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.  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. 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:
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 , 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.
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@
 Ladd, P. (2003) Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, Multilingual Matters: Cleveland.
 Click here for the powerpoint presentation Dr Paddy Ladd gave at the WFD Conference in Madrid 2007 [given by kind permission of Paddy]
 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.
 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
 With thanks for Maartje Meulder for information contained here [but do note: I take responsibility for views expressed]