Bristol Centre for Deaf People meeting: high passions

I attended an eventful (open public) meeting at Bristol Centre for Deaf People (BCDP) on Friday night. Am not going to do a ‘report’, impossible, cos so much happened, but this is my brief ‘tweets’ timeline as a way of summary:

Emergency General Meeting was called to discuss cuts in services by Bristol City Council to Bristol Deaf People, and was held Friday 23rd September, 6-9pm.

6.05pm: Meeting opens: Chair outlines Council cuts and the effect they will have on Bristol Deaf Centre and services

6.20pm: Deaf members request BSL translation of statement from Bristol City Council’s Health and Social Care dept before discussion continues

6.35pm: Statement suggests a key reason for cutting services is due to BCDP poor management, that Board denies

6.50pm: Ideas for future of Centre put forward by the BCDP CEO, rejected as ‘far too late’

7.00pm: Heated, passionate debate fires off between members from floor and Board, tensions running high

7.10pm: Centre of anger is on Board management’s failure in last few years to act to secure future of BCDP

7.15pm: Several members from the floor critical of the Board’s management, ‘they had been left with a mess but failed to clean it up’

7.20pm: Board have totally lost the meeting but continue to strongly defend their actions, strenuously denying any wrongdoing

7.30pm: Debate continues to be highly charged, personal attacks, inappropriate public naming of people, pleas for calm

7.35pm: Board starts to try to end the meeting

7.40pm: Floor wants to keep meeting going, bitter dissatisfaction expressed towards Board’s behaviour

7.45pm: Board Chair formally closes the meeting and entire Board walks off the stage!

7.50pm: Deaf members urge a break in proceedings for passions to calm

8.15pm: Informal meeting (of majority of those present but minus the Board) reconvenes to discuss the situation

8.30pm: Meeting discusses its options within the constitution and draws up a list of issues to be discussed at a future Emergency meeting

9.00pm: Meeting closes.

One thing is for sure: the meeting ain’t the end of the matter, and further developments can be expected in coming days and weeks ahead.

Book/DVD offer extended / citizenship website now up / group rights research findings included

A quick message here that the special offer on the book/dvd (BSL), Citizenship and the Deaf Community, has been extended by Ishara Press until the end of June 2011.

This co-incides with a new website

A few words about the website: I bought the domain name in 2007. I wanted the BSL DVD to be ready before I launched it.

The details of the Ishara Press Book/DVD are on the website, with a link to the BSL Uptake project clips from the DVD.

The website also contains the full notes from the launch meeting that was held on 31st March 2011, at the Friends Meeting House and funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Crucially, the meeting was also a dissemination of my most recent research into the concept of minority group rights. These notes are undergoing updating.  I expect the video recording of the meeting to go up on the website when I can work out how to do it – it’s around two and half hours long! The website is the first one I have ever designed or put up.

It will, I hope, in future, become a resource for all work on citizenship and group rights in relation to the Deaf community and signed languages.

I know there is more work out there on this subject, please let me know if you want it to be put up.


Italy proposals met with opposition

Rather worrying events in Italy have drawn the attention of the world’s Deaf people. The full details are at Grumpy Old Deafies and I wanted to add my support for the opposition to what’s happening in Italy – I wrote to the President of the Italian Parliament and others yesterday to express my extreme concerns (see G.O.D for my letter along with others).

I want to put up two things here: a copy of the Press Release, and secondly express my support for the numerous protests taking place on Wednesday 25th May [corrected 30th May], and add that I think it’s very heartening to see activity take place at such short notice. Planned so far are marches/vigils at: London, Belfast, Edinburgh, Dublin, Berlin and Washington DC.



World Outcry Against Italian Parliament Bill

There is a bill in the Italian Parliament that was originally going to
recognize Italian Sign Language (LIS), but pro-CI/oral “special
interests” succeeded in changing the wording that will change LIS to
LMG, which is Language of Mimes and Gestures.

The Deaf sign language using community throughout the world are
outraged by this insult. It has long since been proven and recognised
worldwide that sign language is a language in every sense of the word.
Just as any spoken language it has its own structure – syntax,
linguistics, synonyms and morphisms.

Tomorrow world wide people from the Deaf and hearing community are
gathering in protest.

In Belfast at 16:00 many Deaf people and hearing supporters are
meeting at the City Hall to protest and sign a petition against this
blatant and deliberate discrimination against the Deaf sign language
using community in Italy and around the world. Please support our

Lina Kankeviciute
Chairperson Limepie Theatre and member of Deaf Community


To all you who are marching today


The British Deaf Association is appalled, at the proposed new change
in the wording of the legislation being discussed by the Italian
Parliament today.. It is not only an insult to sign language but to
the Deaf people throughout the world who have fought many battles to
get our indigenous sign languages recognised by governments The
European Parliament has officially stated and this was reaffirmed only
last November In Brussels, and it also reaffirmed and has long since

been proven and recognised worldwide that sign language is a language

the same as spoken languages. And just as any spoken language,

TO all those on the March my sincere thanks and appreciation, my only
regret is I am unable to join you as I am attending the EUD GA in
Budapest, my heart, mind and souls is with you all

Terry Riley
British Deaf Association

With thanks to Alison for providing the above details

The growing power of the Deaf professional-managerial class

It seems absurdly ironic that the Deaf Professional-Managerial Class (PMC) in the UK are emerging in times when people are expected to tighten their belts in times of assumed austerity and when revolution lights up the middle east.  It is possible, however, for the Deaf PMC to be pushed into taking actions of its own – let me explain what I mean here.

The triggers for this blog entry are the Sorenson VRS campaign in the UK, and the Deaf Managers course being set up at Heriot Watt University, but the ideas contained within it are ones that I first wrote about 20 years ago. It was possible to see what could happen, but it was not inevitable that it would. Plus I felt clouded by my own political ideology and philosophy back in those days. I wrote about Deaf nationalism and equality in a mini-dissertation for my BA in Cultural Studies in 1991, but had only a tentative understanding of the nature or state of the Deaf world back then. [1]

I’ve been meaning to re-visit these thoughts for a last few years, but the timing seems right to do so now.  Any constructive views and thoughts are welcome; this blog entry is a hypothesis, a philosophy that has empirical reasoning.  It is also written with the coming of the eighth anniversary of the UK government’s acknowledgment of British Sign Language (BSL), and the key tenets are as follows:

1. The Deaf PMC has grown and strengthened in the last 8 years, but remains restricted to further growth due to societal barriers;

2. This class is dominated by political ideologies that reflect its material interests, and the emergence of a Deaf intelligentsia reflects its growing development and influence; [2]

3. The main beneficiaries of BSL recognition have been the Deaf PMC, and any further campaigns and protests for ‘rights’ will mostly benefit that class, unless these are specifically campaigns for social equality.

The concept of a ‘Deaf middle class’ is not new: historical studies pre-Milan 1880 have consistently referred to Deaf people working in professional managerial occupations and holding an above average education, although the notion that the majority of deaf children who went to deaf schools ended up in manual and labouring occupations tends to receive less recognition. The strengthening and developing of the modern PMC has been simmering ever since BSL acknowledgment, and doesn’t begin there, but goes further back. Paul Redfern, for example, draws attention to a growing ‘professional class’ as far back as 1996[3], while Paddy Ladd[4] addresses class issues in his 2003 Deafhood publication.

Before continuing, I want to clarify that I use the ‘professional-managerial class’ rather than ‘middle class’ as the later term tends to be far too stretched, referring to everyone who owns a home (or two), possess a lot of cars and takes several holidays a year: I much prefer to use the term ‘professional-managerial class’, since it is easier to associate this with people who have a bit, however small, of power, control and independence within the system. They are a person who typically sits between the working and upper classes and was first coined in the 1970’s by Barbara and John Ehrenreich. [Hopefully, also the use of that term will inspire the creation of an appropriate sign in BSL!] Critically, they are best understood as a class, albeit a sometimes contradictory one, and not amalgamated isolated individuals who add up to make up a whole. Deaf people of all classes regularly come together, with class differences holding little sway amongst those who are keen to express their thoughts, views and feelings in sign language, and gather collectively to celebrate Deaf culture in a myriad number of spaces.

To be more specific, here are a section of the various people who I would deem to constitute the Deaf PMC:

1.      the managers of services and charities, be they independent or part of the voluntary or public sector;

2.      those who run a business, which are mostly quite small scale at the moment, but may aspire to become something a lot larger and more profitable;

3.      growing numbers of tutors and lecturers within the field of further and higher education, including the growing ‘Deaf intelligentsia’, linguists, psychologists, social scientists, anthropologists, etc.[5];

4.      ‘professionals’ who work within a whole range of services such as mental health, community development work, social services, the legal profession, and so on;

5.      celebrities and artists from the world of t.v., theatre, drama, etc, especially those engaged in free expression of the culture.

My personal observation of this ‘class’ is that it is working and acting for the collective good and interest of Deaf people and the Deaf community. Those who teach sign language, for example, are people who are tutoring the future generation of sign language interpreters, raising deaf awareness amongst the hearing community, teaching effective means of communication between hearing and deaf people.

Businesses are invariably focused on promoting effective services to hearing and deaf people: be it telecommunications, translation services, video relay services, etc. One could, in fact argue that they have very little option but to work as a profit/loss service, since they rely on the formulation of business plans, and so on.

But even a momentary analysis of the Deaf community from a this class perspective can begin to recognise that Deaf political issues on Deaf / deaf / hearing / Coda / Interpreter / culture / disability, etc. lines, is invariably far more complex when there is the recognition of a class of Deaf people who do have some form of power in the world of work.

The class perspective cannot really be understood without recognition of other classes. An unemployed working-class Deaf person on benefits, for example, or Deaf people who work by selling their labour, be it to work in a supermarket, in post offices, office work, nurseries, cleaning, printing, child-minding, interior design, hairdressing, etc., have different material interests to the Deaf PMC. They may all share the experience of day to day language and cultural oppression, but there are also differences; ones that come to the fore when there is a crisis in the system.

The vast majority of Deaf people feel a bitter sense of injustice that they continue to miss out on day to day services hearing citizens take for granted, such as telecommunications and interpreting, and they suffer exclusion from citizenship due to lack of access to the justice system, politics, and a whole range of social services.[6] The Deaf PMC are more likely to have access to sign language interpreting services, since they are well versed in knowledge of their rights, and of making use of legislation such as Access to Work (which could change pretty soon, however). [7]

But these two classes also need to be considered in relationship to those who have real wealth and power in society: the huge banks who control vast amounts of money, large and profitable businesses who have an annual turnover of millions, the massive telecommunications and media industries, governments and civil servants who frame the law and decide under which discourses Deaf people are placed and, of course, the even vaster medical apparatus which produces technology and research on hearing aids, cochlear implants and genetics.  There is practically no Deaf-control that comes anywhere near matching the power and wealth of these corporations: but there are people who no doubt aspire to do so.

This theory is a simplistic one, and the situation is far more complex, but I defy anyone to suggest such a theory based on class is ‘outdated’, as critics of Marxism (especially postmodernists – and there are many lovers of this theory within Deaf studies) tend to do. There are real differences, for example, amongst businesses, some of which will aspire to capitalist and profitable greatness, others who will certainly not have any interest in doing so but hold a very strong not-for-profit ethos. Deaf political differences amongst professionals will also be evident, with the liberal-minded Deaf wanting to drive forward and reward individual developments, opening up choices for all, while the socialist-minded Deaf will seek to stress the importance of staying true to the communitarian roots of the Deaf community.

Artists are also a mixed-bag, with individuals no doubt dreaming of worldwide individual recognition (whether it be amongst Deaf or the mainstream) in order to demonstrate ‘yes we can’; while yet others will be far more keen to reflect the tensions within and between the communities, or who desire to create works that simply celebrate the beauty of sign language and Deaf culture. In between there are those with nationalist tendencies, for whom ‘all things Deaf are beautiful’, and it cares not what class they are from, or how they develop their Deafhood. [8] Many of us are probably a mix of all three at various times.

The growing Deaf PMC is, arguably, an inevitable consequence of the development of the Deaf community within capitalism, a system based on competition for profits and the reliance on the labour power of working people to create these profits. The same kinds of developments are evident, for example, within many other oppressed groups, the growth of Black businesses for example. What I am putting forward is a theory that is very common, and in some cases very well developed, in other academic studies, but has been badly neglected in Deaf studies. Theories of culture, for example (which celebrate resistance from below and sub-cultures), or Black studies, Womens studies, and so on, have debated class and Marxist theory for years; as has Disability studies. Deaf studies, with few exceptions, largely shuns it, or deals with it superficially, but this type of perspective can surely do nobody any harm other than to those who aspire to be oppressors or part of a powerful Deaf elite.

We might even find it strangely empowering to feel that the Deaf community is an amalgam of such a mighty group, one which does have some form of power collectively, and hence is able to assert its strength at times when it would be of great benefit politically. It may also assist us with understanding that the decline of Deaf schools, Deaf clubs and the near-virtual mainstreaming of deaf children does not equate a weaker and less significant of less powerful Deaf community. That is not to suggest nobody should worry about the fate of deaf children in mainstream schools – it is a strong feature of the culture to care and campaign for natural justice for its children[9] – or fears of what genetic technology will create.

The community has simply shifted and changed, and it also exposes as premature those academics who have decried the decline of the community[10], in very much the same way as mainstream academics never tire of suggesting the working class is dead (until it rises up, yet again), that postmodernism denies there are any more ‘grand narratives’ possible in history (even while they spring up everywhere in new forms), or Fukuyama champions the victory of liberal democracy (even while the citizens of the world take to the streets to fight for real peoples’ democracy).

Understanding this power, however, is also recognition of its potential dangers, and of recognising whose interests’ Deaf political activism can end up benefiting in the long run.  Hence the courageous fight for the human rights of Deaf people and the recognition of sign language, that many are engaged in worldwide may well give some protections to the Deaf community as a whole, but it is invariably the Deaf PMC who will be the key benefactors, as their material situation improves through the opening up of political opportunities.[11]

It is also recognition that without self-awareness and consciousness of the ‘Deaf PMC as a class’, Deaf people themselves can end up becoming oppressors. Indeed, Deaf people have been recognised as promoting linguistic genocide in the developing nations, not necessarily consciously, but simply by failing to understand the effects and impacts of their power. [12]

What does it mean and what should or shouldn’t happen? I do not think it is possible to stop or curtail these developments at the present time. They may even be necessary for the advance of Deaf self-determination, and therefore celebrated. But I do think there are some important questions they raise.

What we have not yet witnessed (in the UK at least) is the development of wealthy businesses, Deaf owned, controlled and run, being set up and gaining profits, so that they can enter the top echelons and champions of capitalist society. Definitely nowhere near the company ‘Cochlear’, for example, lauded by an ex- Australian PM as an embodiment of Australian values, never mind that of extreme-oralists! Most businesses of the Deaf PMC are much lower level and lower key (what Marx would have termed petite bourgeoisie) of which Remark! is just one, and others are those such as Significant or DeafWorks. Is this what the Deaf community should aspire to, having control of vast amounts of capital in order to achieve the kind of control those such as Sorenson have in the telecommunications industry? It is only a matter of time that this is what we will indeed see happen if the UK Deaf community continues to pursue reformist and liberal politics in order to advance the betterment of Deaf people.[13]

In order to be a ‘capitalist’, it is necessary to embrace fraud, competition, the undermining of rivals, to fall in love with having power and control, ‘loads-a-money’, all the worst aspects of humanity.  Intentions might be genuine, but ultimately they play to the system, to compete with rivals and make profit, to put it bluntly, to ensure they try and get from their workers (Deaf or hearing) as much profit as they can. Capitalism then becomes part of the problem, not the solution.

This brings me, briefly, to the Deaf Managers course, being run in May by Heriot Watt University[14]. From an impartial perspective, it’s certainly welcome. The numbers of Deaf Managers are growing, and they face challenges, as I have seen at first hand on many occasions over the years. [I would certainly never take on their tasks!] The system under which they are operating places on them difficult demands, not least because of the institutional audist nature of their environment; so how do they work within these worlds? [15] Some questions they might ask is: can Deaf managers avoid being oppressive in the workplace to their workers, Deaf or hearing? If so, how will they address potential oppressive practices and behaviour?

Research to explore class issues would be very welcome, particularly in political philosophical areas such as Marxism, or in disciplines such as economics.  Thinkers, who can flex their minds on how to change the world, rather than endlessly seeking to interpret it and reinterpret it in a comfort zone that builds a postmodern cul-de-sac, would also be a welcome addition to Deaf epistemology.[16]

I hope this blog entry will make a small contribution to encouraging that process.


[1] When I first attempted to campaign for better resources for Deaf and hard of hearing students at university (induction loops for hard of hearing people, interpreters for Deaf people), I was responsible for making some scathing comments about support services.  They didn’t, I argued, provide enough. I was met with some very harsh observations on my actions from other Deaf people at the university. Looking back, I think some of those criticisms of me were fair.

[2] I have used the term ‘Deaf intelligentsia’ in my PhD and elsewhere, but my current thinking owes much to Dr Sarah Batterbury using the term in a recent article.

[3] Redfern, P. (1996) Deaf Professionals: a growing stream. In C. Laurenzi and S. Ridgeway, Progress Through Equality, BSMHD Publications.

[4] Ladd, P. (2003) Understanding Deafhood: In search of Deaf culture. Multilingual Matters:  Clevedon.

[5] I include myself, with some reluctance, as part of the Deaf PMC. In spite of my fondness and pride at stating that my upbringing is solidly working-class, I hold a PhD, work within academia, and have a pretty comfortable material life: this is not something I state with pride by the way, and I am certainly not rich (nor do I want to be), and I experience oppression every day. Even if, politically, I want to see wealth sharing and a celebration of diversity in our society, I have some degree of power in relative terms, and, once again, I state this as a matter of observation, and not self-satisfaction.

[6] My PhD addresses this subject, providing empirical evidence of Deaf people’s concerns.

[7] Access to Work payments have enabled Deaf people to enjoy Interpreting services for the past 20 years; Disability Support Allowance has given the means for Deaf students to become educated, and hence more empowered and assertive. ATW state that half their budget is spent on service provision to Deaf people, since Interpreters are an on-going requirement. The cutting or loss of payments, therefore, would be utterly devastating to the Deaf PMC who will have very little option but to resist any deep cuts, or face a far greater degree of unemployment and already far disproportionate underemployment.

[8] At the 2011 ‘Supporting Deaf People Online’ conference I wrote about these three political tendencies – liberal, nationalist, and liberationist – in more detail.

[9] The term ‘natural justice’ should be credited to Rachel O’Neil during the ‘supporting Deaf people online conference’, February 2011. Once again, my PhD provides empirical evidence, as does my follow up to the PhD on group rights, where most of these rights are deemed necessary to ensure the protection of deaf children as well as Deaf culture. I will be publishing on the findings from the research as soon as possible.

[10] The ‘deaf decline’ theory was first addressed in Australian by Trevor Johnson in ‘Sign Language Studies’, and has since been applied to the UK by Graham Turner in the Journal ‘Current Issues in Language Planning’. Even if they were correct, most Deaf people are resident in the developing nations, where not only technology, but Deafhood philosophy has yet to permeate.

[11] It is not necessarily a conscious act. Marx famously wrote: ‘Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ And then went on to write one of the best phrases ever: ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ See: “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Karl Marx 1852.

[12] I first came across empirical evidence of these developments from a presentation given by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas at the 2003 World Federation of the Deaf Congress in Montreal, Canada. A presentation was given on this subject at the 2006 Deaf Academics conference, in Stockholm, Sweden, by Hilde Haualand.

[13] The granting of minority group rights is partly suggested as a theory to ensure spheres of telecommunications, for example, are genuinely Deaf-led and Deaf-focussed, as opposed to being at the mercy of the market. It appears to me that one of the possible reasons Deaf communities have demanded human rights rather than, say, minority group rights, is because Deaf studies academics worldwide haven’t yet brought to conscious awareness the potential power of the professional-managerial elements of its class.

[14] For more information see:

[15] The concept of audism has become so disputed, and so stretched nowadays that it is depressingly almost meaningless.  I blame those intellectuals or philosophers who love to indulge themselves in the meanings of words or signs, only to end up confusing everybody even further, probably even themselves. I therefore use the term ‘institutional audism’, first coined by Graham Turner, but I use it partly in order to try and rescue its original meaning: i.e. social policy is not determined or decided by Deaf people; the Deaf community has never historically been recognised as a cultural linguistic minority group, and is absolutely nowhere near doing so, in social policy. Until it has collective self-determination, the original meaning of audism seems the best one.

[16] A brief discussion I had with Dai O’Brien recently raised the issue of the economic purpose and benefits of Deaf people as a cultural linguistic minority group. This perspective might appear a bit determinist, and there is, in my view, no material benefit to capitalism in keeping Deaf and hearing people divided in the way racism and sexism does, for example. Geneticists seem to think it would make economic sense to wipe out deafness. One scientist equated the costs of deafness to be akin to building three motorways around Germany! [See ‘Genes, Hearing, and Deafness’ by Martini et al eds. 2007] These kinds of debates were happening in Disability studies 20 years ago. In Deaf studies they have had little, if any, attention, but I would expect a new wave of Deaf and hard of hearing scholars to be keen to address such questions.

Sign Language Planning: individual rights to group rights

I agreed to stand in for a speaker the week before last at the recent Applied Sign Linguistics conference at Bristol University and that gave me a good opportunity to bring together my own research and thinking on citizenship, language planning and minority group rights.

I refer to language planning in the status sense: i.e. raising the status of a language in society.  Language planning and minority group rights have been discussed by, amongst others, Stephen May, Gabrielle Hogun-Brun and Bernard Spolksy, who are all experts in this field.  All three recognise and include sign languages in their work.

The key finding of my research on citizenship was, unsurprisingly, depressing.  Deaf citizens did not feel they were valued as citizens by all sections of civil, political and social society.  It wasn’t that Deaf people did not feel citizens in any respect at all, they clearly were and did, but it was a ‘thin’ citizenship, rather than a ‘thick’ one that they experienced.  They felt passive rather than active citizens, not in and by themselves, that was how they felt perceived by majority society; it was empirical research evidence.

My thesis presents compelling evidence, but I paraphrase the marxist maxim: ‘you’ve interpreted the world, how are you going to change it?’  I wanted to look at the concept of group rights in my PhD in that regard; my supervisors, rightly and wisely, suggested that to do so would be to take on too vast a project.

Leverhulme and the University of Bristol have presented me with an opportunity to undertake a small scale post-doc research project on group rights, in far more depth than I could give it justice in my PhD.  What I am finding so far is challenging stuff; still ongoing.

At the Applied Sign Linguistics conference, however, I raised the point of moving on from sign language ‘recognition’ (read ‘acknowledgment’) to sign language acts, or language planning; ostensibly to protect, raise and strengthen the status of sign language in society.  Such moves were long ago suggested by political activists and academic thinkers prior to the 2003 British Sign Language (UK) ‘recognition’ statement, who have always recognised the importance of the statement but at the same time consistently and continuously maintained it never went far enough. It is far more important than that though: language acts are as much about protecting language from demise, something that several thousand spoken languages are at risk of.  Skutnabb-Kangas is regularly warning the world that spoken languages are already experiencing genocide.

In the UK, the next step from language ‘recognition’ (read ‘acknowledgment’) unofficially at least, might be a BSL Act.

However, the question raised is : what might that mean in practice?  Any presentation to governments to introduce Acts carries with it the assumption that these will apply to individuals. Our society, after all, is liberal democratic, where the will of the individual is held as paramount; there might be some form of exemptions, but the individual right (usually of the individual parents) will always trump the group right.

Now, it’s not being suggested that there is anything objectionable to individual rights; but Acts, arguably, need to be powered by board(s) of (liberal) enforcers, not simply ‘advised’ by them.  Empowering such a group or board is what makes a group right i.e. that group becomes self-determining since it holds the destiny of the rights of the group in its own hands, and not to a random government appointed board that, with all due respect, are not the best guarantors or protectors of the group (since they have other interests in mind). Group rights can be upheld to protect individual rights, providing such rights are promoted to protect the group from external protections (against the demise of sign language for example), and not to impose internal restrictions (enforcing members of a group to forgo a liberal right).

The key theorist I am referring to here is Will Kymlicka, who has come under some criticism, but whose arguments that minority group rights are key to liberalism, and are not in opposition to it, is a powerful one.  After all, citizenship is already a restrictive practice (not all people of a nation can claim citizenship of a country automatically, for example), and group rights are already favourable to dominant national languages, such as English for example.  Kymicka is an important theorist, for human rights scholars don’t particularly favour group rights over individual rights: Kymlicka argues by not incorporating minority group rights they are failing the liberal project.

The crucial argument here is the need for minority group rights, precisely because our society is multicultural and minorities within society often lack protection, recognition, respect and rights by majority governing powers.

Therefore, in summary, the argument being made is that it is not enough simply to push for a language planning or a language act, it needs to be backed up by minority group rights, where the minority group holds some form of power(s), and isn’t simply there to give advice to existing Acts.  Any ‘Deaf Perestroika’ demands radial structural changes to ensure language protection and promotion.

The debate follows my PhD research. One of the biggest concerns is that powers do not afford minority groups (i don’t just refer here to sign language communities) ‘epistemic justice’.  In other words, the minority group is not given a fair hearing by government in regards to its rights, and so practices that disregard its concerns continue, or the minority group is given token recognition. Yet it is within the minority group where there exist experts who hold a valuable understanding of a group’s rights and responsibilities.

I am not aware of a debate within the Deaf world on minority group rights possibilities; although Kymlicka wrote an article on the subject in 1998 and Jan-Kare Breivik has also commented on the issue in his work, both concluded that they did not see such rights as feasible.  The work, on this issue however, has not, as far as I’m aware, been subject to empirical research or the intense scrutiny and debate I think it deserves.  Historically, Deaf Studies is still very much a discipline in its infancy and sociological research funding is hard to come by.  Organisations seeking to protect the interests of Sign Language have perhaps been most concerned with the immediate ways in which sign languages and Deaf people can be protected, particularly within the ‘developing’ or majority nations.  The mechanisms for doing so are with (individual) Human Rights frameworks. They work with minimal resources, and on the statute books at least, there are inclusions that seek to protect sign language (although I’m aware these have been open to criticism because it has been argued, at the WFD Conference in Madrid in 2007, that mainstreaming of deaf children isn’t challenged as strongly as it could be).

Yet at the expense of pursuing the ratification of the rights of sign language users at a formal and official level there is a risk of failing to address a common academic critique: individual human rights, after 60 years since the end of the second world war, continue to fail to prevent abuses in the hearing world, often by countries that are the strongest supporters of individual human rights (just ask Amnesty!).  There is also an imbalance in the focus of human rights abuses in some nations more than others. Uncritically accepting that (individual) human rights of sign language users be fought for through official bodies such as the United Nations is to bestow legitimacy on those organisations to decide what constitutes a right within the Deaf world.

‘Differentiated minority group rights’ would not ditch individual rights, but they might enable the minority group to be the deciders of what constitutes a right within their community and culture.

The outline presented above could form the basis and framework for discussion and debate on the subject of minority group rights and Deaf communities that is, in my view, long overdue.

A Roadmap to British Sign Language & Linguistic Access in Scotland

I have just seen this document, a report on linguistic access in Scotland.

Amongst the interesting statistics are:

– that just 18% of D/deaf people have access to the internet, compared with 53% of the general population;

– there are just 65 qualified BSL/English interpreters, compared with an estimated 200 to 300 Communication Support Workers (though this figure seems to be in need of clarification and verification); and

– of the 1,026 people taking assessments for BSL in 2006, only 11 were at level 3, and none at level 4.

It cites a report that an estimated 1,000 more interpreters are needed to be registered in the UK to bring the country in line with the European median of one interpreter per 45,000 people, itself quite a low expectation.

My own contribution to the report, notes detailing briefly my research on citizenship can be found here.