Signing up

Diane Hofkins

Carolyn O'Grady welcomes the first signing video library, which is set to revolutionise the lives of the profoundly deaf Last month the first National Sign Language Video Centre in Europe began the Herculean task of creating a video collection of stories, curriculum materials and information signed in British Sign Language. Situated at the Royal School for the Deaf in Derby, it will eventually give the estimated 60,000 BSL users in the UK access to a wealth of information and culture at present denied them: the video equivalent of a public library.

"Video is a medium which can revolutionise the lives of profoundly deaf people who use British Sign Language", says Colin Ashmore, director of the Royal School for the Deaf's development trust. "It provides a means of recording BSL, a visual language which, unlike spoken languages, cannot be written down. "

The reason is its visual expressiveness. BSL makes use of hands, facial expressions and body language. The sign for "rain", for example, is a downward flutter of the hands. For "I like the rain" a sort of smile is added to the hand movement; for "I dislike the rain" a sort of pucker of disgust. But there are many gradations in between and body language may also be used to express them.

Attempts have been made to depict all this graphically, but it has proved very difficult. So, before video, profoundly deaf people whose first language is BSL had little opportunity to access information and culture in their main language unless it was presented to them directly by a person using sign language.

Reading skills in English, a language which uses a totally different method of representation and has a very different structure, can be difficult for profoundly deaf people to acquire. International studies show that the average profoundly deaf child leaves school with an average reading age of nine. The approach adopted at the Royal School for the Deaf is bi-lingual: BSL and English are both used. The National Sign Language Video Centre will itself be bi-lingual; it will make available both books and their equivalent sign language video.

"But for most profoundly deaf children BSL will be their first language", says Wendy Daunt, head of deaf studies at the School. "It is important that they build a firm foundation in that, and to do that they need access to the information and culture in books." Once such a foundation is established the transition to English will be easier, she maintains.

Last month the project was given a boost with a grant of Pounds 50,000 from the National Lottery Arts Council for England which, added to sponsorship from British Telecom and Central Television among others, will enable the centre to confidently enter its fifth phase the setting up of a video library. Phases 1 to 4 included training a team to make the videos and setting up a video studio, an editing suite and a research and course centre. So far the cost has been Pounds 750,000.

The centre has now begun the slow process of making its first videos. "We would love it to happen overnight," said Wendy Daunt. "But it will probably take about 30 years to equal a hearing library. It is important that we get the content and quality right."

Four kinds of video are planned. "First and foremost will be curriculum resources for deaf children and students and videos which support the family of deaf children, for example, ones which help teach BSL to hearing members of the family", says Colin Ashmore.

But there will also be staff training videos McDonalds has commissioned one which will teach its staff essential sign language to help serve deaf customers and marketing sign language videos for companies and other organisations which want to reach a deaf audience. Derbyshire County Council and Rolls Royce have already asked for this service.

The videos will feature Royal School for the Deaf staff and sometimes its pupils, but production staff will be hired on a contract basis for a single video or a series. As often as possible, says Wendy Daunt, these teams will include deaf personnel.

Among the first tasks has been the creation of a series of signed traditional stories for young children straightforward storytelling videos in which the story is signed by a staff member or pupil dressed up as a major character. Some details, however, have been changed: the child who is left behind in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, for example, is deaf rather than lame.

Next will be a series based on Children's Favourites by Robert Frederick. The videos will be designed to be used with the books: their beautifully-detailed pictures are particularly suitable for deaf children, says Wendy Daunt. Later the centre will begin making videos in other subjects, including maths and science, perhaps working with other organisations as well as staff on the curriculum content.

The school emphasises the power of video for deaf people and nowhere is that power more evident than in the research and course centre which has been set up next to the video production studios. In it about 10 television screens and video recorders are ranged on a bench with cameras above. A separate screen, recorder and camera are there for the teacher.

Using this interactive system pupils can practise their signing either watching themselves or the teacher and can watch videos which support the curriculum in the same way as books do for hearing children. The difference is that it is delivered through BSL. It is, says the school, the education of the future for profoundly deaf children.

This article will be available in BSL in video form. The Royal School for the Deaf, Ashbourne Road, Derby, DE22 3BH. Tel: 01332 384303 (minicom)

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