Making BSL a bigger part of Scottish life will benefit everyone, not just deaf people, writes Ashley Davies
One of the most engaging conversations I’ve ever witnessed took place between two eight-year-old boys who were analysing a film they’d seen. They were paying complete, absolute attention to each other as they described in great detail what they’d watched, re-living scenes with clarity, awe and giggles. I can’t be certain what movie they were discussing though, because they were speaking a language I only know tiny snippets of – British Sign Language (BSL).
Had they been born just a few decades earlier, those kids might have been denied the chance to speak with such fluency at such a young age because – unless they’d been born to deaf parents or into an unusually well-informed family – they’d probably have been expected to learn how to lip read from the outset.
This is all well and good from the perspective of a person who can hear (we’re in the majority, after all, so, like native English speakers, we lazily expect everyone to adapt to our own way of communicating, expecting them to get their heads around all the nuances of a language that suits us best) but for a disgracefully long time, many deaf people were actively discouraged from using sign language.
I have no idea what it’s like to be deaf, and I know that everyone’s situation is unique, but I can only imagine that having one’s ability to communicate hamstrung by being forced to “listen” and “speak” using the wrong tools must be completely frustrating, not to mention intellectually crippling.
The Scottish Government is therefore thoroughly deserving of praise for its recent passing of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, spearheaded by Mark Griffin MSP.
Broadly speaking, it aims to encourage the use of BSL in Scottish public life and to raise awareness of the language among the hearing population. It compels public bodies and local authorities to set out plans explaining how they will promote the usage of BSL, which is now recognised in Scotland as an indigenous language – much like Gaelic.
There are dozens of reasons why this is a valuable and worthwhile move.
The most obvious – and desperately needed – ones are to do with improving translation services to people who are vulnerable, isolated or in trouble, and ideally pooling resources between various bodies to bridge the communication gaps and enhance understanding.
One can only imagine how desperately lonely life could be for a deaf person with special needs who only has access to a few hours of translation services a week. The sense of abandonment would be awful.
And imagine how terrifying it would be to have dementia and not to have somebody qualified to help explain what you’re going through.
There are high levels of unemployment and mental health problems among deaf people, according to Frankie McLean of Deaf Action, a Scottish deaf-led charity. It’s hard not to surmise that feeling geographically and socially isolated and not having one’s potential recognised or nurtured are key factors at play here.
But it can’t be emphasised enough how irritating it is for many deaf people to be treated as if they have a disability, because hardly any of them regard themselves that way. Perfectly intellectually capable people can find themselves in Kafkaesque situations if they can’t speak the same language as the individuals or systems they’re dealing with.
I’ve heard horror stories about deaf people not being able to explain themselves – or indeed be correctly understood – in delicate medical situations or in matters requiring legal clarity and care.
In fact, the Scottish Council on Deafness found that 77 per cent of BSL users couldn’t easily communicate with NHS staff. That’s pretty scary.
BSL is already used at home by more than 12,500 people. It is a rich and complex language, and is so much more than a visualisation of English. It has its own grammar and, as well as signs, requires the use of facial expressions, body language, and, crucially, you have to really pay attention to what the other person is saying.
Merely writing down what one means isn’t really going to cut it when complex matters – whether they are technical, emotional or artistic – are being discussed.
An estimated 90-95 per cent of deaf children are born to parents who can hear perfectly well, and may not have any experience of communicating with a deaf person. Those families need support not just to maximise their children’s potential but also to help them have high ambitions.
My sister-in-law and her husband are both profoundly deaf and are lucky enough to live in a large city with a thriving, diverse, politically active deaf “community”, where they are encouraged to shout for their rights and are unlikely to ever feel isolated. One can only hope that the Scottish bill will help deaf people living in more remote locations to feel more included and to have a voice.
My sister-in-law and her husband have raised three astonishingly bright, funny, loving boys, who had the benefit of growing up bilingual, something that has proven educational and social advantages. (Again, hopefully Scotland’s moves to widen BSL usage will help). Over the years I’ve watched the way they communicate with the boys and I’ve admired and envied the closeness and care they take with each other. Maybe it’s just because they’re lovely people, but it really does seem as if having BSL in their lives adds a subtle extra layer of understanding that the rest of us can only wish for.
As for me, though, I’m ashamed at how little effort I’ve put into learning BSL, other than swearwords (“bullsh*t” is easy to remember – cross your forearms and make the bull horns with one hand and mime the other end with your other) and would like to think if I’d had the chance to learn at a younger age I’d be able to get stuck in conversation-wise. I might even know what film those little boys had enjoyed so much.