A good sign for our times

by | Blog

The unopposed second reading of the Private Member’s Bill to give British Sign Language (BSL) legal status is a welcome bright light in these dark and dingy days.

In proposing the Bill Labour MP Rosie Cooper recalled her own experiences of growing up as the hearing child of deaf parents. “I saw first-hand the difficulties deaf people face every day – the huge challenges my parents had to overcome, to be heard, to be listened to. More importantly, to be understood.”

Explaining the aims of her Bill, Ms Cooper said: “I want to finally recognise BSL in statute, not just a gesture, but a law which requires positive action from the Government, with real progress putting deaf people on an equal footing with those of us who hear.

“For every deaf person like my parents, who’ve been ignored, misunderstood or even treated as unintelligent for simply relying on BSL, this recognition will be clear and will be a message that their language is equal and should be treated as equal.”

The warm appreciation of the West Lancashire MP’s words and the subsequent sensitive interview of British Deaf Association chair David Buxton by Fatima Manji of Channel 4 News [1]https://www.channel4.com/news/mps-back-proposal-to-give-british-sign-language-legal-recognition is a far cry from the days decades ago when I was asked to help the work of the radical National Union of the Deaf (NUD).

In those times before emails and mobile phone texts the campaigning NUD had a real problem communicating their demands for BSL recognition to a wider audience – people like me who had little understanding of the lives of the deaf. I was shocked, for example, to learn of the steps often taken to stop young deaf children using their hands to communicate.

We were helped by the visit to London of Harlan Lane, the American language and linguistics specialist. His history of the deaf When the Mind Hears conveyed the anger and frustration of all those who, deprived of their language, are deprived of their rightful heritage.

I was very fortunate to be guided into this world by Paddy Ladd, a charismatic founding NUD activist along with Raymond Lee, who helped bring an awareness of that history and the use of sign language to the BBC through See Hear. [2]https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006m9cb

His Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, published in 2003, brought his academic skills to bear in his continuing commitment to understanding and reform. Paddy’s life and work is well captured in this interview with Tessa Padden. [3]https://www.bslzone.co.uk/watch/close-up-series-3/close-up-paddy-ladd-pt-1

The Commons vote was a heartening step forward and not just for those of us who suffer deafness of the ear. It should encourage us to reach further: as Victor Hugo observed, “the one true deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the mind”.