The meaning of ‘harm’, and indigenous movements elsewhere

Time for a recap : I’ve been buried in writing up a bid (now finished), and during the process I was sent what I think is a really important article, written in the ‘Harm Reduction Journal’. (With absolutely massive thanks to Dr Hilary Sutherland for passing on to me.)

Now, I tried to write on similar lines in 2007 : ‘what is wrong with sign bilingualism…it is a positive and fantastic thing!’, arguing that sign language is not harmful to introduce and teach – do it alongside other methods if you have to, just do it.  Other methods can bring unnecessary harm, and were what I call ‘statist’ (which in the context of my article means simply forced).  If governments claim they were impartial in such a debate, I call that benign neglect, i.e. turning a blind eye while harm happens.  Acquiescence. Bringing sign into the classroom is not statist, because it is not harmful and, above all, it is most definitely not forced. If it was I would not support it.

Sign language in the deaf child’s life allows for their natural development, and meets the demands of social justice, natural justice, identity construction, human rights, and group rights. I’m careful to avoid the concept ‘choice’.  The focus on ‘choice’ has, I would argue, meant lost opportunities to reflect upon other potential avenues for radical change…which is what is needed in the case of the education of deaf children. Choice is cool for a supermarket, clothes, films, choosing political parties….but education? Does that concern aesthetics? We are arguing about the quality of life, the ability to engage in society as equal citizens.

In comes the article I was referring to earlier: which is one of the most important I’ve seen in the 21st century – it is that good and I would urge every student of deaf studies, and laypeople everywhere, to take time to read. It isn’t a long article, it might take a few reads for a person who isn’t familiar with the discourse, but what it states is supremely important: that fitting a deaf child with cochlear implants and expecting their language development via a sole focus on speech is harmful. It generates linguistic deprivation. There are 103 references – for such a short article that shows the work that the authors have put into it – and it was so good it was immediately accepted for publication following peer-review.

I am proud to name all the authors: Tom Humphries, Poorna Kushalnagar, Gaurav Mathur, Donna Jo Napoli, Carol Padden, Christian Rathmann, and Scott R Smith.

A couple of other articles have also caught my eye lately, the first provided by Dr Colin Gavaghan from Aotearoa ; there is a campaign for schools to teach te reo (Maori language) as a mandatory subject on the national curriculum. (I’ve lost the original link, but the story it relates to is there.) I hope they are successful, in spite of the opposing comments under that article.

Being able to master two or more languages has long been considered beneficial to the brain. It is not harmful. (Thanks to Naomi for the link.)

I’m attracted to the idea of mandatory sign bilingualism, which doesn’t oppress spoken or written english, french, spanish, or whatever…it places them in the context of what the child is realistically able to acquire. It doesn’t force  speech (which is what statist policies do), it encourages it where it’s possible, but it includes sign language in that process. That is critical not just for language acquisition, but for identity development.

Finally, I was intrigued by this article too: calling for a National Unity Government in Australia. I know friends with strong connections to Australia, and I am eager to find out more about this development. Statement of principle number 4 interests me: “It is recognised and accepted that we as First Nations Peoples have been deprived of our basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, which resulted from British colonisation and dispossession.”

The least I can do as a British subject (not a proud one by the way)  is support these moves to address problems for which my past governments were responsible.

Ok, off my soapbox now and back to my running!

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