Sign of the times I - The Story of the BSL (Scotland) Bill

February 20th, 2018

It is September 17, 2015. We’re at Holyrood, home of the Scottish Parliament. Mark Griffin, a boyish Labour politician, takes the floor to present his bill to the vote:

Mark Griffin: The aim of my bill has been to encourage the use of BSL in Scottish public life and raise awareness of the language amongst the hearing population. Presiding Officer, I'm delighted to move the motion in my name that Parliament agrees that the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill be passed. Thank you. (Source)

For Mark Griffin to be able to stand in the chamber on that day, a lot of puzzle pieces needed to fall into place. Today, I want to tell the story of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill. My name is Alexander Drechsel and you’re listening to LangFM.

This episode is part of a mini-series on sign language interpreting, a topic I have become increasingly fascinated by in recent years. In the same time, sign language interpreting has moved more into public awareness, including within our profession. AIIC, the international association of conference interpreters, now has members working with sign language. The European Parliament has become involved, as you heard in episode 28 of LangFM, about the EUsigns conference. And more and more countries are upgrading the status of their national sign languages.

Now, be honest: What do you actually know about sign language? Chances are that, like me, it wasn’t an awful lot, unless, of course you're using it yourself or you have a friend or relative who signs. Just in case, here are a few basics to get you started.

Sign languages are real languages. This may sound obvious, but it took until the middle of the 20th century for this to sink in. Signing is so much more than just moving your hands around. Sign languages are full-blown languages, but they work visually, not acoustically. Signing involves the hands, certain movements, facial expressions, the head, the mouth; it's quite complex, really. And yes, there is such a thing as sign language poetry!
There is not one single sign language. Just like with spoken languages, there is a huge variety. I’m over-simplifying things here, but just as different kinds of English are spoken in the UK, Ireland or New Zealand, there are even bigger differences between British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language and, well, New Zealand Sign Language. Spoken language and sign language families do not necessarily overlap. To show you these differences, there are completely different head movements to negate a sentence in Auslan (where you shake your head) and in Greek Sign Language (where you would tilt the head backwards). The best I’ve heard it put was by sign-language interpreter Lauren Harris on Twitter: "It's a 3D language!“
Sign language is not a "crutch", it's a culture. You'll hear more about deaf culture and the deaf community in this mini-series. But even today, there is not enough recognition for sign language around the world.
When it comes to sign language interpreting, maybe you remember the „Mandela Interpreter“? In December 2013, at the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela, an impostor stood on stage and pretended to interpret sign language, when in reality, he just made random hand gestures. The international deaf community was up in arms, as you can imagine. And during natural disasters in the United States, American Sign Language interpreters sometimes go viral on social media.

Jemina Napier: The Mandela fake interpreter experience was, you know, a shock to everybody. „This is outrageous“, because there are actually standards in place, and so we were able to draw attention to that. I think the only problem with some of the emergency announcement interpreting stuff, and the reports on those, is that people see it as a distraction. I think the problem is people not understanding how sophisticated sign languages are and that they're not just 'words on the hands’. So someone's talking about really bad weather, and the way that you imply how heavy the rain is or how strong the winds are, all of that information is on the face. But again, it does give us the opportunity to respond and correct. I think as long as we use the opportunities well, then it's not necessarily negative.

So let’s do exactly that. Use an opportunity and tell interesting stories. Three interesting stories, in fact. You just heard Jemina Napier talk about the Mandela interpreter incident; and you will also meet Graham Turner and Annelies Kusters.

Graham Turner: British students coming to university, if they knew anything about foreign languages, it was only about other European languages. The phenomenon of language is a lot more varied than you'd appreciate from hanging around in Europe for a few years.

That’s Professor Graham Turner. He grew up in the East of England as the son of a speech therapist. Early on, he developed a keen interest in languages; he learned French, Latin and Greek at school and indeed elsewhere.

I studied Kiswahili for a couple of years. I had a real eye-opener in terms of just how different languages can be one from another.

Later, he went on to study linguistics (including some compulsory Swedish) at the University of York and spent a year as a teaching classroom assistant at a school for deaf children.

Working in a school with deaf children, the idea was, okay, you've had a year of general linguistic study, now get out there into the real world and find out whether anything that we've told you in this first year actually has any purchase. And of course, lo and behold, you discover that it really does! And so they we were telling you the truth all that time! And you come back to two more years of study thinking, OK, I really want to hear more because these guys were so right! That school in Newcastle was at the time one of the few remaining segregated schools. And the school was lead at the time by a chap who was in his day quite pioneering, his name was Lionel Evans. He was the head teacher and he was promoting an approach that he called "total communication" which in theory meant: Use with each child the most appropriate linguistic means according to the context in which you find yourself. So that might be signing, it might be fingerspelling, it might be lip-reading, it might be writing, whatever. Good theory. In practice, of course, because you've got one teacher trying to speak to a group of children simultaneously or communicate with a group of children simultaneously, what happened was that a lot of the time you got a kind of lowest common denominator. Looking back, it was a rather ugly mish-mash. But it was at least a school that by the mid-1980s was very comfortable with sign language being part of the linguistic landscape of the school. And most of British education - well, most of European education for deaf people at that stage – was still very strongly oral, you know, children being expected to lip-read and to wear enormous clunky hearing aids and so on.

The „ugly mish-mash“ that Graham described seems to be confirmed by what Annelies Kusters experienced in school:

Annelies Kusters: I was born deaf to hearing parents, the first or four children in a Belgian family. I have two younger sisters and one brother. One of my sisters and one of my cousins are deaf too.

Quick heads-up here: Since Annelies uses sign language, my colleague Saskia Broere kindly agreed to record Annelies’ answers to my questions.

Annelies Kusters: When I grew up, I went to a regular school and couldn’t sign. I used hearing aids, spoke and lipread Dutch, although I am profoundly deaf. The fact that I could speak often misled people: They thought it meant that I heard pretty well with hearing aids, which was not the case. I always did well in class, doing self-study rather than following what the teachers said, since lipreading is mostly guess work. I became well versed in self-study.

Those were difficult times for deaf education. And they were a dark reminder of a key event that had taken place towards the end of the 19th century.

Graham Turner: There was a Congress in Milan of educators of the deaf, an international congress, in 1880, which took the step of effectively banning the use of sign language in the education of deaf children. So for essentially a century thereafter - at least a century thereafter, in many places - signing was effectively, you might say, forced underground in effect. It was stigmatized. It was delegitimized.

The Milan Conference came up again and again during the interviews for this podcast and also in my research. No wonder: As Graham says, the declaration passed in Milan oppressed sign language for decades, some might even say brought it close to extinction.

Graham Turner: It could be used in the home if there were a number of sign language users in a particular family home and it would be used in deaf clubs. But outside of those two contexts, you essentially weren't going to see sign language in the public domain at all.

Interestingly, the American and British delegates at the Milan conference supported the cause of signing, but most of the others were "oralists", people saying that an oral education was better for deaf children. (That was done on purpose, by the way.) Here's what that sounded like:

The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.

The effects, as we have heard, were devastating. Many deaf teachers were out of work. But there were also havens that helped deaf culture survive, like Gallaudet College in the US or the national associations of the deaf.

Graham Turner: Deaf organizations and deaf people have been campaigning against that ever since, and were campaigning from 1880 onwards. The British Deaf Association was founded in 1890, more or less specifically as a way of organising the resistance, in effect. All the way through the 20th century, the story for signing communities has been about trying to overturn that imposition of oralist education and oral socialisation for deaf children in particular. 90 percent plus of deaf sign language using people have two hearing parents. So most deaf people grow up in a family home where the parents are are certainly not fluent signers, if they're signers at all.

But what about the 10 percent?

Jemina Napier: I grew up with two deaf parents, and my home language is British Sign Language and I have a brother who can hear. So both of us have British Sign Language as our first language.

That’s Jemina Napier again, who you already heard at the beginning of this episode.

Jemina Napier: But I also have a much larger deaf family: My mother comes from a family with four generations of deafness, so my grandparents were deaf, my aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody. My life has always been steeped in British Sign Language.

It wasn't immediately obvious to me, but the more I hear and read about this, the more it strikes me how different the deaf experience would have been just a few decades ago. Just listen for yourself:

Graham Turner: And for most of the 20th century those parents were being told by the authorities everywhere they looked: 'Ooh, you mustn't sign with this child, it would be really bad for them. Work on their residual hearing, work on their lip-reading skills, make them talk, don't allow them to sign.'

Jemina Napier: When people ask me a question like 'What was it like?', it's really hard to answer because I don't know any different. I suppose it'd be like me saying 'What's it like growing up and speaking German?'.

Graham Turner: Even sign-language-using parents, I mean deaf parents who use sign language, would not use sign language in public with their own deaf children because they had been in effect brainwashed.

Jemina Napier: I won't tell you how old I am, but several decades ago, attitudes were different. There wasn't this recognition for sign languages that we have now, there were a lot of assumptions about the skills that deaf people have, and that they were even using a language. Growing up in that kind of society was very different from somebody like me who was born into a household with deaf parents who use sign language at home. I think their experience would be very different because there's sign language on television, there's subtitling, there's professional interpreting services. It's a very different kind of life now for people who live in those sorts of families.

Obviously, a lot of time has passed since the Milan Conference in 1880, and later conferences of deaf educators have rejected and even invalidated that harmful resolution. And in the middle of the 20th century, the decade-long struggle finally reached a turning point.

William Stokoe
Two eminent people behind that shift are Dr. Bernard Tervoort in Europe and William "Bill" Stokoe in the US. According to the late genius Oliver Sacks, Stokoe was the one who "cracked American Sign Language“. Which is an unlikely development given that his job was to teach English; Chaucer, to be precise. Many of his fellow teachers at Gallaudet College - a school for deaf students, more on this in a moment - thought very little of the sign language that their students used. In fact, they may not even have considered it a proper language. Stokoe changed that radically. In 1960, he published his seminal book, "Sign Language Structure". It proved that sign languages are, just like their spoken counterparts, fully developed languages. His work was initially ridiculed: Stokoe wasn't an established linguist, and his findings, although scientifically valid, seemed preposterous to many. But it was Stokoe who put sign language and sign language studies on the map. He was also a deaf rights activist whose work was crucial for many deaf movements around the world. His university, Gallaudet, well, it took them a while to come around. Four years after his retirement, Stokoe finally became a professor emeritus and an honorary doctor.

This was inspiration for Annelies:

Annelies Kusters: During my master’s I had to choose a thesis topic from a long list of possible topics, one of which was “deaf culture”. My interest was sparked and when I met the professor who could supervise a thesis on that topic, he pointed me towards two classical Deaf Studies books, wherein American deaf culture and deaf history were explained. Those two books had an enormous impact on me. Firstly, I suddenly put my whole childhood into a different perspective. I felt a deep personal connection with this literature, feeling it was about me, as a deaf person, even though I hadn’t grown up signing. I also immediately took an academic interest in the topic, making connections with the anthropological literature I had to read for my master’s. It became obvious to me that my master’s would focus on deaf lives. Secondly, I realised that it was not too late for me to learn how to sign. Throughout my childhood I always had been interested in sign language but never had gotten the opportunity to learn it. I knew a deaf man who was a few years older than me and also had been mainstreamed, and then learned sign language as an adult. I realised that I also could be, and wanted to be, someone who “arrived late” in deaf communities. I pulled out of the hearing scouts group where I was a group leader and started going to a deaf youth club where I learned sign language.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
Oh, and speaking of Gallaudet: That's a name you will come across often when learning about sign language. It goes back to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the man who established education for deaf children in the United States. He is also the reason for the many similarities between the American and French Sign Languages. The story is very interesting, and I've already covered it in another episode of LangFM, but here it is in a nutshell: In 1815, Gallaudet travelled to Britain and France to learn about teaching the deaf; he was just so frustrated that the deaf in America had no specialised teaching whatsoever. In Paris, he met Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher at the famous Royal Institute of the Deaf. Gallaudet convinced Clerc to come with him to the US, which took them almost two months by ship back then. They made the best of the time available by teaching each other French Sign Language and English. Suffice it to say, Clerc never returned to his native France, but instead helped Gallaudet found the first school for the deaf in Harford, Connecticut. So that's where Gallaudet College, which today is a university, got its name, and mission.

After this trip over the Atlantic, let's return to the young Jemina Napier, growing up in London.

Jemina Napier: Even when you're living with parents who are deaf, and sign language is your first language, as someone who can hear, your world is so dominated by speech and sound: walking down the street, your neighbours, the television, the radio. I never experienced any delays in my speech development, nor did my brother. I didn't have to go to a special school or anything. Actually, my parents’ house was literally right opposite the local primary school. All I had to do was cross the road and I was at school. It was quite handy. I actually have stories that I can tell of my mum walking past the school gate and me being on the playground and signing to her and being able to talk to her even though she was across the road.

I had to ask Jemina: As a hearing child that knew BSL, did she ever interpret, ever have to interpret for her family?

Jemina Napier: It's interesting because for a long time I resisted admitting that. There are, you know, taboos around children interpreting for their parents and this being socially acceptable. For a long time I always used to say, no, I didn't interpret for my parents because it's true: they never asked me to interpret for them. They never forced me to interpret for them. But what I realized much later in life is that actually I did interpret for them. I came across this whole body of research on language brokering, child language brokering, which has looked at children who typically are migrants or refugees. Because the children acquire languages more quickly, the national spoken language of wherever they've moved to, often more quickly than their parents. The child becomes a broker for their parents. And often the child takes it upon themselves to do it, it's not necessarily forced upon them, it's just a role that they take in their family. And I suddenly had this realization that that was me. And then I looked back on my childhood and realized that I did interpret for my parents but often it was me offering to make the phone call, it was me offering to interpret between my mother and the lady at the local shop, even though it often wasn't necessary. They found that they have other ways to communicate. But it was just a part and parcel of my every day life, and I think that's probably what drew me to working as an interpreter because I've actually always really enjoyed that process of moving between the different languages and having a role of some kind of having what I perceived obviously was an important role. I was encouraged by a lot of people. Because when I was very young, in my early twenties, the sign language interpreting profession was just being established in the UK. Previous to that, it had been social workers who had also taken on the role of interpreters. It was around the 1980s when they started to separate the two roles out. By the time I was coming to university, there was no interpreter training program back then at university, so I did a degree in sociology. But I was encouraged, because I was bilingual, to start interpreting. I started at a very young age and then took the opportunity: A Master's degree was set up at Durham University so then I did that.

Hang on, did you say Durham University? Well, the world of interpreting is rather small...

Graham Turner: And lo and behold just at the point where I graduated, Durham University was opening a Master's program in sign linguistics. I was actually the very first person interviewed for that programme and was accepted onto the course, which was to begin in the October of that year, 1988. In August of that year, I had completed my undergraduate degree, received my degree. I was sitting at home, watching the cricket over the summer (as you do!) and got a call completely out of the blue from Durham University saying: ‚Look, we’re working on this sign language dictionary project. We need a dogsbody to do a few days' work a week for a little while. Would you like the job?' I was just the right person in the right place at the right time, with a linguistics background and interest in and some skills in sign language. And cheap labour at that point in time. And I've been working full time in academia ever since.

At Durham University, Graham worked with eminent academics like Clark Denmark (the first to establish a curriculum for deaf sign language teachers in the UK), Francis Elton (who later worked as a sign linguist at University College London for many years) and with Dorothy Miles, at that time probably the most prominent British Sign Language poet (yes, that’s a thing, and it's absolutely fascinating!). Dorothy had also been involved in starting up deaf theatre in the United States.

Graham Turner: Dot, Francis and Clark were the three people I shared an office with from my first day at Durham University. As a learner of the language I could not have wished for a more rich and informative kind of context to to find myself in. In 2005, I'd been working in academia in the UK for over 17 years as a linguist - but never in a languages department. And I thought it was a bit of a nonsense. (laughs) So part of the attraction to me, coming to Heriot-Watt, was: Here was a Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies. And this was exactly where the sign language work should be from my point of view. A Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies felt to me like exactly the right place to be working on all the sorts of aspects of sign language that I was interested in. This was a department that – because of Ian Mason, Basil Hatim and many other colleagues in the department – had a very strong history of work in translation and interpreting, it was what the department was founded for in fact, decades ago. We didn't have to argue for sign language as having an appropriate place within this department. So for me very much in short it felt like coming home, finally.

Photo credit
Coming home to Heriot-Watt... Jemina was about to do the same, just with a little detour halfway around the world.

Jemina Napier: I just saw a tiny little ad in the paper for a Commonwealth Scholarship, and you could go anywhere in the Commonwealth. It just sort of piqued my interest, I'd never really thought about going to Australia before that. And my husband wanted us to go to Barbados but I had to go to either Australia or New Zealand because the two sign languages there are related to British Sign Language, they're part of the same sign language family. So I knew that it would be easier for me to do research there, I wouldn't have to learn a brand new sign language and it would be easier to acquire a related sign language. My husband is also a sign language interpreter so he was looking for a new opportunity to do work. We just thought we would go for three years and the university I went to had a good reputation in linguistics and applied linguistics in particular, so they didn't really have a lot of sign language expertise there. So it was a bit of a risk actually, going. But it worked for me because, in the end, I set up the first postgraduate training program for sign language interpreters at that university. Once I graduated my PhD, I convinced them to give me a job and set up the course. It just meant that I had something to offer which nobody else in Australia could offer at that time. And then it was the recognition, in the deaf community over there and also most the interpreting profession, that they needed to kind of raise the bar a bit more. And so I just happened to be there and was able to offer that to them. I went to Sydney, to Australia, and then returned to the UK and came to Scotland because a job came up at Herriot-Watt where I'm now a professor. I could see that there was some momentum happening and I thought it would be a good place to be. A catalyst, I suppose. Graham took over from Ian Mason as the Chair of the 'Translation and & Interpreting Studies in Scotland' Research Centre and because his expertise was in BSL, he was quite keen to grow things. They managed to get funding to do some courses and then develop the undergrad program which began in 2012, and then I arrived in 2013, and it was just coincidence really that I applied for a general job it was just the job advertised was in Intercultural Communication. So there's just been a lot happening and I think now with the BSL (Scotland) Act, we're really well placed as a university to really promote research and teaching on British Sign Language and British Sign Language interpreting, but also, we’re hoping to become a hub.

And what about Annelies? Because I think we’re starting to see a pattern here:

Annelies Kusters: I did research in Surinam, South-America, about the meeting spaces and networks of deaf schoolchildren and deaf adults. I wanted to dig deeper and went to the University of Bristol where they had a Master’s degree course in Deaf Studies. For my MSc course dissertation, I did research in India, focusing on how deaf people use the famous suburban trains as a meeting place. I remained in Bristol to do a PhD, doing research in Ghana. During my PhD studies, I married to an Indian man and moved to India where I completed writing my dissertation before giving birth to my first child. After the time in India, we moved to Germany, where I started a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen. My postdoc project focused on deaf-hearing interactions in public and semi-public spaces such as shops, restaurants, public transport and private transport. During that time, I became more and more interested in applied linguistics and in ethnographic film-making in addition to anthropology and cultural geography. Our second child was born in Göttingen, where we lived for 3,5 years. In March 2017, we moved to Edinburgh, where I now work as Assistant Professor in Sign Language and Intercultural Research and lead a research group focusing on international deaf mobilities.

So here we are. Jemina Napier, Annelies Kusters and Graham Turner are in the same place, Heriot-Watt University. In Edinburgh, just a few miles away from the Scottish Parliament. In the 1990s, Tony Blair's Labour government started decentralising powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London; a process known as devolution. If Scotland hadn't obtained its own parliament, who knows, the BSL (Scotland) Bill may never have come about.

Graham Turner: When the Scottish Parliament was reestablished in 1998, there was very quickly some quite overt talk about sign language and about recognition of British Sign Language. For all sorts of reasons - including the broader fact that, in short, because of recognition of Gaelic in Scotland, there is already a richer kind of weave, a more diverse linguistic heritage in the country than in most of the UK. Sign language didn't feel like such an oddity in that context. Scotland certainly feels to me, and I think feels to itself, like a more tolerant country in many respects than the rest of the UK. And that's one of the reasons that I was enthusiastic about moving to Scotland, to be honest. 17+ years working at universities in the North of England, the scope that any of us had to speak directly to, let alone influence, Westminster and its thinking in any way was extremely limited.

In the late 1990s and early noughties, several people, including members of the Scottish Parliament and also academics, had been laying the groundwork for the BSL bill, raising awareness and recognition of sign language and deaf issues.

Graham Turner: 2005, I could kind of hit the ground running, both in terms of being in a department that was willing to see British Sign Language as an area of potential growth. But there was a national context in which people were happy to engage with talk about what could be done and how it could be done, and the stars were beginning to align at that point.

One part of this constellation was Mark Griffin, the MSP we met at the beginning of this episode. He became the steward of the bill through all the stages of the legislative process.

Graham Turner: Mark took things through all of those stages. And in short, from the first kind of consultation phase through a series of steps, I guess it took two years altogether to bring the thing to fruition. I do know that Mark had deaf, deaf-blind grandparents. So he had some deaf awareness and awareness of sign language issues and so on, within the family, somewhat distant but nevertheless.

By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Mark Griffin: A women who communicates through BSL was admitted to hospital for surgery. During her twelve day stay in the hospital, twelve whole days, although hospital staff tried to communicate with her, they didn't provide her with a BSL interpreter. That was despite the women repeatedly pointing to a poster for interpreter services and twice handing staff a BSL interpreter's card. It was clear from the hospital records that she felt isolated because of the lack of communication.

Graham Turner: And Mark took things through all of those stages. And in short from the first kind of consultation phase through a series of steps I guess it sort of took two years all together to bring the thing to fruition. So in many respects he was exactly the right person then to take on the BSL bill.

Tricia Marwick (Presiding Officer): The next question is that motion No. 14111 in the name of Mark Griffin on the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill be agreed to. Are we all agreed? Yes. [Cheering]

What a fantastic day for the Scottish deaf community! Watching the video, hearing all the applause and cheering, seeing the enthusiasm on people's faces, the rotating hands indicating applause: it still moves me to this day.

Tricia Marwick: The motion is therefore agreed to [Laughter in the audience] and the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill is passed. [Audience cheering]

Graham Turner: The way the legislation is formulated, you know, it's not called a 'Communication Disorders' bill. It's not called a, you know, "Be Nice to Deaf People" bill. It's called the British Sign Language Bill (or the Sign Language Act now, of course). And that sent a very strong signal I think, and the right signal, that this is purely and simply about language issues for a linguistic minority community. And that's transformative because we've been pushing long and hard enough for some people simply to tolerate the use of British Sign Language. It's a real leap forward to say from from all the public authorities from government down will now promote the use of the language.

Jemina Napier: Once the national plan is published, we'll see how much teeth it really has. It talks about the promotion of British Sign Language and that can either be through direct service provision, through access through interpreters, through making information available in BSL and also making it available for it to be learnt as a language in schools and so on. There's certainly a lot of good will, and the Scottish government is very positive. So we will be keeping our fingers crossed.

Now that the Bill has become an Act and has received Royal Assent, what's next? Where do things go from here?

Graham Turner: The first kinds of things that people will think of will be the access issues, and I can understand why they are, of course, if you're talking about access to health care or access to to your legal rights, these are urgent and it's long overdue that change occur in some of these areas. But in essence as long as we're seeing it as an access issue we're essentially saying: "Deaf people should be enabled to access the hearing world". And it's more than that. People started to say: Why do we always talk about 'hearing loss'? Why don't we turn it on its head and talk about 'deaf gain'? To crystallize the point about what what is the contribution that sign language users and the existence of sign languages can make to the wider society. We haven't begun to tap into that at all, we haven't begun to understand it. And yet here is this extraordinary form of language that does all of the things that spoken languages do - and some others besides - because the nature of sign languages is such that they can do things that spoken languages don't.

Deaf Gain. I think that's really, in a nutshell, the message I want to pass on to you, dear listener. Let us open up, let us be curious, let us explore the world of sign language and deaf culture. As many have been doing already, in fact.

Graham Turner: We need to make sure that a lot more hearing people learn sign language in the first place.

Jemina Napier: One of the reasons American Sign Language is so popular - it’s actually the fourth most commonly used language in America - is that students have a requirement to take a foreign language of some kind. At least one course as part of their liberal arts education at college, and American Sign Language is offered as an alternative language that they can learn. So it's a really popular choice. Until we have something like that here in Europe as well... You know, we need to get to the kids earlier. My colleague Graham Turner who you spoke to he's been working on trying to get BSL introduced in schools for example as as an option.

Graham Turner: Scotland has a one-plus-two languages policy just now, suggesting that all children should leave school with having had access to at least two other languages besides English. And we've been working we've been working with the relevant authorities to talk about introducing BSL as one of those 'plus-two' languages.

Education will definitely be one important building block. For inspiration, we can turn to the Global South:

Annelies Kusters: In the Global South, deaf and hearing people often can communicate rather fluently through gestures – I documented this in my film called Ishaare: Gestures and Signs in Mumbai, which can be viewed online. The distinction between sign language and gestures often becomes really blurred in such contexts. In the village in Ghana where I did my PhD research, this kind of fluent gesturing led to the emergence of a local sign language. Overall, I see a much wider acceptance of manual communication in the Global South. Another difference is that in many Western cultures, deaf schools are closed in favour of educational mainstreaming policies: deaf children attend regular schools with the help of hearing aids and sign language interpreters but unfortunately rarely receive instruction directly through sign language. The number of deaf clubs, where people gather to chat, party, play cards, do arts and crafts, and so on, is declining. Deaf people meet more often in temporary and borrowed spaces such as in pubs or during events. The transition of deaf children from the school to the club in order to maintain their deaf social life is thus disrupted. In the Global South though, there are many deaf schools. Most of them do not support bilingual education in signed and spoken/written language, but children often sign at playgrounds and in dormitories. In India alone, there are over 800 deaf schools; in Mumbai alone there are 25. Some of these schools are very large and attract deaf people from a wide geographical area, others are small local schools. Events attract large numbers of deaf people.

But another one is awareness outside the deaf community. Here is the call to action for us!

Graham Turner: If you look around you in the public domain: Where do you see sign language? The answer is: almost nowhere. So people don't think of sign language as being part of the everyday social environment in which we operate. One of the things that I think is fantastically exciting about what's been done is that I'm well aware of a huge amount of change in attitudes and in thinking taking place even prior to the passing of the Act. People just hadn't thought about sign language issues before, and passing an Act of Parliament that is just about sign language, brings it to the forefront of their attention. The way the act is constructed is that there'll be a new national plan every six years and therefore new public authority plans every six years.

Jemina Napier: And once the national plan is published then we'll see how much teeth the act really has.

Graham Turner: On a cyclical basis, it will keep swimming to the forefront of people's attention periodically, and they'll be required to think about what more could we do? How could we do this better? What steps are we now in a position to take to advance this interaction between the deaf and hearing populations? I will continue to work with the equality unit, with the Scottish government, with the civil servants - in fact, that's my next meeting today - about the steps that we we really should be taking and trying to think strategically about being realistic about what can be done immediately. But also about planting some seeds now that can reach maturity in the second and third cycles of the national plan and that process as it as it comes forward. For example, this issue of getting sign language into schools. We can't click our fingers and have qualified deaf BSL teachers in every high school in Scotland next year [but] if we set things in train now, we can quite quickly imagine the landscape shifting in exciting ways.

Talk about a shifting landscape: In September 2017, Google celebrated BSL with a dedicated Doodle. In late 2017, after three decades of advocacy by the Irish deaf community, the Republic of Ireland officially recognised Irish Sign Language. This gives the community legal rights to approach authorities and courts through Irish Sign Language, provides a basis for certified skilled ISL interpreters and strengthens educational support for deaf children.

Jemina Napier: I think we'll see a lot more recognition on the world stage. I mean, sign language interpreting is now provided as a matter of course at UN meetings in Geneva and in New York, and they're live-streamed quite often. The UN and AIIC, I know, are working on developing an agreement around how to include sign language interpreting. There are now two members of AIIC who are sign language interpreters, now I'm working on getting my approvals so I can hopefully become a member before too long. I've just been invited to be a keynote speaker at the FIT Congress in Brisbane. And I'm the first sign language interpreting expert they've had as a keynote speaker before so it's exciting. The recent outgoing president Henry Liu and I know each other from when I was in Australia. He's a New Zealander and he was really keen to see more profile of sign language interpreting in FIT so it's really exciting, I feel very honoured to be the first person to do that.

Graham Turner: What is fantastic from my point of view is to see the thrill that that's giving people, and I don't just mean deaf people. I mean the hearing population which is saying: Wow, we're really excited about the possibilities. This is a completely different form of language. We just didn't know. And for me that's the deaf gain kind of notion starting to take root. And if that happens across the entire public sphere, across the entire country, that's really transformative.

This has been part one of the LangFM series about sign language and sign language interpreting. Part two will be published very soon, and that episode will be in German, featuring German sign language interpreter Laura Schwengber, who is very much into music. Part three, in French and featuring France-based sign language interpreter Stéphan Barrère will come out after that. So, stay tuned! I’ll talk to you soon, on LangFM.


I would like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, Jemina Napier, Graham Turner and Annelies Kusters for dedicating their time to talk to me and provide a lot of useful feedback.

Thank you very much also to Lauren Harris and Ella Leith for their many insights into sign language, sign language interpreting and deaf culture.

Haartelijk bedankt, Saskia Broere.

Grazie mille, Andrea Alvisi.