A Day for BSL

Many academics and educationalists, as well as lead organisations have much to say and much information on the topic of deaf children and their communication needs. My take is as a lay person who has been through ‘the system’, having become almost completely deaf at the age of two in 1953 from the high dosage of streptomycin given me to save my life when I contacted viral encephalitis. There’s a whole story there – one day I’ll write it all down, but not just yet.

Yesterday two momentous events highlighted the importance of communication for deaf people and made me feel I needed to write something.

The Silent Child won the Oscar for best short live film. For hearing people, the message was stark. Deny children who are born deaf (or become deaf before acquiring speech) and you deny their rights – to language and to their place in family life. For too many deaf people it illustrated the isolation they felt growing up, often leading to frustration, depression and despair. Some had flashbacks, bad dreams and experienced the surfacing of agonising memories.

On the same day deaf people were celebrating that marvellous Oscar, a debate was held on the inclusion of British Sign Language in the national curriculum, following a petition. The minister’s response was disappointingly negative and the debate was held in Westminster Hall, not the House of Commons. That reminded me of something someone said on twitter about The Silent Child – that it was ‘niche’. Pretty dismissive comment, I thought, and replied politely challenging that term.

Many efforts are (and have historically been) made to ‘fix’ deaf children so they can hear and speak. I was going to talk about my own experiences, but so many others I know have had the same or similar, it’s probably more important to say a few things in general about the effects on a child of this ‘fixing’. Imagine spending weeks, months, years being taught to lipread, to hear with aids and to say, for example, the word ‘apple’. Does that enable the deaf child to know what an apple is; where it comes from; that there are varieties; to understand the part an apple plays in the story of Snow White? Not having sign language means educational achievement is skewed from day one.

How about the psychological and social effects? Hearing people in the majority of situations begin chatting to their babies the moment they are born. There are many brilliant hearing parents who make every effort to give their deaf baby visual information as well, and some learn sign too. This gives the child every opportunity to find friends they can communicate with and to feel included by their own family.
Too many, influenced by medical professionals, by their families, by their own fear of being isolated from their child, by the mistaken conviction that speech and hearing is the holy grail, seek only audio and surgical solutions. To me it seems perverse to do this, when the brain of a baby and young child can learn so much from visual input, whether deaf or not. Baby sign classes are very popular; makaton (a sign system, not a language) can be seen on popular children’s television. Yet sign is too often discouraged for the very people who need it as their first language. Growing up, finding your own identity and place in the world is tough enough without having to struggle to lipread all the time. Whether or not you have hearing aids or cochlear implants (not a miracle solution, rather an advanced hearing aid) having other means to communicate can make life less stressful, less exhausting, and more fun too.

This isn’t an polemic anti hearing aids, implants, radio aids, induction loops, alerting devices, captions, lip reading classes or hearing dogs. Those are all here to stay, and benefit many people. It’s just a fervent wish that all these things weren’t seen as reasons not to have sign language too.

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