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