank of generosity? How quickly would they start seeing me as needy and irritating?

Even with little snippets of interpreting, it helped to take a moment to brief the interpreter-colleague on what I was trying to convey. Over the course of a week, those ‘moments’ added up. If I’d had hour-long lectures to deliver, that preparation time would have increased hugely. Where would I have found the time for this, whilst keeping all the other plates spinning?

In meetings, I tried writing notes for others to read out on my behalf. With my comments in front of them, and me listening, even people I knew still sometimes revised my words. With the best will in the world, my input was being distorted.

Sometimes, I couldn’t get my comments in before the meeting agenda had moved on. So I had a choice. Swallow my contribution and look like the guy who has nothing useful to offer? Or annoy everyone by bringing them back to an issue they’d finished with just to hear what I had to say?

My Deaf colleagues are able to pay for interpreters when required (with funding from the Access to Work scheme). It has transformed the workplace for many BSL users. Hearing signers can’t opt into the scheme. I’d love to maintain my ‘vow of silence’ indefinitely. Without the resource to be interpreted when necessary, it just wouldn’t be possible.

But for Deaf people, this funding – always tightly rationed – is being reduced and new demands imposed by the Department for Work & Pensions. The repercussions are catastrophic. An Early Day Motion has been created seeking a re-think.

Especially after this week, I’d urge anyone to write to their MP and ask for their signature on the Motion. It matters.

I was also reminded that the current qualification system for BSL (levels 1-6) doesn’t push signing skills to the very highest levels of fluency! Knives and forks were definitely not invented by signers. But Deaf people become adept at maintaining signed conversation despite such obstacles. That’s level 7 signing.

Driving a car means that both your hands AND your eyes are otherwise occupied. So Deaf cars lack chat? Not a bit of it. Level 8.

So I’ve made it to Friday. What have I learned? Mostly, what a lot I still have to learn.

I’m profoundly hearing, and I always will be. I can’t inhabit a Deaf person’s life, no matter what. But this week has made me reflect, and see some of these things from a different angle.

How about you?

I’m confident any hearing person would learn from the experience. Don’t do it for my sake. Do it for the person who wrote to me midweek: “I am the mother of three kids, two hearing and one Deaf. Thank you. Your vow of silence means a lot to me.”

And please tell others about it. Tell us by replying to this blog. And watch this space for our plans to make further progress on the issues.

Thanks for listening.

Author: Graham Turner


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

Vow of Silence: Day 3

In solidarity with British Sign Language users in the UK, Professor Graham Turner is subject to a self-imposed vow of silence. Can he remain speechless and last for an entire week in BSL? What will he learn from the experience?

Living in Edinburgh, I can barely step out of my front door before someone’s playing the bagpipes at me.

As a matter of fact, I love it. What other country is associated with such a distinctive, pervasive symbol of identity? Ever been to Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo? Once in your life, you should. I may not be a Scot, but up on the battlements, silhouetted against the stars, the piper sends those skirling notes up to the heavens…

Not much use if you’re Deaf, of course.

So is a cultural heritage something you only get if you’re hearing, then?

Do me a favour. Not a bit of it.

The pipes may be great – but YOU HAVEN’T LIVED until you’ve experienced signed art. Had your heart squeezed by signed stories. Washed your eyeballs in tears of laughter at signed comedy. Seen the past re-kindled and the future set ablaze in signed drama.

Oh sorry, I keep forgetting. You ignored sign language until just lately because you thought it wasn’t really as good as speech, didn’t you? Trust me – and I say this as one who’s forgotten more than he cares to remember of the French, Greek, Latin and Swedish he studied in days of yore – you have been mightily misled.

British Sign Language was named – in Edinburgh: where else? – back in the mid-70s by the late, great and much-missed sign linguist, Dr Mary Brennan. The British Deaf Association backed the BSL Training Agency a decade later as it encouraged Deaf people to become professional BSL teachers and pass on their expert knowledge to others – and thousand upon thousand hearing people have opened their minds to BSL since. And it was the BDA again that published its doorstoppingly substantial and globally groundbreaking bilingual BSL-English dictionary in 1992.

So there’s no doubt whatsoever of the linguistic status of BSL. Not only is it a language: it’s a language that can blow your mind.

Unlike users of any spoken language ever discovered, signers can produce more than one word at a time – what did you think you had two hands for? And BSL isn’t just about what the hands do. It’s a full-body experience. Facial expression and bodily action are also exploited as integral features of the grammar. Signed languages are spectacularly creative, constantly playing with words and drenching every expression in a cascade of meaning and nuance.

The signed universe is an astonishing, achingly poetic place to live.

As it happens, Edinburgh is one of the most happening places in the BSL firmament right now. Part of that energy is coming from Heriot-Watt University, where a dozen sign language specialists, from as far afield as the USA and China, passionate and fizzing with ideas, are assembling research evidence  and educating the next generation of UK and global interpreters.

But Edinburgh is also a place to enjoy the cultural depth of the Deaf community, and to experience the rich heritage embodied in BSL. Just last weekend, you could have been at the Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile at the latest Visual Virus show. Three Deaf exponents of the most vivid BSL, and not a sound to be heard all evening except for the cultural heartbeat of the Deaf nation – and that noise people make when they laugh their socks off.

In fact, Scotland stands on the verge of transforming the BSL landscape. With all-party support, Mark Griffin MSP  intends to put a BSL bill before the Scottish Parliament later this year. It will focus minds and energies on securing the future of this language community, and on safeguarding its linguistic human rights.

As yesterday’s BDA BSL Symposium in London clearly showed, the rest of the UK is paying close attention to progress at Holyrood. Deaf people, just like others, are entitled to enjoy our uniquely visual cultural heritage. Our children – including those born to hearing parents – are entitled to share that extraordinary linguistic inheritance.

And, if you only have eyes to see, you’re more than welcome to come in. Just enter through the doorway marked ‘BSL’ and find out for yourself. The future signs.

Author: Graham Turner

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 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,  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