I have been de-cluttering and today I ventured into an old box of photographs and cuttings. Surely I don’t need them all now?
I was brought up short when my eyes spotted a yellowed cutting with my name at the end. It was a letter to the letters page of a west London local newspaper in 1998. For many years a close friend worked on this paper with sometimes irritating results. I would often answer the telephone to be asked for a quote on some area of education totally detached from my own teaching work. As a true blue – perhaps more yellow? – journalist she was always on the lookout for a good story and my foray into an evening class in British Sign Language excited her interest. She asked me first, as she often did and, keen to raise deaf awareness, I agreed. The very young new recruit to the newspaper who telephoned me assumed I had enrolled in the class so that I could learn to communicate with my deaf sister. I wonder what she thought we had been doing for the last fifty years? The interview was stilted and disjointed until I uncovered her pre-conceptions. At the time I was well into my Psychology degree with the Open University and was well-versed in seeking out my own assumptions as well as those of the literary scholars we were expected to quote. However, this did not help me on this occasion!
I began to feel uncomfortable about the mood of the interview when the reporter tried to put words in my mouth to suggest I had suffered a deprived childhood as a result of having a deaf sibling. Mentioning that we didn’t go to pantomimes but rather had outings to the circus or an ice show was noted as a deprivation of my childhood experience of pantomimes. When asked outright if I felt deprived I answered truthfully that I never did as my childhood was a happy and fulfilling one. This was not reported so I can only assume she didn’t believe me.
In fact, my parents made sure I did participate in activities that could not be shared with a deaf sibling. Thanks to the insistence of my Grandad, a piano was delivered to our home and lessons were arranged. Practising in term-time was no problem as my sister went to boarding school. In holidays I was discreet and didn’t broadcast the fact that I was going to the lounge to play the piano. At around eight years of age, my mother took me to my first ever Gilbert and Sullivan opera and in doing so made me a lifelong fan of all G and S. In the fifties fathers were not so involved with the children so the family didn’t divide at other times, for example so I could see a pantomime or orchestral concert. These days I am sure I would be going to both but, of course, things have changed now and BSL interpreters are often booked at pantomimes and musical shows and advertisements refer to a ‘signed performance’. In fact, with computers, mobile phones, texting and email, the Deaf can now access a wide range of communication methods. However, despite increased understanding there is still much ignorance about the Deaf, their abilities and how to speak to them. This blog at www.wordpress.com is aimed at raising deaf awareness amongst the hearing population. Sadly its main audience so far is deaf people who, I am pleased to say, re-tweet the link, follow and write comments.
The 1998 article, when it was published, was a negative reminder to everyone that only bad news is news worth telling. I was hurt and angry that my interview had been so badly distorted, my answers reported in brief and totally out of context and the plight of deaf people portrayed in such a poor light. When I complained, I was given the chance to write in and redress the balance which I did (see reproduced letter below).
Even today my friend who now works free lance tries to extract comments from me to use in her writing but I am wary and usually change the subject. Once bitten and all that. At least my short story and fiction book characters are well-disguised composites. My letter went as follows:
I was pleased to speak to your paper about learning to sign and anything that raises deaf awareness is always welcome (** January 30, 1998) However, I would like to put right an inaccuracy in your story on why I chose to learn sign language. I did not, as was reported, learn so that I could communicate with my sister.
My sister was educated orally (note spelling), learning to speak and lipread and she and I have enjoyed excellent communication throughout our lives. Also, because of my early experience with her, I am able to communicate with other oral deaf people, many of whom, like VH, use a mixture of both signing and oral communication.
When my sister married a man who only communicated via sign language, family communication became difficult. We managed with pens and notebooks or my sister acted as interpreter so that her husband was included in conversation. It was for this reason that I began attending BSL classes. It was also unfortunate the story painted a negative picture of life in a family with a deaf child 50 years ago. As a family, we played every board game available and visual party games such as charades and I Spy. We attended ice shows and other types of visual entertainment. We were the first house in the road to have a television and the two of us were often – in fact still are – convulsed in laughter in public or at family gatherings with our secret jokes shared via lipreading.
We may have missed out on musicals and pantomimes but your reporter failed to mention that now such families can attend special performances of these where an interpreter is present on stage.
My sister and her husband now enjoy pantomimes along with the rest of us. However, despite more deaf awareness and new technology, this is an under-represented group and BSL is still not recognised as a language although it has signs, a structure and regional variations like any other.
I was also asked if I thought more people should be encouraged to sign but the obvious answer was omitted. If more people learned this skill, deaf people could join in more community activities instead of being isolated.
On re-reading this cutting, I felt a twinge of sadness – not for how things were misunderstood in 1998 but for how little has changed. Feedback I receive from my blogs on issues surrounding deaf awareness confirm my view that there is still much to be done in this area.
A simple google search for BSL classes in your area will provide many links and opportunities.
There is a website www. BSLcourses.co.uk which may give more information.
Why not learn and improve your ability to communicate with deaf people when you meet them. City Lit has courses on the following link.