I am going to open this editorial with a few reflective questions. When was the last time you met a deaf person? Were you able to communicate with them? Could you communicate with a deaf person in an emergency situation if you needed to? Do you know that we have two sign languages in Northern Ireland? And do you know that lips have accents?
Deaf people have always existed. However, we have also been silenced and have lived in silence. Contrary to what you might think, this has not been because we cannot hear in the same way as everyone else, but because communicating with deaf people has always been ‘someone else’s problem’. Deafness evokes a fear of the unknown for mainstream society. It has been easier to ignore, to be ‘too busy’, or perhaps to panic when it comes to interacting with those who communicate in different ways from the so-called norm. Yet one in seven of the population has some level of hearing loss – that is over 250,000 people in Northern Ireland
Deaf people are very present in the community. They are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and colleagues. The majority (78 percent) of our deaf children and young people attend mainstream schools, and there are deaf people in many workplaces ranging from law, politics, healthcare, teaching, architecture, human resources, social work, engineering, construction, hospitality and finance to name a few. This presence belies the extent of barriers and discrimination that deaf people experience across the course of life and which most deaf people are required to overcome if they wish to succeed. These barriers and pressures also contribute to poorer mental health outcomes among deaf people when compared to hearing people. We might say that deaf people are good at pushing through adversity. This is nothing to be proud of. There does not need to be such adversity. The adversity we experience is not from a medical condition – it is man-made.
As deaf people, we cannot easily adjust our mode of communication to access a world that has, until now, been designed by and for hearing people.
Imagine if the tables were turned, that to be deaf and communicate via sign language was ‘normal’, and that to be hearing was to be different, and in the minority. In this instance the world would be inclusive for deaf people as the majority. Imagine schools, arts, information, television all in sign language and how this might impact on hearing people. Imagine trying to follow ministerial briefings during the last year of the pandemic if these were solely in sign language. There might be calls for spoken language interpreters and hearing people might struggle to achieve educational qualifications because teaching and resources are based on sign language. You get the point I’m making. The power lies with each of us to create an inclusive, respectful society of which we are all part.
Work to enhance the status of sign language has been under way in Northern Ireland for some time. In 2016, the Department of Culture, Arts and Languages launched a consultation on a Framework promoting sign language to ensure that BSL and ISL users have the “same rights, responsibilities, opportunities and quality of life as those in the hearing community by enshrining equality and social inclusion in legislation for the current and future generations of Deaf sign language users and their families”. Central to this Framework are the proposals for draft legislation to safeguard ISL/BSL users’ rights as a cultural and linguistic minority to be able to access services in their own language. The collapse of the power-sharing Executive in January 2017 meant that progress towards the legal recognition of BSL and ISL stalled. Commitment to drafting sign language legislation was included in the New Decade, New Approach, however a Sign Language Bill will, unfortunately, not form part of the current mandate.
The deaf community have many stories to share. When I first met VIEW editor Brian Pelan some years ago he – perhaps worn down by my incessant rambling on the barriers and challenges facing deaf people – proposed the idea of an issue of VIEW solely on deaf issues. I am so delighted that, thanks to Brian’s enthusiasm and commitment, this has come to fruition and that this special issue brings some of those silenced stories to the forefront. I am hopeful that this issue provides a snapshot of deaf people’s lives – the good, the not so good, and ways forward. The solutions are fairly clear:
• Equality and recognition: through a Sign Language Act.
• Communication: join a sign language class in your local area and let’s make sign language part of the school curriculum.
• Ask – remember there is a spectrum of deafness and communication needs. Not everyone is a sign language user. If you aren’t sure how best to communicate with a deaf person, just ask.
• Lips – lips are important! Make sure we can see your lips, be patient and try saying things a different way if we don’t get it the first time.
Let’s make these solutions a reality.
• Footnote: The term deaf with a lowercase ‘d’ refers to anyone with a hearing loss irrespective of degree of hearing loss and mode of communication. Deaf with a capital ‘D’ refers to those who identify as part of a cultural and linguistic community.