There are more than 800,000 people in this country who were born deaf or lost their hearing before they learned to speak. But until recently totally deaf people were obliged to struggle to talk like the rest of us. With tragic results.
It is understandable that we in the hearing world should wish the deaf to be able to join us. To communicate easily with us, and we with them, to share our aural pleasures. In 1880 an international conference passed a resolution banning the use of sign languages and proposing that deaf children should only be taught by hearing teachers. But, well-intentioned though the hearing people who drew up this ‘oralist’ policy were, it was a disaster for people who lacked hearing.
If you are profoundly deaf from birth you are never going to pick up a spoken language to a socially acceptable degree, any more than British retirees in Spain or old Mrs Bibi from a rural village in Bangladesh will pass as a native in their adopted country. They will always be outsiders. Deaf children were academically deprived and socially excluded, living a poor quality existence on the margins of the hearing world. In many countries they still are. Patrick, aged 15, lives in a Ugandan village. He has never had a conversation. But see him at his first lesson at the Deaf School, watching everyone signing. The dull expression on his face turns to joy as he realises that he too will be able to communicate.
The British Deaf and Dumb Society (now the British Deaf Society, BDA) was founded in 1886 by four Deaf men to counter the established orthodoxy and to validate the Deaf identity: deafness as a difference, not a disability. Hence the capital D. Promoting the status of signing was essential to that identity.
Signing is processed by the brain just as it processes spoken languages. There are around 150 recognised sign languages in the world, all different, so British Sign Language – BSL – and American Sign Language – ASL – have little in common. Each language has its own grammar and syntax and each develops as spoken languages do with local dialects, slang, swear words. And each, like, you know, evolves new patterns of speech, innit.
The BDA suggest that BSL is the first language for 70,000 Deaf people. That’s more than speak Gaelic. For around 150,000 hearing people who live and work with Deaf people, BSL is a second or third language.
Sign language uses gesture, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it was generally appreciated that it is not miming. Only in 2003 did the British government recognise British Sign Language (BSL) as a language in its own right. Theatres, lecture halls and TV increasingly provide BSL interpreters so more of us will have had the opportunity to watch signing and to appreciate it as a fully functional language.
In September 2015, Scotland’s parliament unanimously passed a bill granting BSL the protection of legal status. Westminster still has ‘no appetite’ to do the same.
So though Deaf people south of the border can bring their dog to a GP consultation, they still don’t have the right to an interpreter. Hospitals advertise that BSL interpreters are available, but finding one is rarely as straightforward as finding someone to interpret Bengali. How easy would you find it to get hold of a BSL interpreter in the practices you work in?
Legally, deafness is a disability, but managers who would quickly be on the case if there were a problem with wheelchair access tend not to remember their obligations to the Deaf and, indeed, to the hard of hearing. Being Deaf is only the first obstacle in the way of functioning in the world of sound.
For a start, many Deaf people struggle to read and write English. It’s a foreign language, and very differently constructed from BSL. Letters represent sounds, so how do you interpret words when you have no concept of a sound? Research is working on the challenge. But as with any language learning, the more fluent your first language, signing, the more easily you will learn to read English.
If you know what sounds are like, cochlear implants may make using a spoken language easier, but hearing is about more than aural input. An adult who has never heard anything will struggle to make sense of sound. So many of those who have never had hearing question the value of cochlea implants to them.
Modern IT has made communication between the Deaf and hearing people easier, but there are many Deaf people, particularly the elderly, who would find reading the newspaper or health information leaflets as difficult as I would find reading them in Greek. No wonder the Deaf have poorer-than-average health.
It surprises many hearing people that Deaf people do not crave hearing. If your English is poor, you are a second-class citizen in the hearing world. With other Deaf people they fit in. They share a rich culture. They want their children to share it. For them, deafness is normal. Watch Grayson Perry’s interview with a Deaf family and their friends. Paula was brought up in Jewish culture, but to her parents’ disappointment Deaf culture is now much more important to her. Deaf friends congratulate her on her deaf daughter – “She can share your lives”.
Can Deaf culture be compared with ethnic minority cultures? There is one big difference. Members of, say, the Turkish minority in UK are born to Turkish parents, but more than 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents. So they do not absorb Deaf culture at their mother’s knee. And the Deaf cannot be distinguished by the way they dress or the food they eat.
Society’s views of multiculturalism are a muddle of idealism and prejudice, fear and laziness. Can the hearing world accept the difference of the Deaf community? A 1986 Hollywood film plotted the rise and fall and resolution of a love affair between Sarah, who is Deaf, and James, who is hearing. Should the Deaf always be considered Children of a Lesser God?