I was around ten years of age having dinner with my family. My parents who were at the time taking British Sign Language (BSL) Level 1 started signing to me at the table. I screamed at them to stop, thumping the table. Why were they doing this? I didn’t need it. I wasn’t like those people who used it. They promptly stopped using it with me and the issue was not raised again for some time (Although they did thankfully go on to pass their Level 1s that year).
How ironic that the boy who produced such a furious reaction should years later be running a project aiming to improve access to BSL learning for deaf children and their families. What prompted me to do this?
I was born profoundly deaf in the late 70s but had taken well to hearing aids and my speech was clear enough to be easily understood. I went to a hearing school and had hearing friends. The world of sign language and the Deaf community was very distant. Things changed however. Secondary school was a tough environment – children are at the age where they start conversing a lot more in groups in school corridors and playgrounds. Group conversations were almost impossible to follow and as I felt more and more isolated it began to dawn on me that I might need another option in life.
When I was 15, the opportunity arose to start learning BSL through a class my local Deaf Children’s Society set up. From then on I mixed more with deaf BSL users. I became more confident with my BSL over the years and was eventually able to start using interpreters. It opened a lot of doors for me and there are so many people I would never have met if I hadn’t learnt. Nowadays, I happily switch between speech and sign depending on who I am talking to and the situation I’m in. In a noisy environment for example, using BSL is much more relaxing.
It is for this reason the attitude of some professionals towards BSL is frustrating. I came across one former Teacher of the Deaf of mine recently and I found it quite amusing how her face dropped when I told her I was running the I-Sign project. Perhaps she was disappointed one of her former star pupils was now working to improve access to BSL, not an approach she ever advocated. Often I find the most negative attitudes about BSL from those who have not learnt it themselves or found it ‘too hard’. On the other side of the spectrum there are people with very fixed ideas of how all deaf children should be brought up using BSL as their first and main language that I can find equally frustrating. It is not the role of teachers or audiologists to tell parents how their children should communicate but to ensure families have the knowledge and tools for their children to acquire a high level of language and be fully included within the family.
As much as possible, I believe that it is children that should have the choice. My parents tried to do this and perhaps as a ten-year old I wasn’t ready, for there had only ever been one way up to that point. That was thanks to the sensory support services who had warned my parents off learning BSL.
It was through NDCS that my parents were able to meet other parents with a range of perspectives and gain balanced information. With parents still reporting negative attitudes from professionals, NDCS has a vital role to play. They believe families are the most important influence on deaf children and young people, and need clear, balanced information to make informed choices.
Martin McLean runs the I-Sign project which aims to improve access to BSL for deaf children and their families through the SEND reforms. See www.ndcs.org.uk/isign for more information.