This status appeared the other day in my Facebook feed:
Went shopping. Met someone who asked me if I was deaf and I said yeah. Then she went into full flow in BSL. I said stop! I don’t sign (I really don’t when out and about, only if I meet other deaf people who do). I really HATE it! I wish people would learn to accept what you tell them and if you say you don’t sign to stop embarrassing me in the middle of a supermarket!! Do you feel like that sometimes?
That status attracted nearly 200 comments, and polarised people. Obviously as the perpetuator was posting on her wall, many of the commentators were friends who shared her opinion, but some couldn’t understand why she would be embarrassed. One was so upset – being a deaf mother of four deaf children, all with BSL as their first language – that she felt compelled to check with her friends that it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of.
But these words – from John Walker, who blogs at Deaf Capital – struck the biggest chord with me:
People attach status to language. How English is spoken has been directly linked to class (ie. cockney vs. received pronunciation) so it follows that English has a higher status than BSL in the general public. Every time a statement is made about BSL users, you are also making a statement about your status as an English user – and that status is about class. On the surface, it may be about communication but deeper down, it is about creating a pecking order.
The attitude towards diversity of David Cameron and his cronies in the coalition – most of who are ex-public schoolboys – is one I am all too familiar with. As a banker’s daughter, I have met many people of his ilk in my time. Growing up, my family would take me to pre-Christmas parties in their homes – where I discovered that the Queen’s English didn’t always mean clear speech.
Some guests attached so much pomp to their received pronunciation their lips barely moved. Sometimes, when my family arrived at some large country spread, I’d secretly hope that it would be loud and absolutely heaving, so they’d be forced to enunciate more. (Of course, it didn’t work. They’d try and mumble in my ear instead.)
Was it their cravats? The stiff tweed three-piece suits they’d wear? Much as I wanted to be included, eventually I realised there was no point in even trying, because they weren’t prepared to. When you have been born into a lifetime of privilege and inheritance and ostentation and wealth, I guess it can be hard to see how you could personally benefit from adapting your communication to suit a deaf person.
At the deaf oral boarding school I was attending back then – and the partially hearing unit (PHU) before that – I could already tell that very few of my classmates had that privilege. Clearly, I had been born into one minority, but actually belonged to another, by virtue (if you can call it that) of lack of access.
Thus my deafness gave me my diversity, and subsequently led me to the first Deaf Club I ever visited, when I was in my twenties (Bristol Centre for the Deaf, if you must know).
Of course, to go from pre-Christmas drinks with ex-public schoolboys to deaf oral school to the Deaf Club was a massive culture shock. Bristol Deaf Club was packed every week with proper, salt-of-the-earth Deaf BSL users – but that was fine; most of them welcomed me into the fold. The more I socialised with them, the more I savoured being able to look round the room and understand exactly what everyone was talking about.
That is why I am a sucker for diversity. I believe in BSL because of the insight it gives me, and how much it opens up the world. Once, it enabled me to facilitate communication between two hearing people – one of whom had CP and no speech. My love of BSL reflects the inclusive values I uphold.
English may still be my first language; I was born into a hearing family, and went to bankers’ Christmas parties when I was growing up; I can’t help that.
Now, I respect other deaf people’s decision to live how they want to live. Commitment to diversity means respecting differences in people. But BSL is also my saving grace. For me to be embarrassed about someone signing back to me in a real effort to practise inclusion – a scenario that is sadly far too rare – would signify I was ashamed of my diversity, or at least the diversity of the minority I belonged to.
Effectively, it’d mean sucking up to the coalition – at the expense of my rights as a deaf person.
- Deaf voices are natural, so why are they still mocked? | Charlie Swinbourne (guardian.co.uk)
- Do you see what I’m saying? (independent.co.uk)
- Writing, BSL, my Deaf identity and me (themostynthomasjournal.com)