group rights

Collective minority group rights: some considerations

In this post (which is a bit long I’m afraid. and unavoidably abstract in places), I write about collective minority group rights*.  This entry follows my viewing of the BDA/DCAL event [19th March 2013] to mark the 10-year anniversary of British Sign Language (BSL) ‘recognition’. As I wrote in my previous entry, the event has thrown up a grassroots Facebook campaign group, spit the dummy, calling for a BSL Act.


I want to focus on something Paddy Ladd raised at this event, that any BSL Act should take into account that Deaf communities are collective in nature.  The way legislation is framed, the rights of the individual tend to take precedent, and the reasons for doing so date back to the end of the Second World War. Any campaign for a BSL (or any other language) Act therefore tends to focus on individual rights.

The question I pose here is: can a BSL Act incorporate any elements of collective minority group rights? If so, what might these be? The Grumpy Old Deafies blog has already fired off some excellent examples of which parts of legislation any Act or campaign could target. It is a sober and direct article that pulls no punches: the place to begin is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRPD), it states. What I will attempt to do here is look at things from a different angle, and hope that it will be of some use to activists, because I have been researching, writing and presenting on the subject for around 5 years now. It is written to outline what my research has found, and share my critical thinking from the process of conducting it.

Now I have nothing against individual rights but I don’t think they go far enough to protect collective communities.

As Bob Duncan kindly reminded me in my previous entry, we are at the tenth anniversary of the publication of Paddy Ladd’s seminal Deafhood publication. [1] Understanding the notion of Deafhood has been slow to take off in the UK, but it remains a powerful concept that has had a big impact in the USA, while the book has sold in numerous countries and several languages. At the March 19th event Paddy repeated what he had raised in that publication, that Deaf communities were collective in nature, but government’s individualist ethos did not take account of their needs. But what has been missing from discussion on recognition of Deaf communities collective rights is the detail of how they can be enacted, aside from seeking recognition from UNESCO[2].  An appeal to UNESCO is something I support, but at the present time the WFD are heavily focused on the UNCRPD.  I seek to address the issue of how group rights might work in practice, from a national level.

When considering group rights

There are three important considerations to bear in mind when looking at minority group rights:

1. It is important to distinguish between the right (of individuals) to form into and belong to a group, and the rights of peoples (collective) who belong to a group. There are hundreds of thousands of different groups set up that only totalitarian governments would deny: from political organizations to common interest groups (sports, social, and so on).  The British Deaf Association is one such example of a group that members belong to. An example of a cultural group right would be those of who, say, follow a religion which has established traditions: they may, for example, feel strongly about abstaining from working on a Sunday; engage in prayer five times a day; or eat kosher food.  These may be practiced by individuals but they are essentially about cultural group practices that these groups peoples’ undertake.

2. How could group rights be enacted in practice? There is no denying that this would not be an easy accomplishment given that in the West individual rights trump collective rights in almost all cases, but it is not impossible. To give two examples of how this happens in Europe and the USA. In Romania, because they have so many language minority and cultural groups, their democracy is constructed so that parliamentary seats are allocated proportionate to the size of each group. In the USA, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some states approved ‘minority-majority’ voting districts, to ensure that voters had the chance to elect African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latin@** people to the Senate.

Outside of Europe, group rights are more acceptable: in South America, for example, indigenous groups in Bolivia and Colombia are allocated seats in their respective parliaments. In India, the tiny Farsi religion has its cultural rights protected. Africa, however, is one of the foremost examples: the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights fully recognizes group rights – but has only recently done so, which is an indication that the African nations could no longer deny their countries are made up of multiple cultural groups that are in need of protection and recognition.

3. So what forms of group rights are there? Now of course, context is critical and an important aspect of minority group rights is that it is quite broad and can be flexible. The theorist I draw on here is Will Kymlicka, who incidentally has pondered whether Deaf communities should be given group rights (he said no, but only on the basis that it could lead to a multiplicity of claims from wider disabled groups [and what is wrong with allowing disabled people to have group rights, since they are also under threat from genetic developments?]).  In Kymlicka’s view, group rights is not incompatible with liberalism, and that is a contentious point. According to Kymlicka there are, broadly, three types of minority rights:

i) self-government rights

ii) polyethnic rights

iii) special group representation rights

With self-government rights: this is where a minority either seeks to secede from the State, or have some kind of control within it. This will have a familiar feel to UKers right now because of the example of Scotland, where there is to be a referendum on independence from the UK in 2014.  Quebec is another example: French speakers have long been campaigning for a separate State, as have the people of the Basque region, who want independence from Spain. There are many other examples, including in India where there are several State demands to secede from the Indian State.

In the mid 19th century consideration was given to the notion of setting up a separate Deaf ‘Commonwealth’.  This didn’t gain credibility amongst Deaf people at that time.  Most recently, in 2004, some people tried to set up a ‘Deaf town’ called Laurent, it failed to gain planning permission and eventually collapsed.  However, by and large we don’t see Deaf communities demanding a separate homeland – they want to access mainstream society. Spit the dummy testifies to that aspiration.

Self-government rights, therefore, generally relate to enabling a minority some form of control regarding the protection and preservation of a peoples language, cultural and national practices. In the UK the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland assemblies are examples.

Polyethnic rights are, generally, those of cultural groups who come to a nation state voluntarily, or are forced out of their state through persecution or war; for example, immigrants and refugees. They are expected to integrate into society by, for example, speaking the language of the nation, respecting its laws and customs. However, even so, these groups still require rights to protect their cultural practices; in the UK we are familiar with multiple minorities being provided with Interpreters, for example; but they bring their culture with them too, and the State is benign as long as the individual’s rights are not violated…for example, arranged marriages are ok when they are consensual, forced marriages aren’t. Exemptions are often granted to respect cultural practices: for example, Sikh’s are exempt from wearing motorcycle helmets, others include the right to wear the veil, and time off to take part in religious festivities.

Finally, special group representation rights are probably the type of rights that Liberal governments find easier to grant. A bolder form of such rights would be to reserve spaces in the Houses of Parliament for Deaf representatives. In South Africa this idea has been discussed, mainly because there is already a form of group representation rights in the South African parliament. It is suggested that seats be reserved for Deaf and disabled community representatives. But these could just as well apply to any level of government – e.g. within government departments such as education, within local councils, etc.

Internal restrictions or external protections?

There is one important issue: do those who demand such rights want them for ‘external protection’ or ‘internal restriction’? We can say with confidence in the case of Deaf communities that they are the former – protection of the language and culture; protection from harmful medical practices, and so on.  In this case they are more likely to be granted, since internal restrictions are considered to be ‘illiberal’. Some might suggest that there are internal restrictions in the form of suppressing speech, but the practice of sign bilingualism does not entail restricting or stopping speech, contrary to what many in the medical profession fear. Far more alarming are the developments taking place around genetics, which pose real threats to the community, and reinforces the urgent need for protection.

Putting group rights into practice: some thoughts and suggestions

Having given a brief outline, what might group rights be able to bring to the debate in the case of a BSL Act? I offer no clear cut blueprint, but I do offer some suggestions as to where discussion might start:

i) The Act is not only about enabling the language to thrive, it is to protect it.  In order to protect it, however, it requires putting into place elements essential to the group (and not only the individual). In a research project I undertook, what these group rights entailed was not easy to define, so, far more work involving the community is required. But as a starting suggestion, some or all of the following would flow naturally when there is a focus on what cultural practices are important for the group. The main focus was on protecting deaf children, which is understandable because they are the future community. The spit the dummy campaign incorporates a wide range of sphere’s where inequality and second class citizenship is rife, but here’s a starting summary[3]:

Sign language requires deaf children to be educated together. Deaf teachers and assistants are essential as role models. Time and space is needed to ensure the group has space to develop its cultural mores: Deafhood development, poetry, drama, story-telling, Deaf space in the form of  local Deaf centres, television channels, a Deaf studies curriculum, expression of minority groups within the Deaf community (such as Black deaf culture, Asian Deaf culture, issues affecting Deaf disabled people, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Deaf people). Finally, and certainly not lastly: Sign language development is critically vital, and that requires language planning.  In all of these factors, deaf children are not the only individuals being protected, such protection and development requires a more concerted input from adult Deaf people: as teachers, elders, producers of culture, role models, sign language tutors, and so on. It would require a long process of community repair.

ii) These could be enacted as part of a process of natural justice, as opposed to, say, freedom of choice.  That is really critical: Deaf communities, and that includes some of the most radical activists, tend to pursue an agenda for ‘informed choice’.  A language Act that misses out the group nature of the Deaf community, one which tries to insist purely on individual rights, and which pushes for informed parental choice, is ridden with contradictions. If there is free choice, then hearing parents who wish to pursue a path of oralism have every right as those who wish to pursue sign language. And this is precisely what Deaf communities argue is unjust…and yet there is a continued pushing for individual rights: that needs to be reviewed. Free choice is damaging and suits those who see deaf children and adults as having a medical condition.

The medical profession intervenes in the life of individual deaf children; it is a culturally embedded practice within the health system; and it is therefore a political force. The methods these professions pursue are not ones of free choice. They thrive partly because they have become historically embedded, but also because they possess far more cultural and social capital with which to pursue a normalizing agenda. My reference for this argument is the excellent research undertaken my Laura Mauldin [4], who spent an extensive period of time interviewing professionals and parents in the process of cochlear implantation.  At the risk of generalizing, the entire system is structured around medical practices, from the day of the birth of the deaf child, and they actively seek to persuade parents to try out normalizing procedures.

Deaf activists can therefore justly suggest that what a BSL Act requires is a kind of intervention, one that will not reject the need for an audiological input, but which is centred around ensuring the child has access to their natural visual environment, and they are able to develop and express themselves through this visual language. That would be their cultural group right.

My suggestion is that the very reason why Acts around the world have so far been ineffective is precisely because they do not have a strong cultural underpinning. It is supremely critical to get this right, as it can be a basis from which to build support amongst the wider population, such as parents, other minority groups, the trade union movement, community groups, hearing allies, and so on.

What group rights might a BSL Act incorporate?

So, what form of group rights might a BSL Act try to incorporate? The case of Deaf people is interesting because it may require bits of several to work effectively. It also allows leeway for compromise.

1. There could be a request for exemptions. For example, while ‘integration’ is a sought after policy for disabled children, deaf children could be made exempt from this within disability legislation. That, however, would only be a start, for where does that entail children being educated?  That is where sign bilingualism comes into force, since not only does it focus on a child’s individual ability, it requires them spending time together collectively. [As an aside, it doesn’t exclude hearing children, especially those whose parents want them to be bilingual in signing and spoken language.]  But the whole point of this exemption is what it leads to: a preservation, protection and development of the language and culture.

2. Special group representation rights have already been addressed, but these rights do not only refer to having seats in parliament: they may work at a local or departmental level.  Education is again a good example, or within local councils.

3. However, the most crucial form of minority group right would surely be a form of self-government.  I will now spend some time on this part.

Paddy Ladd made the point that Deaf communities need effective and appropriate representation when negotiating with government. This is a case that Grumpy Old Deafies also addresses, where the author cautions that precisely because so many organizations were involved in the BSL recognition process, it harmed the movement the last time round. Different NGO’s and other groups strengthen the case for a BSL Act when they criticize governments for not doing enough to protect sign language, but one would hope that they will not become embroiled in the negotiation process for an Act.  In a sense, therefore, what I write here is an appeal for organizations to step back from being engaged in the nuts and bolts of putting an Act into force.

Organizations: the pitfalls, organizational power, and responsibility

There are two points to be made here about organizations’ involvement in the creation of a BSL Act.  Firstly, many have and will suggest that different Deaf/deaf organizations unite to push and persuade governments to put into effect a BSL Act. There are some attractions to doing so, that is not being denied. Governments, by and large, will find it hard to ignore a strong lobbying group.  Bringing all of these groups together, united over a common cause, strengthens their position. Indeed, Scotland could be held up as an example, where a united group of different organizations, the Cross Party Group on Deafness, have built up a very effective lobbying group, and have successfully managed to persuade Scottish MP’s to bring a BSL Act before the Scottish Parliament.

When I first saw the Act on paper, it seemed pretty strong in many respects, except for the lack of mention of Deaf culture: however, at the time it was disseminated (2010) the wording wasn’t the problem, it was who was pursuing it that was the major contention. As  Maartje Meulder explained at the DCAL/BDA meeting, that Act was already being watered down.  Therefore the same old mistakes are being repeated all over again, and the risk is that it will be largely symbolic and piecemeal in practice, and grassroots activists will, like in 2003, feel betrayed.

The process is highly likely to be repeated if the same process of ‘let’s get all the organizations on board’ is pursued in the UK. There are more powerful charitable organizations when you put the UK together, and a particularly strong parliamentary group through which UKCod is the leading link. Because these organizations have such diverse policies and also represent several different interests, they can have conflicting agendas. To have these organizations involved in negotiations over a BSL Act is therefore dangerous, because those with more cultural capital, and effective networking with politicians, are far more likely to hold the power in the case of putting through a BSL Act. They are also far more willing to allow any Act to be watered down and lacking in a cultural aspect.  [The Scottish Act, incidentally, has zero reference to culture.] And these groups are not all strong supporters of BSL. For example, sign bilingualism, is not universally pursued by the two main organizations that have good access to politicians: the NDCS and AoHL. One group, Deafness Research UK, is committed to eradicating deafness altogether and the myriad conflicting policies of UKCod needs no introduction.[5]

Secondly, comes the question of responsibility. This is directly related to the question: if Deaf organizations are not the ones who should be representatives for a BSL Act, who should? Language minorities such as the Gaelic Board in Scotland, have a group that takes responsibility for putting into practice language and cultural planning. Why not make contact with this group and seek to learn from them?

I will suggest that in the case of the Deaf community this entails establishing a completely new group, what I will term a ‘Sign Language Board’ (SLB), for want of a better term, that is free of party politics, and completely committed to a core set of principles about what a BSL Act would entail. It could have one of two options. The first, most ambitious, would be to aim to take power for itself. The second, would be to bring a diverse range of people together to draw up an Act, and decide which people to recommend to be on any Board to put this into action.

A ‘gentle’ form of power, and being inclusive from inception

I want to be clear here that I do not refer to an oppressive form of ‘power’.  The process of devising or developing the Board should be built on enlightened and democratic principles, one that is not controlling or oppressive, but which is fully inclusive.  Paddy Ladd made the point that there needs to be a vision. Hence it can include input, representation and involvement of hearing parents of deaf children, hearing allies with a positive attitude towards sign language. It should most definitely ensure all sections of the community are included in constructing such a body: Black deaf people, disabled Deaf people, Deaf people with usher, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender groups, and ensure there is equal representation of women. This should not be tokenism, but built in from the start, because Deaf communities are not immune from bias.

It could be a ‘gentle’ kind of power, one that is very firm about the centrality of sign language and Deaf culture but also open to learning from one another as it seeks to develop. Such a group can begin planning who they think that Board should consist of now. There is nothing stopping it.  The UK government, just as it funds Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, could fund a Sign Language Board, and free up funding for what is necessary to begin a process of community repair and reconstruction.  Deaf people pay their taxes, so this could be a just entitlement.

The biggest obstacles are likely to be (a) securing funding; (b) risk of backlash from other groups who may seek to demand similar rights; (c) the very real risk of a opposition from the powerful, influential and wealthy medical profession; and (d) current organizations working in deaf communities seeking to gatecrash onto the Board via its government networking. [For what it’s worth, I think (a) and (c) and (d) can be rebuffed by strong concerted action from the new group members, while for (b) it may be worth considering a broad based alliance to bring about group rights for different minority groups.]

If the D/deaf organizations are really serious about supporting a BSL Act they will happily and willingly refrain from engagement and allow this development to take place, and positively and openly urge the government (lobby them in fact), to support this Board and the campaign for a BSL Act led by Deaf people and their elected hearing allies. The 2003 recognition campaign showed that NGO’s were happy to put throw themselves into negotiating positions by, for example, attending parliamentary events and putting themselves forward as ‘representatives’; the current generation can learn from the past by putting forward an action plan for self-government.


Therefore in summary: first, in discussing the practical ways an Act could be developed, collective minority group rights could be a very fruitful part of that discussion. Second, what is being suggested here is not a blueprint, but a basis for discussion of how group rights might be enacted in practice. Third, in considering the politics of this new movement, it should be emphasized that the current set up may not be dismantled overnight, but it should be pointed out that what the Act requires is an intervention – and that what the BSL Act is looking for is a very different kind of intervention, one that is based on natural justice, not ‘free choice’. It consists of a strong confident Board that is not afraid of power and responsibility, but eagerly seeks it.

So there you have it: a reasoning of how a BSL Act could begin to include discussions on a form of collective, cultural group rights. I have suggested a strong form of self-government is key: in fact it has already begun, and takes the form of spit the dummy.

Finally, if the current system cannot, or will not, enable some form of minority cultural group rights, then one has to question whether the system is the problem: after all it is not benign, for it is already propping up an institution that has a normalizing agenda, and is not protecting the community from genetic experimentation.  These interest groups are committed to eradicating deafness [and by implication Deaf people] for good. That cannot be allowed to happen.

*This blog entry is based on research I carried out from October 2008 to October 2010, and is yet unpublished. A draft has been written, but is currently in the process of being re-drafted.

**Originally I used the term ‘Hispanic’ but as members of one of my classes pointed out, the correct term is Latin@

[1] Ladd, P. (2003) Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, Multilingual Matters: Cleveland.

[2] Click here for the powerpoint presentation Dr Paddy Ladd gave at the WFD Conference in Madrid 2007 [given by kind permission of Paddy]

[3] Thanks are due to the 12 Deaf people who took part in the research project focused on collective group rights (2008-2010); this paragraph is an outline summary of what collective rights might be held in common by Deaf communities.

[4] Mauldin, L. (2011) ‘Parents of deaf children with cochlear implants: a study of technology and community’, in Sociology of Health & Illness Vol XX No. X 2011 ISSN 0141-9889, pp. 1-5

[5] With thanks for Maartje Meulder for information contained here [but do note: I take responsibility for views expressed]

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!

Urgent: Bristol Deaf Centre sale and closure imminent!

So it’s official re: the seriousness of the situation of the Bristol Deaf Centre, which faces imminent closure, as reported by the Evening Post just before Xmas. This follows an article by Charlie Swinbourne recently on the woes being faced by Bristol Deaf people – which is, to put it metaphorically, a large pair of scissors.  Cut, cut, cut. Cut the school, cut the Deaf Studies courses, cut the Deaf Centre.

Bristol Deaf people are now faced with the problem that unless a solution can be found within the next few weeks, there is a possibility that the Deaf Centre will become liable to Avon Pension Fund so as to meet a debt (£700k) that was not of local Deaf people’s making.

It is now known that as far back as Nov 2007 that there was a pension debt of £300k, and yet there was no pressure then on the Centre to sell to pay off that debt. More importantly, there was no known discussion with local Deaf people about what to do about such a growing debt in 2007 nor has there been up until now. [Click this link will open into a PDF Document.]

Ok, so there are obviously issues related to the past that come into play here; and these should be looked into.  And, also, let’s be honest: the pension issue is not one that only affects Deaf people’s Centre – there was a huge strike on November 30th about cuts in people’s pensions.

Yet as people were pointing out at the meeting, this is the Deaf Centre we are discussing: just take a look at what it has to offer Deaf, hard of hearing AND hearing people. For 127 years Deaf people have had a meeting place, to socialise together, to build networks with local and national communities, to teach sign language classes, to ensure the more vulnerable Deaf people had support and companionship. But, above all, where hearing parents of deaf children could take their young people and introduce them to the world of Deaf people, show them role models for their future, enable them to develop an identity.

On that note a personal detour. I myself, mainstreamed (like 90-odd percent of deaf children in the UK today), still vividly recall memories of attending the annual Deaf Centre Xmas parties, to which my mother took me. Vibrant, happy, full of fun, and Deaf adults who I never had an opportunity to see daily.

So whatever the situation, the politics, the pension, the council, the services, etc, this issue is about a community, a people, a culture, a way of life, a contribution to Bristol’s history – and the Centre itself is based in an area known for it’s local community diversity: Stokes Croft.

So the question is always: what is to be done to regenerate or save the centre? Now?

I’m heartened by the turn-out of numbers of people at recent EGMs (23rd September, 2nd November and 21st December) – one just 4 days before Xmas woah! All meetings were totally packed out, spilling out of the main hall, and the depth and extent of the passion in the air is a clear indication of just how much people value the Centre and want to see the continuation of a central meeting point, a hub, a club, a pub, call it what you want.

Question: can that passion be turned into something that will either save the Centre from closure or see the emergence of new beginnings?

So many people do care and want to act, do something, anything, to try and find a solution: be it through campaigns, meetings, become a trustee, or whatever. But at present, and let’s be honest, it appears the majority are spectators. They see fiery meetings, and are witnesses to a sparky debate. Not always a great spectacle, and a bit like seeing a car crash scene and finding yourself unable to look away.

Worse still is to be left feeling ‘oh what’s the point, the end is inevitable anyway’.

So, what’s next?

There is an AGM on February 8th. Motions need to be in to the AGM two weeks before that time.

Well, it’s certainly an option to sit around until then and wait for yet another fiery passionate meeting, allowing people to get up and have their say, but that is hardly the issue. The fact is that behind the scenes, plans are being put in place to sell the Centre and leave Bristol Deaf people either homeless or in a temporary place. Indefinitely, for all we know, for these situations leave one hard to know who to trust.

I have been active in the Interim Working Group to try and collect information about the situation the Centre finds itself in. [Please see below.] And I’m exhausted from it, especially as it has been almost Kafkaesque in nature – you know those situations where you reach a line, finally, only to find it has been moved forward or sideways…yet again.

The Interim Group suggested it would need a period of 6 or so months (from November 2011) to gather information but all the while it has been doing so, events have moved on.

We may well have reached a point where there is little more we can do in terms of gathering information.

[By the way, see below for an outline that shows what the Interim Working Group was set up for and what shady activities it has been up to…as you’ll see, nothing sinister. Just trying to get information together.]

Now let’s take a look at the Elim Housing offer to buy the building and reconvert the land into a block of flats, allowing the Deaf Centre to rent out the ground floor (at a cost) on a 125-year lease.  But does their offer really represent an adequate or fair ‘option’. How much is the Deaf Centre really worth? What would it sell for? Evaluations reported in the Evening Post are not independent of the sale to Elim Housing, which, by the way, has a church of the same name just round the corner from the Centre – I can’t work out if the two are linked are not…

Should a fresh, new group of trustees be set up to begin a re-building process? If so, who might they be? What might they do? What support would they get?  Would they simply become a ‘mopping up’ brigade of the type we saw after the August riots? And what exactly would they have to build with in terms of money, capital, and people?

I am not writing pretending that I have answers to the situation. But there is one thing I do feel quite strongly about, as I’m sure a lot of people do: The Deaf Centre belongs to Bristol Deaf people: it has that name for a reason. The current Centre was bought in 1973 on that basis and it is through no fault of the community that a debt of £700k has built up. It has been the home of the Bristol Deaf community, the meeting point, the focus of much that happens in the Bristol Deaf Community.

It would be completely unjust and unfair for all of that to be lost, or reduced, to pay a pension fund deficit that is not of Bristol Deaf people’s own making.

entry ends

Statement from Interim Working Group members for meeting of 21/12/11

On Wednesday 2nd November, an EGM of the Bristol Centre for Deaf People was held.

At the meeting, it was voted on and agreed an Interim Working Group would be set up to obtain information for the benefit of the Bristol Deaf Community. The information would be required to help Deaf people make a decision about the future of the Deaf Centre.

On Wednesday 16th November, the Interim Working Group held an open meeting at the Deaf Centre. We explained that we had held a meeting with a very experienced legal adviser and the adviser gave us a list of important information that was necessary before the Deaf community could make informed decisions about the future of the Centre.

We explained that our aim was to try to obtain 8 pieces of information and we will list it here and explain what has happened in response, in bold:

Firstly, we want to express our thanks to people who have agreed and been willing to meet us in the last few weeks

  1. the minutes of all meetings of trustees held during the calendar years 2008 to 2011;

These have not been provided

  1. the accounts to the year ended 31 March 2010 (as recited on the website of the Charity Commissioners);
  1. all draft accounts prepared in respect of any period after the year ended 31 March 2010;

These have been provided and are available – it is now up to the Board to distribute these to you.

  1. the “governing documents” referred to on the website of the Charity Commissioners, namely the “constitution adopted 24 January 1979 as amended 26 September 1984 and 5 December 1990” plus any documents effecting material changes subsequent to those documents;

These have not been provided 

  1. the original title deeds to the land and buildings at 16-18 Kings Square (now registered under title no. BL38229 – including but not limited to the conveyance dated 16 February 1973 referred to in the Charges Register) ;

These have not been provided, but we understand the land and buildings belongs entirely to the Bristol Centre for Deaf People

  1. any emails or other communications relating to the nature and extent of the pension deficit/liability;

Some information has been provided and the Board will be making this available at the meeting for 21/12/11 

  1. correspondence (including emails) between Bristol City Council and the trustees/centre relating to funding / its withdrawal; and

 These have not been provided

  1. written confirmation that no assets or functions have been transferred to the private company limited by guarantee incorporated on 5 August 2010 under company number 07336999 under the name “Centre for the Deaf Limited”.

No written information has been provided – however we are assured that no transfers have been made.

We have reached a point where we have done everything possible to try to obtain the above information for your benefit; it is up to the Board to provide the information to you and we have done our best and worked hard to try to get them to provide the necessary information.

IWG meetings and legal communication

November 21st – meeting between Elim Housing, Deaf Centre, Bristol City Council

November 23rd – meeting with legal advisor

November 30th – meeting with representative of Deaf Centre board

December 8th – meeting with representatives of Bristol City Council

December 12th – meeting with legal advisor

December 20th – meeting with staff at Deaf Centre

The legal adviser has written two strong letters requesting information from the Board

The IWG has communicated via email regularly with the legal advisor, Bristol City Council and a representative from the Board.

The IWG has met on a total of four occasions since November 16th


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.


gruelling year ends soon

There’s no denying it – the Chinese year of the Tiger (my sign btw 😉 hasn’t been easy, forever plugging away workwise, one thing after another popping up on top of the usuals. Some grim, others exciting, most in-between.

Can never complain: but has meant the blog’s got sidelined, so apologies for that as some significant stuff’s been going on.

Write ups hope to become regular in 2011 after the hols, but here’s a sum-up:

1. Completed the Group Rights project, one dissemination meet held, another meeting in London due on 20th; have a video recording that I hope to put up after that. I feel very indebted to the people who took part in the project, who have played a crucial part in enabling the development of a positive theory of Deaf people’s minority group rights – more to follow soon.

2. New Genetics and Deafhood project to start asap (that one will run until Octo 2012). This one was announced on Bristol Uni website; it is led by Paddy Ladd 🙂 So I am back into the genetics frying pan !

3. My DVD in BSL already has a publisher (Ishara Press), has been produced, and will be launched in the New Year. Book in English also published. It has taken time, but watch this space! (In the meantime you can watch clips from it on the BSL Uptake project website.)

4. European Parliament visit last month, November: I was pleased to be able to attend this (big thanks Annika and Mark) and saw Adam Kosa MEP for the first time, and this could be the start of a big moment at European level Deaf politics, and especially for EUD. I hope to write on this soon with my observations, praises, and constructive critiques 😉


Some not so good developments have also rocked a lot of people’s lives, and I will write in more detail about those here:

First, the teaching out of the BSc at the Centre for Deaf Studies. All the detail about this is on the savedeafstudies campaign website. The Centre itself is not subject to closure (although the fears linger), but with the loss of the BSc there are bound to be major effects. I understand the initial campaign, that received the most superb support from around the world, has lost momentum since the summer, but internal work is ongoing to ensure the Centre puts itself on a stronger base in the coming months.

Secondly, the totally disasterous ‘Browne Report’, that got through Parliament last week through the coalition government. As it passes through the various phrases to become official, the changes are going to be structurally massive and effect staff and students alike.  It is likely that students in humanities and social sciences will be forced to find 100% of funding of their studies, for example.

Secondly, these cuts have been pushed through by a new right-wing Coalition Government of Tories and the Lib-Dems (often referred to as he Con-Dem government). It’s unfortunate that it had to come to seeing Lib Dems getting some form of power to realise that they were not and never have been ‘left’ or ‘alternative’ in any way or form.

It is very, very disappointed to see one of the greatest campaigners on Deaf issues in Parliament, Malcolm Bruce, vote in favour of the proposals.

Neither were Labour much better, of course; as they were the ones who introduced tuition fees and initiated the Browne Report.

The climate it has created will make it harder for Deaf people generally, as I wrote in my blog two years ago when the credit cruch started. It is the marginalised, vulnerable and poorer sections of society who bear the brunt of cuts in a disproportiate way. Women, especially, are going to be hard hit in numerous ways.

So now Bristol City Council finds an opportunity to push for the closure of Elmfield Deaf school into a resource-based unit (although I know there are some who predicted this is what would happen as a result of changes some 5 years previously). Also worrying, however, is the planned cuts in Deaf youth services.

I know they say things come in three’s but….

For me personally, there has been some inspiration and hope: students, lecturers and staff protested against the changes to CDS last May (incidentally right after UK election day) with a lively and vibrant campaign that attracted wide media coverage.

And students generally have refused to accept that a rise in tuition fees and massive cutbacks are ‘inevitable’, but have instead demonstrated through the streets of Bristol and elsewhere in the UK (notably London last week), and also occupied part of the university to set up ‘open spaces’.

These open spaces have widespread support: they have already held one ‘teach in’ on the purpose and value of higher education. In other occupations, subjects have included discussions as to what an alternative, non corporate education system might mean in practice.

That’s a very relevant subject for Deaf education and Deaf people generally, for as we know, the education system has failed Deaf people over the years, and the community is in a situation where it requires open and honest discussion and debate on what is the alternative to deaf kids being sent off, isolated, to mainstream schools.

I hope that 2011 sees people urgently discussing and pursuing alternatives before we see an autiobiography in our shops entitled: ‘my experiences in the last Deaf school standing’.




Update: education, diaspora, genetics and group rights

An incredibly hectic period! It’s always busy, but these last three months have been a workload tsunami to beat all workload tsunamis!

Here’s an update.

Struggling with swine flu back in August, I wrote up an ‘Expression of Interest’ for a Centre for Deaf Studies project to evaluate the work being undertaken by the I-Sign Consortium. The consortium received £800,000 from the Department of Children, Schools and Families to undertake a pilot project into increasing BSL in education and within families. We are evaluating that project. Just beat the deadline by 4 minutes. CDS will soon begin the process of evaluation, using Theory of Change and Distance Travelled methods.

It promises to be a challenge, and we wait with interest to see how the project itself progresses in the next 15-18 months.

Secondly, I’ve been working with colleagues to look at the possibility of undertaking research on the concept of Sign Language Peoples Diaspora.  A lot of ground covered, but hope to have something published soon on our thinking around the concept of Diaspora. It’s totally early days for that.

Finally, the group rights research is slowly progressing. This coming Saturday I fly out to India to the SIGN4 Conference, where I am giving a paper on group rights. It’s entitled ‘Putting the World to Rights: Group Rights and Deaf Communities’.

In addition to having been internal assessor of a PhD for the second time, chaired and hosted a UK Deaf Academics meeting at Bristol, and undertaken some teaching on ‘Learning Skills’ on the MSc Deafhood course and other typical university-type work stuff.

Research I was involved with around genetics: Anna Middleton has published the work we did, including a DVD from the workshop in Cardiff last year.  There are two published articles in ‘Sign Language Studies’ forthcoming, all joint-authored, one of which includes a summary of media reporting of the movement opposing the HFE Bill. That is in the next issue of SLS.

No rest for the wicked!

Enjoy the festive break.

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.