David Nicholson's brother Peter was born deaf. He was taught to lipread and he and David built up an ad hoc 'library' of signs. But at 30, David joined the explosion in the numbers of hearing people learning British Sign Language. He explains why.
Their eyes meet across a crowded room. She points at him, touches her temple and shakes her index finger. He touches his third finger, thumb, lays two fingers across his palm, then shakes his forefinger. She brushes her fifth and index fingers, then sticks her thumb up. Around them people talk and bustle; they remain 10 metres apart.
This scene will be familiar to anyone who has worked or lived with deaf people: she asks his name, he replies "Ian" and asks hers. She signs "Sue" and "Good to meet you." But this couple using British Sign Language (BSL) aren't necessarily deaf. There has been an explosion in the numbers of hearing students on BSL courses - from 3,500 in 1990 to about 15,000 this year. There are already more hearing people in the UK who use BSL than deaf people (62,000) and the numbers are rising inexorably.
At Hackney Community College, 250 students are taking courses this year, with 100 on the waiting list. Last year the numbers were 180 and 40. FE colleges have begun to include the subject in their prospectuses alongside French, German and Spanish.
So what has inspired this sudden enthusiasm? I am one of the newly BSL-using hearing population. My brother Peter was born profoundly deaf after our (hearing) mother had rubella during pregnancy. He was brought up to lipread and to speak, which he does very well. He can make himself understood almost anywhere and works in a hearing environment.
As we grew up, we used various ad hoc signs together, but Peter was always discouraged from using Sign; the educational policy was to build up the highest possible oral competence. It was only through attending boarding school where other deaf children used Sign, and then going to deaf clubs, that he developed BSL skills. I had no Signing experience, except for the finger alphabet, and it used to bother me a bit; conversations with Peter always felt to me as though we were using schoolboy French. There was a limit to the scope of our communication; it was mediated, incomplete.
It was only at the age of 30 when I was offered some consultancy work with the British Deaf Association, that I first began to use BSL. What a revelation! Here was an organisation where decisions were made by deaf people; where many of the senior management (hearing and deaf) used BSL fluently; where interpreters were routinely available to give deaf people full access to every word of a meeting or speech.
I could see immediately how much this world differed from my family environment. It is part of the UK's Deaf community (it uses the capital D to stress a cultural and linguistic identity rather than a disability), and you don't need to be deaf to be Deaf. You do, however, need to use BSL. Until I learnt to Sign, I had never really understood much about deafness, despite living alongside it as long as I can remember.
The issue of BSL is about civil rights; either someone has to adapt to society (as far as he or she is able), or society adapts itself to provide access. The trouble with lipreading is that even at best, it is mainly guesswork; at worst it is useless. Imagine trying to lipread a group discussion. Try lipreading John Major. Try lipreading the radio.
What is heartening about the rocketing number of BSL students is that it is voluntary and organic. Public awareness has grown enormously. Despite having a documented history stretching back to the 18th century, BSL only gained formal recognition as a distinct language in the 1970s. Since 1880, when a congress of educationists in Milan sought to enforce oral teaching and ban Sign language, the Deaf community has had to fight a tenacious rearguard action. As they saw it, each new generation was being ripped from them by schools which denied deaf children access to their natural language. The educationists, for their part, saw the potential benefits to society of deaf adults who could speak and understand spoken English.
The debate continues to rage. Many deaf children are "mainstreamed" in line with current thinking on integration, which the Deaf community regards as detrimental. Sign language is again the key: if a deaf child does not have full access to Signed teaching in his or her hearing school, then it would be better to be educated alongside other deaf children, and by deaf teachers using BSL. The argument of the British Deaf Association and others is that spoken and written English skills will be far easier to achieve if children are first given a solid grounding in educational principles in their natural language.
There are still pitifully few qualified deaf teachers, but the opportunities are growing. The heightened demand for BSL classes by hearing people brings consequent demand for deaf tutors (nearly all are deaf today, another major change from 20 years ago). And, as the number of BSL students and interpreters continues to rise, the greater will be the access for deaf people to education in general.
I have now passed Stage 1 BSL. It is a brief and relatively simple exam which tests basic conversation skills and knowledge of the Deaf community. After that, Stage 2 will normally take two years to achieve (presuming a couple of hours lessons per week); Stage 3 is the final exam before taking interpreter qualifications. All these levels are set by the Council for the Advancement for Communication with Deaf People (CACDP) which is currently discussing an NVQ qualification with the Government. Those who stick out the whole process and become qualified interpreters can expect to earn around Pounds 100 per day - often more.
Given a chronic shortage of interpreters in the UK, and steeply rising demand for their services, the employment prospects are good. This is seen as a contributory factor in the popularity of BSL classes, although many soon become disheartened by the size of the tasks. It generally takes seven years hard study to reach interpreter level, and students need a strong aptitude for language at the outset. Traditionally, most interpreters are hearing children of deaf parents.
I don't forsee that career for myself; yet at family events I am already beginning to act as an interpreter. At the baptism of my brother's baby son, I interpreted the service (including an Old Testament lesson) for him and two deaf friends. It was far from comprehensive coverage, but without it they would have had little access to the event. It was also quite good fun. Learning a new language exercises areas of the mind which may have grown flabby, and BSL combines mental agility with a particular spatial awareness. Your gestures may need to simulate a room, a country, a mood and a dynamic element such as time or speed, all in one phrase.
The issue of BSL was never brought up when we were children. Whatever Peter could glean from lipreading was all he was allowed. In retrospect, this seems a great shame. If we had learned to Sign, he could have been fully included in the life of the family. My six-year-old daughter Martha has now begun to use BSL, and Signs when we visit her uncle (see cover).
The oralist argument against Sign is persuasive only if you believe children will consequently be less able to learn to speak and lipread. Since full and complete understanding of the world is best communicated through Sign language, that should be the prime educational medium. Oral skills can be acquired alongside.
To oblige deaf children to work exclusively in spoken English is like making a circus dog walk on its hind legs: it can do it, and the crowd applauds, but it is not the best or most natural way for it to get around. I would say that the zeitgeist has turned in favour of Sign in the same way that it has turned against circus animals.
The Disability Discrimination Bill which entered the statute books at the start of this month is final grudging acceptance by the Government of a broader movement along the same lines. Its relevance for BSL users is hard to predict, given the lack of enforcement - the shortage of interpreters also gives employers an easy defence. "For deaf people seeking a job the Bill is very inadequate," says Bob Peckford, director of advocacy at the British Deaf Association.
The picture is brighter for goods and services. Retailers such as Sainsbury's and insurance firms such as The Prudential have already put many employees through basic BSL courses.
For deaf people, an upsurge in Signing is a delightful surprise. For decades they have had to battle for the right to use it. To find it celebrated as a great thing to learn (by hearing people!) could signal the birth of a freer and more tolerant society.
The British Deaf Association, 38 Victoria Place, Carlisle CA1 1HU. Telephone and textphone: 01229 48844. Fax: 01228 41420.
The Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP), which has a list of all BSL courses in the UK is at Pelaw House, School of Education, University of Durham, Durham DH1 1TA. Telephone and textphone: 0191 374 3607. Fax: 0191 374 3605