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


0 thoughts on “Vow of Silence: One week later

  1. I feel slightly ashamed that, having considered joining you in a week of signing, the main reason I did not was how difficult it would be for me to give up the things I love doing like singing and talking on Skype with relatives and chatting with my course colleagues. Selfish selfish … perhaps next year…I may organise sponsorship to benefit the BDA at the same time.

  2. Hi Graham, I wasn’t sure how I felt about your choice to acknowledge the British Deaf Association’s Sign Language week by taking a vow of silence. I remarked to a colleague in my office that as hearing staff who have an understanding of a lot of the issues faced by our Deaf colleagues it seemed a bit like preaching to the converted and I would have thought using your voice to spread Deaf awareness to the hearing population was a preference but having read todays blog I am feeling much more positive about the concept. Small steps is a phrase we use a lot when discussing breaking down barriers between Deaf & hearing and I feel I can appreciate how this small step made a huge impact.

    • … and perhaps we dream up a few more hair-brained schemes of this ilk for the months ahead…? Sans frontières, of course. My show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August might be one such example… oh yes…

  3. This made me reflect on my first sign language course. With no sign language I attended a total immersion course 30 years ago run by Ann Verney (AVTS), no speech was allowed for a whole week of residential. With the help of great tutors , Judith Collins, Gloria Pullen, Lorna Allsop ,Linda Day and others the profound experience changed my whole life and perception of the world in just a few days. It is surprising there seems to be nothing like this experience on offer today.

    • Interesting point, Sean. We certainly offer plenty of BSL-only classes and events to our students at Heriot-Watt – right from the start – as CDS Bristol used to do. And all of our students have a one-YEAR placement in the Deaf community – not as interpreters, just to interact on a daily basis with BSL users ‘in the wild’. But an intense week of not speaking is indeed a qualitatively different experience. Perhaps we should revive it.

  4. A truly fantastic piece of writing. When I was learning stage 1 we had 1 day when we went shopping as a deaf person. The shop assistants gave offers to the hearing only getting served at times was difficult as assistants preferred to serve a hearing person. My hearing friends avoided me saying you were busy with your deaf friends. For the record they were hearing and were learning sign-language like myself. I am now fortunate in having a few deaf friends who try very hard to get my hearing friends to understand them. It is a pity my hearing friends dont make the same effort they come to my good self and I try to help them but I am no expert.

  5. Friendships are essential in life. Daily niceties, wee snippets of gossip and the opportunity to learn and work together all require communication in a common language.
    Deaf children need friends as much as hearing children do. However, until equality of access to learn BSL is available then this will remain a dream.
    I am proud that the dream has started in Dingwall where you will find pupils meandering along the corridor chatting in BSL, ‘whispering’ an answer to a pal and real friendships are formed from common interests.
    Graham, your blogs were heartwarming and visually hilarious but all twinge with heartbreak and frustrations.
    A journey of a thousand miles requires good shoes and a pair of hands for a wee blether. I have shoes and ma hands are ready… let the dream journey begin…

  6. Pingback: Jen Dodds: BSL users shouldn’t have to battle with other deaf people | The Limping Chicken

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