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