Deafness, BSL and Controversies
THE POWER OF LANGUAGE
Most people would be horrified at the thought that they may be acting oppressively towards deaf people, and yet discrimination in one form or another is met on a daily basis by deaf people throughout life. Such discrimination may not be deliberate - not that people simply don't care, but more likely that they just don't know where to start.
The interface between the Deaf and hearing world is beset by controversies, such as the fact that many Deaf people do not consider themselves disabled, but as part of a cultural linguistic minority, and discussion on this topic is welcomed through the forum.
One of the chief defining features of culture and identity is our language. In the case of Deaf people in Britain, this is British Sign Language (BSL) and Deaf people have been calling for its official recognition for many years. The reason this cause is so central to Deaf people's wishes can perhaps be explained in the following excerpt from the Introduction to SIGN LANGUAGE COMPANION 1996.
"...The situation for BSL users has similarities with other 'minority' language users and also important differences. In 1988 the European Parliament called on member nations to recognise their own sign languages as official languages of their countries, yet BSL is still not fully recognised as a language of Britain. This has implications for its status and the status of the Deaf community who use it, with the result that BSL is not used for teaching in the majority of schools attended by deaf children, is not a language option in mainstream schools, and there are virtually no Deaf teachers of the deaf (with a very few exceptions). Policies, determined in the main by non-Deaf people, continue to promote speech and lipreading (oral communication), or sign systems that support oral communication but which lack the visual grammar of BSL that gives the unconstrained and natural communication needed for the early development of a first language.
Another fundamental difference concerns bilingualism - a person's ability to use two native or habitual languages. It is very unlikely that speakers of Welsh or Scottish Gaelic will be monolingual - that is, only able to use that language - they will be bilingual in English and the minority language and able to function in both, even if they prefer their own language. They share a stake in the language in power and can be part of the democratic decision-making process; they can make their voices heard. Peope who are born severely or profoundly deaf, or who become so before the age of two when spoken language is starting to emerge, are not likely to develop English as a natural first language (again there are exceptions, but they are few). Many do not gain competence in English at all. Deaf children are at a huge disadvantage in cases where their degree of deafness is so severe that they cannot acquire the spoken language of the home and society with ease, even with the best amplification. It is not simply that Deaf people choose BSL in preference to English, but that BSL is essential to them: it is their first language even if acquired later that usual for a first language, since few get the opportunity to develop BSL in their early years either
...Deaf children need two languages (BSL and English) for healthy growth and development and participation in society, but far from having a bilingual option, many deaf children ae in danger of having no true language foundations at all."