17th September 2015: A momentous day for the BSL Community

by Graham Turner
On a most extraordinary afternoon last week (17th September 2015, a date to be remembered), it seemed that half of Heriot-Watt’s Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies re-located to the Scottish Parliament for a few hours. Why? It was the Stage 3 (final) reading in the chamber of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill.
The Bill passed with unanimous support from the assembled Members of the Scottish Parliament, and will be fully ratified following Royal Assent in 4-8 weeks’ time.
We can state it dispassionately in the clear light of a later week, but this was anything but a calm and sober occasion. For evidence, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u61__M7dUS4. You can watch the whole debate from about 1:03:00. But you really only need to see the audience reaction to the final vote (from about 2:35:00) to get a feel for the electrifying nature of the moment.
You could ask any one of LINCS’ eight British Sign Language (BSL) staff members, or our six research students, or indeed any of the 60-odd undergraduate students now enrolled in years 1-4 of our honours degree programme, and they would be able to tell you why this was such a momentous day for the BSL community.
You can read, or watch in BSL, a perspective about the thinking behind the Bill from Heriot-Watt’s Professor Graham Turner (published last year to encourage engagement with the first draft of the Bill) here: http://limpingchicken.com/2014/12/05/turner-bsl-bill/.
There’s an excellent blog summarising what the Bill does (and doesn’t do) here: http://bristol.verbeeld.be/2015/09/17/british-sign-language-scotland-bill-passed-final-hurdle/. It is designed to create an ongoing framework for national planning around BSL which will lead to continuous, incremental improvement in the way BSL is protected and, crucially, promoted across Scottish public life. The community’s priorities will need to be elicited and sustainably enacted: some future scenarios are contained in evidence (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_EducationandCultureCommittee/BSL%20Bill/TurnerProfessorGHHeriotWattUniversity.pdf)  sent from Heriot-Watt  to the Parliamentary committee which reviewed the Bill.
You can see from sources like this http://scotlandfutureforum.org/assets/library/files/application/BSL_Report.pdf that Heriot-Watt has championed this cause from the front since at least 2010. In fact, five years’ campaigning doesn’t even scratch the surface of the deep and painful history that underpins last week’s success. Heriot-Watt BSL staff can tell you story after story after story of friends, family and colleagues who have lived and died in pursuit of proper respect and recognition for BSL.
As Avril Hepner, the British Deaf Association’s Community Development Manager in Scotland, told Parliament in her evidence before the Bill passed, this legislation finally enables BSL users to feel that they belong in Scotland, and Scotland belongs to them along with everyone else.
Scotland therefore becomes the only part of the United Kingdom to secure legal recognition of BSL to date. Needless to say, campaigners everywhere will be encouraging Westminster to follow Scotland’s lead, and Heriot-Watt staff will be fully engaged in supporting their efforts.
So if you see a BSL user anywhere in the UK in the next wee while with a huge, undimmable grin on their face – you now know why. This is huge. Shake their hand.

Passing as deaf or hearing: choosing cross-cultural identities

by Noel O’Connell

On 15th June 2015, media reports raised questions about Rachel Dolezal’s background. A scholar of race and African-American culture and daughter of white parents, Dolezal had identified as Black. Stories of black people “passing” as white or white people as black have been a fascination for researchers and historians for many years. Racial passing is generally understood to mean identifying oneself as member of another race (historically the white race). In its simplicity, the practice of passing – presenting oneself as someone one is not – may be so intuitive or natural that people may not bother to ask: “What do you mean you’re black?” I would argue there is much to discover behind this simple question. We need ask why some people desire to transform their identity even while it is clear their persona contradicts the image of their original identity. I believe the issue around ‘passing’ mirror the experiences of deaf and hearing people. Ironically though this topic has rarely been given attention in Deaf Studies research. We actually know very little about what constitutes ‘passing’ or about how deaf and hearing people may want to claim an alternative identity.

In schools where policy prohibited sign language communication, deaf children were trained to ‘pass’ as hearing children in order to achieve a desired outcome. To pass as ‘hearing’ means to behave and act ‘normally’. The practice involves imitation – copying and displaying hearing people’s cultural traits, norms, and values. In postcolonial terms, we know that mimicry is the act of imitating the language, behaviour and attitude of the coloniser. Under oralism (an educational ideology that outlaws sign languages) mimicry is applied when deaf people copy hearing people’s attitude and patterns of behaviour. In passing-as-hearing or impersonation, the deaf person portrays an image of ‘hearingness’. By speaking, talking and listening to music, wearing hearing aids and cochlear implants, they reflect and highlight socially defined hearingness. Deaf people attending mainstream schools may be inclined to present a persona of hearingness given how are often exposed to hearing culture with little opportunity to learn British Sign Language (BSL).

Similar to what happened under colonialism, we assume people born into one particular category might end up being socialised into another category. Caitlyn Jenner (aka Bruce Jenner), former Olympic champion, for example, took on different gender or sex roles. When it was reported that Rachel Dolezal had been presenting a persona of a Black American, it drew comparison with Jenner. While the link between the two shows that race and gender have much in common, we find identifiable parallels exist with the experience of deaf people. But what does this say about hearing people? Do they claim to be culturally Deaf? I doubt there is any evidence that this is true. We might ask why anyone would want to claim an identity that, in the eyes of society, holds a less than ‘privileged’ status.

In terms of how a Deaf Studies researcher might approach the subject of passing, we might ask: how do people negotiate their identities around the deaf/hearing line? Do we assume we can change our deaf/hearing identities and become ‘hearing’ or ‘deaf’ while still displaying markers of our original culture? Are there obvious cultural markers that can be discarded? More research is required to find answers to these questions. In particular I’d argue that the notion of ‘passing’ should be analysed in Deaf Studies research where we can discuss how one constructs, claims, justifies or resists ideas around alternative identities.