Colombia 1 Ecuador 0: being there

I have never been to a match like it and doubt I ever will do so again. What memories to cherish! Firstly though, I was fortunate enough to acquire two tickets for the match, just three days before. The result of being able to find willing sellers: I paid COP340,000 for two tickets worth COP 50,000 each.

The whole city builds up for the match. There are vendors selling yellow, blue, white or red football shirts on every street corner. People are wearing them too, the nearer the game, the more wearers. On the day itself, I went for brunch and felt odd not wearing one. Alas, come the game, the hair done spiky red, I donned a yellow one, no. 4 on front and back and the name of Cuadrado: the master playmaker.

Paula’s dad and I headed to the game by taxi. It was baking hot and humid, as usual. Now the yellow shirts outnumbered the plain, especially the nearer we got to the stadium. Embarking near the venue, we walked, sweating, and paused for a beer. Aguila light. Oh yes, cool and refreshing. Continued the walk, sweltering. The stadium comes into view – I’ve been to many, there was not really anything particularly special about this one, but, still, it always brings me a thrill to be walking into one.

Passing the first security, we had to remove our belts. Damn, but thankfully I wasn’t wearing my khaki shorts, otherwise I’d have resembled a young male follower of fashion with underwear showing. Dad sorted out the belts, leaving them at a nearby restaurant. Security let us in holding our cans of beer though. Then there was another security to pass. Then another. And another. Finally we got to the turnstiles, our tickets ripped and we were in.

The first difference from other stadiums I’ve been to becomes noticeable: walking up to the top North tier, our place in the stadium, it’s all ramp. You walk up it and it swirls round. Perfect for those who are ‘stair-impaired’ (a word I just made up). And then into the arena itself: you don’t find a numbered seat on the ticket, you sit where you can. The stadium was glorious, almost too perfect. It doesn’t ‘lean forward’ like the Amex. What an absolute disgrace to think the Amex has like a thousand stairs to climb up to the top.  It isn’t bunched up and ugly like Wembley. It rises at a perfect angle – actually reminded me slightly of the old Wembley, and the view is glorious. It’s exactly what you got to a football stadium for.

So, it’s just before 1.30pm when we are seated inside, 2hrs before kick-off, and our North Stand section is almost full already, with groups breaking out into the occasional song, whistle-blow, clap. I soaked up the atmosphere, and tried to battle off the heat with a makeshift fan. The condensation was filling my aids, they going on and off, so what I heard alternated between the roar and chatter of the crowd and tinnitus. I surveyed my surroundings and noticed that every single spectator was wearing the famous yellow shirt, with a smattering of blues, whites and reds. In all, throughout the game I counted just three people sin football shirts.

Dad pointed to the skies because dark clouds were drifting over and you could feel the menace in them. True to form, it pattered, and then, down it came, all the water of the Caribbean. Then you knew the script, because it was only 2.30. We were under shelter but there were holes in the roof, so rain did get through, meaning we didn’t escape the water entirely. My Mohawk didn’t stand a chance, and was soon dead.

I watched, in exasperation, as the pitch filled with puddles at all sections of the park. I really watched this painting unravel, and the longer it went on, the sicker I felt. All that anticipation, build up, admiring the beauty of the Barranquilla downpours and rivers, reveling in it even. And now, I couldn’t even hate it, just feel my stomach fall. The crowd became silent and I had to take off my aids due to the wet.

The refs came out to inspect the pitch which bought cries of derision. What was going to happen? It was 40 mins or so until kick off. They walked to all parts of the ground, pointlessly. The clock ticked down and the rain didn’t subside; in fact give it half an hour or so and we could all go for a swim. Or the teams could play water football or something.

Some groundsmen came by the pitch and dug pitchforks near the pitch itself: I couldn’t believe what was happening, how could a few little forks save it?

And then a miracle arrived.

Around 3.45 the puddles started to subside, even though it continued to rain, albeit less intensely than previously. How could this be happening?! I had no idea what was going on, but clearly there was some underground heating or drainage of some kind that was activated. Just as I had watched the puddles rise, and felt the sinking feeling within me, I watched them subside and felt a rising again. Down went the puddles, and the crowd began cheering again. By 4.30 it was almost entirely puddle-free; they just had to drain the corners.

Then on came the guys with the pitchforks to dig up a few remaining resistant areas. A few footballers came on to have a kick about, and then you knew the game was on, even though it was 90 minutes late. It continued to rain. Boo-yah-rasp to the rain.

So onto the game. National anthems were sang and a minutes silence was held for the Ecuadorean forward who had died of a heart attack recently, at the age of only 27. Colombians told the noisy ones to shut up and they did and the silence was respected totally.

Game on, edgy, but Colombia passed around well, although it was Ecuador who came closest, forcing the goalie into a diving save. Colombia were playing towards the north stand, so we had the best view of their attacking action, and a turning point came in the 26th minute when a Colombian player got past the last defender, ran towards goal, and was blatantly brought down from behind. The 26th minute! Immediate red card and the anticipation rose. Soon enough a shot on goal by the famous Falcao could only be hit away by the goalie and James followed up and put it in the net.

Absolute mayhem and ecstasy followed, what an experience, to be there, when that goal was scored and the players celebrated in the corner. I jumped for joy too and the whole crowd rocked and thundered, putting the skies to shame.

The rest of the half was played out, mainly by Colombia keeping possession and making a few chances, and Ecuador holding on until half time. There was a good feeling around the place. The opposition down to ten men; the Colombian side were almost sure to be in complete control of the rest of the match.

Then more drama: when all the players got onto the pitch for the second part, half the lights in the stadium flunked! Blimey, what next?! The same sinking feeling as previously didn’t quite take hold although I did ponder what would happen if they couldn’t fix the lights; ‘it’s not that dark, play the damned game!’ Fifteen minutes later they started to flicker back to life and it was game on.

Emotionally I’d been swinging up and down, left and right, and it was only half time, and as the game wore on early in the second half they slowly, gradually, sank yet again, as Ecuador, quite frankly, took hold of the game. Colombia were struggling, coming up short with their passes, looking laboured, as the opposition zipped all over the pitch. They left gaps at the back, but Colombia couldn’t exploit it, although in fairness they did have a few good chances. By and large, however, it was getting pretty obvious that the tone of the second half was set and Ecuador were the team on top.

My feelings began to churn once again, as although I glowed in utter admiration for Ecuador, I badly wanted Colombia to win. It would be history and bring me some cherries. Then, disaster – and remember Ecuador are attacking at the North end – a Colombian clearly brought down one of the opponents in the penalty area and it was stonewall. It wasn’t a sending off, but the opposition were angered no red card came, so they got set to take their penalty.

Total silence at first, some whistling to try and put the Ecuador guy off, and my thinking was: he is going to score, and if he does, they will deserve it and it’s unlikely Colombia will come back. But, lo and behold, as if some puppeteer was pulling strings from the skies, they missed! He hit it to his left and it didn’t even hit the post, just whistled clean past the outside.

I stayed seated – in sheer relief, but those around me went totally crazy, it felt like I was surrounded by Ecuadoreans and they had scored. As the game played out Colombia continued to create chances, but it was Ecuador who was on top and looked likely to score, but lacked quality in the last third.

When the final whistle went there was total joy on the field and in the stands. Many of the Colombian players collapsed to the ground, as they should because they had been extremely fortunate. Fireworks were set off outside the ground, you could see them crackle, pop and light up the sky, for the result meant Colombia were definitely guaranteed at least a play-off place in the road to Brazil.

So all my emotions were totally churned to pieces, and it was very clearly a game to remember for life for more reasons than the match itself. We watched the celebrations for a bit and then left. It was still raining. We had a small bite, another beer, and walked for a few kilometres to catch a taxi home. The walk was the biggest irritant of the night, for even though I had just been through an unforgettable experience, and even though the rain was not what bothered me, it was chaotic, there were puddles and ragged pavements everywhere you stepped (not to mention people coming in the opposite direction), and it was dark.

Eventually, however, we got a cab and got home, wet, but I started to feel the joy once again. We’d left home at 12.15 and were home almost exactly nine hours later; and that’s a local game without any long stops at pubs or restaurants either way.

And so, I have seen the Colombian national teams play three times – the first two were the women’s Olympic team at Glasgow, vs North Korean and the USA. Now I’ve been set to go to games that were called off due to poor weather – snow in Brighton in winter, for e.g. – but never sat at delayed games (ok, maybe one or two were delayed 5-15 mins for one reason or another), but never for so long. The Colombia vs North Korea game was delayed for around 90-120 minutes because the North Koreans were upset over the flying of the South Korean flag, and at Barranquilla it was the rain and failed lights that delayed it.

Still, I have the remainder of the ticket and a head and heart full of memories of a lifetime, all because, to quote Sir Alex: ‘football, bloody hell!’

See also: Rain fails to dampen spirits as James Rodriguez puts Colombia within one point of Brazil 2014


The Rivers of Barranquilla*

It does rain heavy in the city. But only torrential rainfalls, no piffling spitting and short showers here. Nothing quite prepared me for what I witnessed yesterday though.

In the evening, it poured and poured and poured, relentlessly, and soon, not only was water dripping into the flat in all kinds of places (except the bedroom thankfully), it turned the road outside into a river. I’d been told this is what happens. Indeed there are road signs that warn of cars getting floated away in river filled roads. But to witnesses the slightly dipping road outside transformed into streaming torrent of water than seemed as if it was never going to subside was utterly gob-smacking. It was also kind of beautiful in its own way.

The people do have a good sense of humour and fun though. This is Barranquilla, the happiest place in the world after all. As the water streams down, many sit on the roads, lay flat on their backs and just let the stream run over their bodies! Most of the men are walking around in shorts and just soaking it all up. That’s understandable given that for most of the time it is so hot and humid the only respite is in air-conditioned malls or homes. It makes sense, therefore, to celebrate the rains.

So here I am spending a week in the city on various errands, and hoping to obtain a ticket for the Colombia vs Ecuador World Cup Qualifier for Brazil 2014, that takes place on Friday. To confirm the Colombian sense of humour, they hold it in this baking hot place, starting the match at 3.30pm, given it’s to their advantage! Well because of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, etc, I was able to obtain two tickets. So I will not only witness the match, but maybe see history happen, because if Colombia wins, they are through to Brazil next year. Anyway, I’m just so happy to have got these that I can barely express or feel my joy.

Much the same feeling overwhelmed me as I sat and salsa-d and sloshed down the Aquardiente (FireWater) at La Troja bar for mine and Paula’s birthday’s last Saturday night and Sunday morning. I did get tipsy but it was a nice warm kind of lightness. Unlike exactly the same time last year, I didn’t end up being hauled into a taxi (which I have no memory of) and puking up in the morning.

So the drama outside right now continues; flashing lightning and roaring thunder (yes, it can be felt) as I drift into sleep, continuing the process of becoming a resident of Colombia. I’m also beginning to experience some of the frustrations, and having to learn to cope with them. The pace of life here is just so laid back, and nothing is ever going to happen when it’s expected to, that you can’t do much but go with the flow.

One thing does feel odd: it’s gotten into September and I don’t have to think about the long dark night’s drawing in.  It feels dreamy to be here, still unreal, and it is. And when you’re carrying out a day-to-day routine and you suddenly spot little bright green parrots flying around in the wild, what else is there to feel but the beauty that is life?

*Apols/thanks to Boney M.

A human ‘Iguana’ in Colombia, and why bridges are a good idea

“Iguana, Iguana, Iguana!” the little girl shouted, pointing to me. I laughed and bought a little bracelet off her for 1,000 pesos. I’m living amongst Mohawk-reptiles, bats, wild parrots, many other bird species, and ants. Zillions of them. They populate the dwellings of Cali, Barranquilla, and right here, invading kitchens and pouncing at anything sweet. Humans cook and eat the bigger ants [they taste like popcorn apparently], so they are obviously getting their revenge.

It’s so hot that walking out my front door every day is just like walking into an oven. It hadn’t rained for almost a year down this way, and yet in just three days it has poured down twice. It was tropical rain following thunderstorms, or a warm welcome for the Englishman, it’s hard to know. I’m a Deaf English guy living amongst hearing people in a small village and so far, after many socials, shopping and beach trips, all is going well and I have made some friends.

It only struck me when I was there, on the gorgeous, picturesque, sandy, Caribbean, virtually people-free beach of Mayapo, that these are places north Europeans would normally only head to for a holiday break. Here, for those of us fortunate enough, it was a ‘local’ beach visit. [Ok it did take a few hours’ drive to get there.] There was a hammock and after a dip in the warm ocean, I swung on that for a bit while reading Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. The visit reminded me of being a boy and within a stone’s throw of Brighton and Newhaven beaches; only it was less humid and often cooler. There were no hammocks there but they were good times nevertheless.

The drive to the beach [and to Rioacha, where we shopped and ate the weekend before last, and the one before that] is rocky driving for the first half hour. Thereafter the roads are kinder. You can stop by the roadside and buy sweet products for sale in tubs. Beats many chocolates I’ve tried in my lifetime. A lorry was overturned in the road, resting on its side, which was a reminder of the haphazard driving around these parts. Our driver often drove on the left because the right side was full of holes and bumps. It was all a breeze, though, compared to India. We passed a military tank on one of the streets last weekend, not sure why it was there. Far more common is the gasoline for sale in plastic containers or steel tanks, no doubt obtained from across the border in Venezuela. The people selling the petrol are always busy, unsurprising given this product is so cheap. [Fun fact: Venezuela petrol/gas is the cheapest in the world.]

Now when I write ‘hot’ it’s always over 30 degrees centigrade during the daytime – often it’s in the mid-30’s or above. Humidity is difficult to measure, but it’s pretty dense. Always. Respite outside comes at evening, where it drops to around the mid-20’s. Thankfully, we have air-conditioning; otherwise it would be a struggle to survive.

I run at 5am in the mornings, but last week managed a 5pm run, albeit for only 25 mins. Nearby, there’s a nice quiet road to run down, over a rail track and around a golf course. So one morning I passed over the track and turned left, and ran 1km beside said course, turned left again to run across the track, only it was blocked by a *very long cargo train* going *very slowly*, so I headed back to where I had originally crossed but when I got there the train was still struggling. The rear of the train was near, however, so I stopped and waited for it to pass. This experience is an example of why bridges and underpasses are such a good idea.

There is still a lot to do since moving to Colombia over two months ago. Write up the research articles that have been building up for years. Learn Spanish, especially. Get used to the culture of the ‘north coast’, as my partner calls it. Obtain my visa to enable me a long term stay. One of the highlights, so far, is the film nights; largely alternative, non-Hollywood. We went round to watch the remarkable film ‘Cloud Atlas’ a couple of weekends ago. It didn’t have English subtitles, but the guy’s son kindly downloaded them so I could enjoy the film amidst company. Cappuccino and a lovely Italian-style cake were served, one of many such nights one hopes. In between we can access the gem of a website, which puts up subtitles of English language films.

Now I do miss Bristol and friends at home, as well as some of the English cuisine, especially baked beans in tomato sauce. But with the abundant delicious fruits one cannot really complain. On that note I squeezed 12 large oranges via a juice extractor which made 1.5 litres of fresh juice. Grapefruits are scarce, but the local shop was selling them so I eagerly made a purchase of a massive three. Half a litre.

Things have not been all hunky-dory; there have been numerous frustrations with bureaucrats, faulty shopping products and some utterly pointless security checks. And yucky ‘potable water’ that leaves dirt taste in the mouth. They will surely be taking up blog space in the coming months ahead. But with a gorgeous Novia, juicy fruits, ice cream, ‘jet’ chocolate, endless hot days, an easy-going pace of life, friendly people, and excellent fun football Friday’s, it’s been a great and happy start to my new life in a South American village so far.

Genetic nightmares: is the battle being lost?

Because my reply to a Facebook friend’s post was too long, it has been turned into a blog entry.

To try to paraphrase the original message: the near future is looking like this:

Genetic testing isn’t going to focus on single genes any more, but to test all 20 or so thousand genes in our body. It’s simply cheaper and more cost effective, and enables patients to choose what they want to know about their DNA.

The testing of a deafness gene can therefore be offered as part of this ‘package testing’ – done through a process called sequencing. Deafness could be in there as part of a ‘medical conditions’ test.

All this appears to be being pushed through with very little consultation with the Deaf community (nor, indeed, any community); nor do they take into account whether such a practice is ethical.

“I get a sense the battle is over,” reports the individual, whose account should be respected given they appear to be a leading figure in the field of genetics where the deaf gene is concerned.

Here’s my response:

Many thanks for this, very valuable indeed, and full respect to the person who shared their thoughts with you 🙂

Here’s what I think. Knowing you are predisposed and doing something about it need to be separated. Do people want to know their entire genetic information, or even selections of it? Ok, I get there’s a big survey being done about it in the UK. But I can bet that if things speed up there would be all kinds of pressures on people to believe that it’s the liberal thing to want to know – you know the script.

Genomics could be highly useful in some cases – for example, if you go to the doctor complaining about an ailment, or if a child is born with a serious condition that affects, say, their health and growth, the genomics approach can identify the problem very quickly, and provide appropriate treatment. I’d love to see some advances on destroying cancer, in particular, for good, and if genomics can do that, great.  I highly recommend watching this lecture (it’s fully, non-automatically, captioned), as the speaker balances the issues – and highlights the role of economics and the military (this is not scaremongering in any way, it’s real stuff, Gregor Wolbring may shed better light than I can).

But to try and do something about a ‘condition’ such as deafness, a woman still has to go through an emotional process of Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis, after going through IVF, to weed out embryo’s where there’s a significant chance of a baby being born deaf. Even then it’s not 100% that they will produce a child free of deafness. The alternative is they don’t have children, or find a partner where there’s less chance of producing a deaf offspring. A great bundle of fun that’d be.

Gene therapy is still not as productive or ‘advanced’ as scientists would like us to believe. Only last week there were reports about the lack of movement on stem cell research; i.e. it’s not coming to be the miraculous salvation the public has been led to believe, yet. We were told deafness was about to be eradicated in the late 1990’s, thanks to genetic and stem cell developments on furry little mice. Funny then to read a similar report recently stating almost exactly the same thing, 15 years later, leaving one to wonder what these people have been up to in their labs all these years. Refining the art of making over-claims in order to bag big research funding grants would be my guess. I would highly recommend reading Hilary and Steven Rose’s excellent book, ‘Genes, Cells and Brains’, which highlights why people should be skeptical…for the near and immediate future anyway.

Graham Turner and I, along with others, did some valuable research on the subject of Deaf people’s views about genetic counselling; Paddy Ladd and I have taken up the baton through our Leverhulme funded project, and are currently working on a monograph that puts things into perspective, charts a balance between sci-fi and reality. We found, through our research, that is the way it is.

Yes, things are happening. Fast. Scary. Depressing. Try Transhumanism for a laugh/cry. Gene therapy, especially, has started to flicker some lights, and there are serious people working on this stuff.

But I would suggest they are not ‘there’ yet; they want us to believe there are ‘breakthroughs’ around the corner. It makes sense for them to big it up because they need the money. It makes news, so the media are complicit. But there are reports of admissions that there are still 10-20 years to go to put things into practice on humans. Ironic that, since they said the same things 10-20 years ago.

Nevertheless, I take them seriously, but suggest they are posturing and positioning themselves to justify the need for new technology and systems once they breakthrough and find ways of driving society towards a Gattaca nightmare, all on the backs of Liberal ideology.  Action on Hearing Loss bringing on board ‘Deafness Research UK’ (an organisational euphemism for ‘let’s wipe out deafness for good and forever and be proud of it’) are obviously jumping on this bandwagon, in anticipation.

Social attitudes towards disabled people can shift though, thanks to high profile things like the Paralympics. Technologists and scientists are careful to ensure they talk about disease and disability in isolation, giving a glossy common sense feel that these things are bad, like putting an arm on the shoulder of the vulnerable and saying/signing: ‘you know it’s right, get tested, get rid of it’ all the while seeing pound/dollar/peso signs in their heads.  It’s up to concerned citizens to make the links and throw the discourse broader than genetics would like us to go; I guess academics would call it ‘being interdisciplinary’.

Now comes the positives, the good news. In the research Paddy and I have completed, our (albeit small scale) study shows, through focus groups, that people do shift their attitudes when presented with positive information about Deaf people’s language and culture.

The focus groups, by the way, were led by a hearing person, who was bought into run the groups, so people were not faced with a Deaf person where they might have felt obliged to change their minds. Probably just as well because seeing me, a Deaf punk, they may have changed their minds the other way.

We’d love to replicate that on a larger scale <hint hint>. When I taught on the ‘Enforcing Normalcy’ course at Gallaudet, students came up with creative projects to counter pessimistic and negative ways of viewing ‘normalcy’ and erratic scientific discourse. I was hugely inspired. These people are the future.

Our great battle with the clause in the HFEA wasn’t the only challenge to legal attempts to push through potentially eugenic practices: Deaf people challenged a eugenic proposal in California and got it thrown off the books. Positives can be found if you look for them.

Those who want to eliminate diversity would like nothing better than to make the lay public feel it’s all over, and while some things do come to an end, this is most definitely not it. There are some dark forces behind these ‘bright new future’ moves, who have the front to suggest that what they are doing is liberal. But they are effectively undemocratic and unethical, and don’t care.

Oops, that was a bit long, but in short: it is NOT too late. And as they say at the end of every episode of Crimewatch, after the viewer has watched several examples of people hurting other people, and making you feel the fear…’don’t have nightmares’.

So farewell then, Centre for Deaf Studies, Bristol

I guess the end is in sight 😦 No-one can say it went down without a fight.

It was nice knowing you (from 2008 until 2012). Arriving full of hope and dreams of expansion and staying on long term, the crisis hit and the opposite direction unravelled.

I gained great life-long friends and fond memories of fun times, great parties and special graduation ceremonies. Two of my research projects, group rights, and deafhood and genetics, passed through you too, and I was privileged to have taught Deaf People in Politics and the Media.

My contract ran out last December, and I took up a visiting professorship post at Gallaudet for the Spring 2013 semester (in no small part due to the work I had done under your roof). You held some amazing workshops and seminars, the ones by David Harvey and Shami Chakrabarti in particular come to mind. At times you were weird, I think you will know what I mean: perfect you were not, but trail-blazing, challenging you were. There really was never a dull moment.

And your ‘team terp’…it was loyal, consistent, energetic, reliable, honest, and always up for a heavy academic challenge. It was the best ever. I miss you massively 😥

Is the end in sight for the Centre for Deaf Studies, Bristol?

It would be very sad if the Centre is closed, as indicated by the blog: Save Deaf Studies.

But I see they are not giving up without a fight.

So I’ve done my bit by composing and sending the following letter to the Vice Chancellor.


Dear Professor Eric Thomas


It was with great shock and disappointment, not to mention anger, that I read the University of Bristol is planning to close the Centre for Deaf Studies. If this decision is made, it will be a great tragedy given the excellent work of the highest quality that has emerged from the University over the past 35 years. That work has been of immense benefit not only for Deaf people, the Deaf community, and the careers of past and current staff, but the University of Bristol too.


It is with some shock that I read the University originally offered the Centre a subsidy of £100,000, but which has since been withdrawn.


It is hard to believe this decision in imminent, and I would urge you to bear in mind the current situation of Deaf studies internationally:

  1.  The Deaf community internationally is emerging as a bona-fide cultural, linguistic minority group (thanks in part to research undertaken by Scholars at the University of Bristol) at such an important historical juncture.
  2. The Deaf community, through the ‘Spit the Dummy’ campaign, is pressurizing the UK government to put in place a ‘British Sign Language Act’, which would considerably increase the demand for Sign Language Interpreters, and other vocations working with Deaf people.
  3. There are a growing number of Deaf and hearing academics who have obtained their doctorates in social science related subjects over the past two years.


These developments point to a future for research on Deafhood, Deaf Studies, and Sign Language interpreting.  These are historically significant times. In this context, it is difficult to believe the University is busy driving in the opposite direction. It makes no rational sense.


I write as someone who worked at the Centre for four years, from 2008-2012, as a Research Associate. I remain a Honorary Member of the University of Bristol, and so maintain ties with the institution.


The University has also been invaluable for my career as a Deaf academic. The research I undertook at the Centre has enabled me to build on work that I had begun with the publication of my PhD and research on genetics. It ultimately played a part in me being offered a Visiting Professorship at the world renown Gallaudet University, Washington DC, which I took up in January 2013, having been made redundant from CDS in December 2012.


I have read your statement explaining the reasons for discontinuing CDS. I was a staff member until December 2012, and the statement is at odds with my experience at the time. I did not feel the University was as supportive of the Centre as it could have been. For example, following the disbanding of SACHS, there were promises to re-house CDS within the University, but this did not happen.  There was a long delay in appointing a project manager who could have supported CDS and helped to find a suitable place for the Centre in the long term.


I’m also aware some staff were offered, and accepted, voluntary severance pay; but it is not the case that all staff were eligible, and the University is therefore effectively sacking staff who have served the University with such passion and energy over the years. In any case, this is no excuse for dismantling such a valuable Centre.


I appeal to you to rethink your plans to close CDS. Please commit to your original promise not to close the Centre and to offer a subsidy.  That would enable the Centre to focus on developing a top quality institution of research into sign language and Deaf culture, and sign language Interpreting.


It is not too late to put research into the rights of Deaf people ahead of the economics of the current ‘austerity’ climate. In the long term the University will be a great beneficiary.


Don’t throw away a Centre that is so revered across the world. It should be possible to work out a solution with political will and commitment. If the University is prepared to give the Centre a long term plan, there is no doubt it can continue to be a pioneering Centre for Deaf studies related research.


Yours sincerely,



Dr Steven Emery

Honorary Staff Member, University of Bristol




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]