sign language

Discussion points: at the intersection

Our article was intended to provoke debate, so thanks to everyone who has contributed so far.

Putting aside access issues for the time being, I really feel the need to bring discussion to the article. Mainly also because some of the contributions are going into areas which I feel are not quite ‘getting it’, as Alison put it. It was also something that cropped up in the lifeinlincs debate a few months back, so I am going to take this opportunity to clarify, as briefly as I can, what we are trying to get at.

I’m also sure people will recognise that the issues we address in the article are as relevant to other fiends of work too.

First, our article isn’t intended as a contribution to the practicalities about how Deaf and hearing academics can work together, although there is a strong overlap. Nicola Nunn is currently doing her work in this field and will have far more to contribute than we do. Do please keep an eye for the presentations and work she’s doing in this field.

Second, as has become apparent, it’s a *reaction* piece. As Alison, Sarah, and others have pointed out, reading the original gives our article its crucial context. It reacts to an article by two authors.

Thirdly, while we do elaborate on how and why hearing academics are able to advance their careers in relation to Deaf academics, our key concern is the fact that this situation risks remaining unchanged in spite of a growing number of Deaf academics. [It greatly concerns us when some have written that they didn’t feel as supported as they could have been. I also know several had to withdraw academic studies through lack of support.]

To us, the original article can best be visualised as follows. Imagine a newly born dog, yapping and yelping and learning to live its life: the article was the equivalent of kicking the poor mite cos it is constantly barking at them. Of course, the authors in no way intended that, but that’s how it came across when we read it (the barking dog in question? ‘Deaf academic power’). Where do hearing academics stand in this new power development, they stated? We think there are problems with the questions, but you really have to read their article to form an opinion, I will not be doing those authors any justice by trying to sum it up here.

Two things: one we do recognise there is a growing Deaf academic elite in the UK, but, like we say, it’s a yapping little dog right now. Nevertheless, we do have to think about how that might develop into a confident, assertive, self-reflective, transparent, forward-thinking, truly diverse, intersectional breed. We want to encourage Deaf academics to think about their relationship to academia and the community: these academics (yes, Dai and I included) get prestige and advantages from our positions and publications [more on that later].

Secondly, without in any way meaning to discredit or alienate people who are working hard in unity with Deaf and hearing academics, it’s painfully hard to ignore the fact that this discussion is taking place against a background where privileged hearing academics are able to gain prestige, experience and status through hard-to-fund research projects. When we see yet another project that either excludes Deaf academics, or sees them situated in a lesser status in relation to it, we feel it.

A more appropriate question is: what tools can be created to enable Deaf academics to lead Deaf-related research projects, departments, and funding? The balance of hearing-Deaf academic power is hopelessly outweighed in favour of the former; nobody will deny that, but the question is: are you willing to find ways of relinquishing power to enable us all to redress that imbalance?

Now, of course, we have been very careful to qualify that when we say ‘Deaf Power’ we don’t mean some oppressive ruling structure that simply replicates the one that already exists, to replace one with another. We also certainly don’t mean it excludes hearing people as we have been at pains to say. And Deaf academics have a huge responsibility too, because looking around at us, the majority are white, middle-class, and our research is barely accessible to those who are not English literate; men outnumber women, and there is a glaring lack of black women and men, disabled deaf people, and many others.

Crucially, also, what is the nature of most of the research, another question altogether, but an important one.

These brief but key points are the thrust of our article. Within these thrusts we can find space to address ‘on the ground’ issues such as hearing/deaf relationships in academia. Owning up to privilege is key for us all: not to push people into some guilt trip, but to seek ways in which we can all drive research into the direction which recognises and encourages Deaf community self-determination, at the intersection.

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!

Colombia experiencias de talleres de FENASCOL (versión en español)

Gracias de corazón a Paula Vargas, para la traducción al español (Heartfelt thanks to Paula Vargas for the translation to Spanish)

Al llegar a Bogotá (el 24 de marzo), P y yo nos dirigimos al hostal que habíamos reservado con bastante anterioridad. Al llegar al lugar nos enteramos de que nuestra habitación había sido asignada a otra persona. Desinflados, aceptamos la invitación de M, la hermana de P que vive en Bogotá y nos dirigimos a su apartamento. Éste se mantuvo como nuestra base para los seis días que estuvimos en la capital de Colombia.

Recordaré mi estadía en Bogotá por tres cosas: el viaje en tren a vapor para algunas ciudades pequeñas en las afueras de la ciudad, la experiencia de correr a gran altura, y los dos talleres realizados en FENASCOL (Federación Nacional de Sordos de Colombia), donde me reuní con varios líderes Sordos de Bogotá. Realicé dos visitas a su organización: la primera fue un breve encuentro para conocer a las personas de FENASCOL y amoldarse a la comunicación (todos usábamos lenguaje de señas, pero el LSC es muy distinto al BSL, de manera que usamos bastante del Lenguaje de Señas Internacional). En la segunda visita, dirigí un taller, aunque en realidad el objetivo era una reunión informal para compartir ideas y experiencias.

Anduvimos un poco perdidos tratando de encontrar la sede de FENASCOL, pues nos guiaron en la dirección equivocada varias veces! Al final nos dimos por vencidos y tomamos un taxi, porque íbamos a llegar tarde! Al llegar, me dieron un pequeño tour por todo el edificio, me presentaron a muchas personas sordas y me dieron una breve presentación, en Seña Internacional, acerca de FENASCOL. Es una organización relativamente joven, que sólo se formó en 1984, pero su historia y la situación actual es impresionante y merece un reconocimiento más allá de Suramérica. Ellos tienen una visión clara (misión, visión, objetivos) de lo que es FENASCOL; tienen conexiones directas y vínculos con el gobierno donde están en la capacidad de influir en políticas, y una estructura clara que es liderada por varios líderes Sordos. Su enfoque en la tecnología es algo que encontré particularmente inspirador, ya que están dedicados a asegurar el acceso a través de Lengua de Señas Colombiana (LSC), el establecimiento de subtitulación en la televisión y poner en funcionamiento un servicio telefónico en LSC.

Todo lo cual me dejó en una especie de dilema, ya que FENASCOL está claramente adelantado en muchos aspectos. Así que junté unos cuantoas diapositivas de Powerpoint sobre mi trabajo en la Ciudadanía, que se remonta a la época en que empecé mi tesis doctoral (2002). También mostré algunas fotografías de los años de activismo durante el período 1997-2003 que llevó al reconocimiento del BSL. (De hecho el LSC fue reconocido por el gobierno colombiano en el año 1996 más o menos, mucho antes de que el Reino Unido). El enfoque de FENASCOL es lo que yo llamaría persuasivo, donde tienen manifestaciones culturales de Orgullo Sordo y desfiles al tiempo que tratan de convencer al gobierno de la importancia del reconocimiento del LSC y el acceso para las personas cuya primera lengua es el LSC.

Yo no estaba en condiciones de representar al BDA, la organización hermana más cercana a FENASCOL, pero expliqué un poco acerca del post-reconocimiento, donde el gobierno del Reino Unido había proporcionado £1,5 millones a proyectos para aumentar la divulgación del BSL en toda la sociedad: la mayoría de los cuales hizo no fue directamente al BDA, y mucho menos al FDP. También le expliqué la gran cantidad de organizaciones que existen en el Reino Unido, y que tratan de unirse bajo el ‘paraguas’ de UKCOD, a pesar de que la filosofía de algunas de esas organizaciones son muy diferentes.

Lo que siguió fue un debate muy intenso y vivo en torno a varios temas. Los primeros estaban relacionados a la ciudadanía: la mayor parte de esta discusión se llevó a cabo en LSC, pero un punto importante fue si las personas Sordas deben aceptar beneficios y apoyo bajo las leyes de discapacidad, o si deben tratar de alejarse de aquellas leyes para con el fin de promover su autonomía. Sin embargo, como uno de los colegas señaló, estos eran más temas políticos que temas gubernamentales, ya que es a través de la política que las personas sordas están posicionadas en la sociedad.

Me preguntadaron acerca Deafhood, tal como esperaba, e hice mi mejor esfuerzo para explicar el concepto. No fue algo sorpresivo que esto condujera a otro debate muy animado, durante la cual tuve la oportunidad de tomar asiento entre el grupo, mientras que las personas sordas discutián el tema de Deafhood desde su perspectiva. Gran parte de esta discusión se volcó hacia la educación de niños sordos y el lugar que ocupan aquellos que se han incorporado al sistema educativo estandarizado (por ejemplo, aquellas personas sordas que fueron integradas al sistema educativo estándar, desarrollar Deafhood?).

Tal fue la emoción y el ambiente emotivo generado por estos talleres que la primera noche se alargó por hora y media más, mientras que la segunda duró cinco horas de corrido, con una pausa breve de 15minutos! Personalmente, me sentí orgulloso de mí mismo por haber participado y por haber podido captar la mayoría de las cosas que se comunicaban a través de Seña Internacional – sin duda me ayudó la experiencia de tantos años en contacto con personas sordas que usan distintos idiomas.

Y no he olvidado la promesa hecha que voy a tratar de hacer realidad: enlazar por video a FENASCOL y al CDS para discutir Deafhood!

¿Y qué del viaje en tren a vapor, y de correr a gran altura?

Bueno, el viaje en tren fue lento y nos tomó todo el día, lo cual es intencional y relajante. P y yo pudimos ver un par de pequeños pueblos, empaparnos de la atmósfera, y disfrutar de auténtico café colombiano y tortas! Una experiencia inolvidable fue la banda que tocaba en cada uno de los vagones del tren hasta el final del viaje, y en los lugares donde paramos: Incluyo una foto aquí:

Y la corrida a gran altura! A mi llegada a Bogotá, me pregunté por qué tanta bulla acerca de ser una ciudad tan alta, pues yo podía respirar perfectamente. (Bogotá está a unos 3600 metros más cerca de las estrellas.) Qué inocente. Después de correr los primeros 200 metros de un trote planeado para 20 minutos en el Parque Country Club, estaba luchando por respirar y mis piernas se sentían como si acabaran de ser inyectadas con plomo. “Se me pasará”, pensé para mis adentros. Pero no fue así, de manera que tuve que luchar zancada a zancada. Y pensar que en Bogotá se corre una media maratón!

Después de la trotada en el Parque, P me condujo por un supuesto “atajo” que en realidad resultó ser una “vueltota”, pero no puedo ser muy duro: fue ella quien encontró el lugar ideal para trotar. Y fue también ella quien ayudó en el vínculo entre FENASCOL y yo para hacer realidad los dos talleres.

Me alegró poder trotar nuevamente, esta vez durante 40 minutos. Espero regresar a Colombia en el futuro y ver más de Bogotá. Pero una cosa es segura: no será para correr una media maratón!

Colombia experiences – FENASCOL workshops (English version)

[¡Versión en español muy pronto! Spanish version coming soon!]

On arriving at Bogotá (on 24 March), P and I headed for our pre-booked hostel only to find it had been given to another party. Miffed, we went to stay with her sister, M – that remained our base for the six days we were in the capital city of Colombia.

My time in Bogotá will be remembered for three things: the steam train ride to some small towns on the outskirts of the city; the experience of running at high altitude; and the two workshops held at FENASCOL (in Spanish: Federacion Naciónal de Sordos de Colombia; in English: The National Federation of Deaf Colombians), where I met several Deaf leaders of Bogotá.  I planned two trips to their organisation, the first, a brief time meeting Deaf people and getting used to language communication; the second, I would run a workshop: but really the purpose was an informal gathering to share experiences and ideas.

We got a bit lost trying to find the FENASCOL building because we were pointed in the wrong direction several times!  We gave up and took a taxi, so we were late arriving! I was shown around the building, introduced to many Deaf people and a short presentation was given, in International Signs, about FENASCOL. It is a relatively young organisation, having only been formed in1984, but its history and current status is impressive and deserves greater recognition beyond South America.  They have a clear vision (mission, vision, objectives) of what FENASCOL are all about, direct connections and links to government where they are able to influence policy, and a clear structure which is led by several Deaf leaders.  Their focus on technology is one I found particularly inspiring as they are dedicated to ensuring access via Colombian Sign Language (LSC), establishing subtitling on television and run a telephone relay service in LSC.

All of which left me with a bit of a dilemma as FENASCOL were clearly ahead in many respects. So I put together a few power-points about my work on Citizenship, going back to the time I began my PhD (2002), showed some pictures of the years of activism during the 1997-2003 period which had led to recognition of BSL. (In fact LSC was recognised by the Colombian government in 1996 or thereabouts, well before the UK.)  FENASCOL’s approach is one I would term persuasive, where they have cultural Deaf Pride occasions/parades along with attempting to convince government of the importance of recognition and access for first language LSC peoples.

I was not in a position to represent the BDA, the closest sister organisation to FENASCOL, but explained a little about post-recognition, where the UK government had provided £1.5 million towards project to increase awareness of BSL throughout society: most of which did not go directly to the BDA, let alone the FDP. I also explained the myriad of organisations that exist in the UK, and which try to unite under the umbrella of UKCOD, even though the philosophy of some of those organisations are vastly different.

What followed was a very intense and lively discussion around several issues. The first were citizenship related: much of this discussion was conducted in LSC but a key issue was whether Deaf people accept benefits and support under disability laws, or should seek to turn away from these so as to promote autonomy. As one guy pointed out, however, these were political rather than governmental issues, since it is through politics that deaf people are positioned in society.

I was asked about Deafhood, as expected, and did my very best to explain the concept, and, unsurprisingly, this led to another very lively discussion, during which I was able to take a seat in the group while Deaf people discussed the issue of Deafhood from their perspective. Much of this turned on the education of deaf children and the place of those who have been mainstreamed (e.g. can mainstreamed deaf people develop Deafhood?).

Such was the excitement and lively atmosphere generated by these workshops that the first evening went on one and a half hours overtime, while the second went on for five hours non-stop with a brief 15 minute break! Personally I was proud of myself that I participated and was able to grasp most things being communicated via International Sign – no doubt helped by many years of spending time with deaf people of different languages.

And I have not forgotten a promise made that I will try to see happen: a video link-up with FENASCOL and CDS to discuss Deafhood!

What of the steam train ride and the running?

Well, the train ride was slow and took all day, which is intentional and relaxing.  P and I were able to see a couple of little villages, soak up the atmosphere, and take in real Colombian coffee and cakes! One memorable experience was the band that played on each of the train carriages all the way through the journey, and at the places where we stopped: I include pictures here:

And the running! On arriving in Bogotá I wondered what the fuss was about being up so high, as I could breathe ok. (Bogotá is some 3600 metres closer to the stars.) Silly me. After 200 metres of a planned 20 minute run I was already struggling to breathe and my legs felt like they had just been injected with lead.  ‘It’ll pass,’ I thought to myself. Huh, it never did so during a single stride so I had to battle it through. And to think: they have a half-marathon in Bogotá!

After the run P took me on a possible ‘short cut’, which turned into a ‘very long cut’, but I can’t be too harsh: it was she who found the ideal running place. And it was, also, she who had provided the link up between me and FENASCOL to make the two workshops happen.

I was pleased to be able to do another run, this time of 40 mins. I do hope to return to Colombia in future and to see more of Bogotá. But one thing is for sure: it won’t be to run a half marathon!

Signstation Plus newsletter update

In an earlier post I wrote about the signstation, which was launched in 2005 by University of Bristol Centre for Deaf Studies to provide quality learning resources for people who work alongside Deaf people.

I wrote, back on March 1st,  that CDS has developed Signstation Plus, a new development from University of Bristol Centre for Deaf Studies to provide fee-paying online sign language e-learning courses.

Below is the latest newsletter update, that I reproduce here in full: to keep up to date, you can subscribe to the newsletter.



Taking a look at the Signstation

Plus Learning Management System

This month we’ll be introducing you to the Signstation Plus Learning Management System (LMS)

What is an LMS?

From a starting point of simplicity an LMS appears essentially like a regular website with online learning materials, not unlike the free sign language e-learning course The Company which is available on our Sister website Signstation (

But unlike in the case of The Company, courses hosted on the Signstation LMS will track in detail how you interact with the content and compare this against learning targets to provide you statistics of how you are performing. As you progress through the course the LMS provides you with the tools to build your own course portfolio and to engage with other learners should you wish to.

The LMS also includes all the software tools needed to support online signed assignments as part of the course meaning you can develop your sign language production skills alongside your receptive skills.

All Signstation Plus learners will receive a unique username and password and the LMS can be accessed online 24 hours a day.

Interested in Signstation Plus courses but wish to use your own LMS?

If you are a business interested in Signstation Plus courses but wish to use your own LMS or Learning Centre, Signstation Plus courses adhere to the SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model) 1.2 and 2004 (4th edition) specifications and can be transferred to any SCORM conformant system.


Signstation Relaunch and new Signstation Plus website to learn BSL online!

I’m really pleased and proud (as a Centre for Deaf Studies employee) to announce two really exciting websites!

The first is Signstation: a FREE website where you can learn about British Sign Language and Deaf people.

The second is Signstation Plus: an e-learning (online) course on BSL, from beginning to Independent learner ! The course will be available in the second quarter of 2012, but you can get a ‘sneak peek’ now to get an idea of what it will involve learning. There’s a mailing list you can join to keep up to date with developments. (Cost of this course is to be confirmed.)

Please spread the news, especially to those who want to learn BSL online!