Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

BSL ‘recognition’ – ten years on


(Image, from http://www.grumpyoldeafies.com/2008/03/the_5th_anniversary_of_apathy.html, a post worth reading in its own right)

So, yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the recognition of BSL by the UK government, of the provision of a £1.5 million support fund to encourage BSL, and of the successful end of the BSL recognition campaign.

Wasn’t it?

Not really. It was the tenth anniversary of one of the most damaging gagging manoeuvres ever pulled on the Deaf community in the UK.

And, although I don’t think the government actually set out with the aim of silencing the Deaf community… the tactics they employed wouldn’t have been out of place in colonial days. What better way to silence, and disarm a group who are gaining momentum, and have a legitimate claim to justice, than to muddy their campaign with half truths, confuse and divide them with a pay-off, and then cause those who are still dissatisfied to be ridiculed and quietened from within, for fear of losing what little has been gained.

2003 brought no recognition of BSL – at least none that recognised BSL and its place in the UK. Sure, there was recognition of BSL as a language in the UK… that’s a no brainer, that’s like recognising that women have a vagina, and men have a penis – but it’s not equality.

Nor did 2003 bring any form of proper government recognition. Again, there was an announcement by a department of the government – the bit that administers disability and welfare provision – just the bit you don’t want to announce something like this… it’s rather like a group of vivisectionists claiming that animals have a right to life, because it serves their purposes by allowing them to experiment on them for longer.

And it didn’t bring any real support fund. Yes, there was a pot of money – which was chopped up into about 10 parts, and awarded to a number of projects from across the range of everything to do with ‘d.e.a.f’ from the University of Bristol, to the RNID (as was) to consortia of BSL users. All of the project were service oriented, and (as is perfectly legitimate for a service body) decided that they’d got what they wanted, and started working out how to spend it (or fritter it away).

So, 2003 didn’t see a successful end to the BSL campaign. Yes, it stopped it – perhaps ‘killed it’ would be a  better way to put it, but it died in weariness and confusion rather than a blaze of glory, with some thinking that it was all over, others only too aware that it hadn’t even begun – and a general exhaustion at the realisation that proper recognition would probably be even more difficult, given the need to cut through the additional layers of phony recognition that was now in place.

Which is why, after 10 stolen years, it’s bubbling up again.

A campaign entitled ‘Spit the dummy’ was birthed earlier this year… and is currently growing. Calling for a BSL Act that will parallel the Welsh Act, the movement generating over 10,000 hits within the first few days of appearing on Facebook. Check Donna Williams’ blog post on the subject, and the (closed group) FB page for more information.

And Twitter yesterday was full of comment, particularly from activists who were also present in the pre-2003 campaign, about the need for renewed action, and about how to use things like parallel reporting against the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to force governmental accountability where they have failed to deliver on their commitments.

I’m all for this – and I would like nothing better than to see the government embarrassed, and legally bound to deliver on its commitments… but I’m aware that even though I’m a vindictive sod, and I would enjoy seeing the government squirm, there’s little value in recognition if it’s simply words on a piece of paper.

And that’s what I fear a BSL Act might be if, following a successful campaign, it’s adoption finds no ‘ready space’ to fit into the wider world. It will simply be a legislative lever… as Welsh can sometimes be seen to be in non-Welsh areas of Wales; perceived as tokenistic, expensive, unnecessary, slowing everything down… resented as a sop to political correctness.

Compare that attitude with the ready public opinion that (from my point of view anyway) is drawing the Equal Marriage Bill – despite opposition of the most ‘stuck in the mud’, and despite the past provision of civil partnerships – through parliament.

I’m not arguing against campaigning. But if it only results in legislation, then it’s only achieved a small part of what recognition is all about. What’s needed is a wholesale shift in public opinion that brings the wider world to a point where it doesn’t simply ‘legislate’ – it ‘welcomes’.

That way, recognition becomes less something imposed, and more something that was already in place, that has simply been formalised, that would have been an injustice if it hadn’t been agreed.

But a wholesale shift in public opinion does something else too… It spreads the net over those who are impacted by a lack of recognition, so that those asking for it are not just a small group, but society at large.

I’m not gay – should I be bothered whether the UK allows gay people to marry? Of course, because society isn’t just about ‘me’ recognising ‘them’ and ‘their’ rights. It’s about ‘us’, and ‘our’ rights.

Perhaps this is simply me looking for an excuse to justify involvement… but as a hearing person, although I can carry a banner, or support a campaign, I can’t legitimately claim that the lack of BSL recognition ‘oppresses me’. I can’t ‘spit the dummy’, or ‘hold the government accountable’ for its actions towards me.

That is, unless, I associate with Deaf people as part of a wider social project that welcomes the diversity of each member, celebrates and glories in the differences that each brings.

That humanity should birth a visual language that is the equal of a spoken language says as much about my potential as a human as it does anyone else’s… And, although I recognise that Deaf people have a special relationship with that language that I will never share, to deny that language recognition removes just as much of my humanity as it does any Deaf person’s.

Sure, I can get by without signing… but even the fact that I should have to makes my world a duller place.

As a friend of my tweeted yesterday: “Every day is BSL day”.

So it’s not just Deaf people who are oppressed by the lack of formal recognition for BSL as a full language within the UK. It’s all of us.

And it’s not just ‘Deaf’ people who want it recognised… it’s ‘us’.

5 comments on “BSL ‘recognition’ – ten years on

  1. Kristin
    March 19, 2013

    A terrific blog posting. Thank you. This echoes what we are trying to achieve in Ontario with recognition of Deaf children’s right to ASL and LSQ from birth under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

    • Mike Gulliver
      March 20, 2013

      Hi Kristin, thanks for reading… Canada is particularly close to my heart, having lived in Quebec for two years, and spent some time in the French-speaking part of Ontario.

      Your work is for children… is there parallel work going on to recognise ASL and LSQ within the Canadian national linguistic scene for adults too?

  2. Glen Barham
    March 21, 2013

    Eloquently put. I wrote a post on this but not nearly with such gusto … and I must confess to being a little envious. I agree with your take on this and feel that this is about so much more than BSL. It is about community and how we all partake. The lack of awareness around deaf access issues is staggering but whose fault is that? Equality legislation has focused so much on the physical environment missing the point that access means more than how you get in the building or up the stairs. Access to information, access to service and access to … participation.

    Last week I visited Deaf Village Ireland (www.deafvillageireland.ie) and I was impressed. Rather than create some ghetto exclusively for deaf people, they’ve created a community CENTRE. The CENTRE being the Deaf Community. Drawing together organisations working with deaf people is only a small part. Where they succeed, I hope, is that they have a community complex and state-of-art gymnasium open to all. As a result, they have over 2000 hearing members engaging with the deaf community on a daily basis and asking for more awareness and involvement.

    Do we need a BSL Act or something deeper that forces organisations to review their practices across the board making them properly accessible and allowing full participation?

    • Mike Gulliver
      March 25, 2013

      Hi Glen,

      Interesting questions… I’d say ‘something deeper’.

      I guess what I’m looking for is ways to harness the mainstream public view to support BSL – like happened by accident in the mid 80s through See Hear on BBC 1, and that led to the explosion of demand for BSL teaching.

      If the public *know* that BSL is a valid language, and *know* that they want to use it, and *know* that Deaf people created it, and *know* its value and worth then, whether the government want to or not, they’ll have no choice but to recognise it eventually.

      Or, maybe, at that point, there’s no need for legislation… except to force lazy, stuck-in-the-mud organisations to play ball.

      If Deaf Village Ireland is offering the kind of encounter and engagement between Deaf and hearing that generates that kind of interest and involvement, then we need some of that over here.

      Perhaps that’s the kind of encounter that events like the BSL pride day (http://www.facebook.com/events/142373245937798/) offer?

  3. Pingback: Alison Bryan: How to get a BSL Act onto the government agenda | The Limping Chicken

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This entry was posted on March 19, 2013 by in Musings and tagged , , , , .
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