Prime Minister gives big boost to family sign language

How many opportunities does a MP get to ask the Prime Minister a question at Prime Minister’s Question Time? Not very often, would be my guess.

Which is why I’m doubly impressed that Malcolm Bruce MP has now asked two questions in three years focusing on deafness and sign language. Malcolm has a deaf daughter and is Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness. Even so, to nobble the Prime Minister twice on this in front of everyone at the highest level is pretty dedicated.

Image courtesy of NDCS

The first question was to Gordon Brown in 2008; Malcolm asked if he would meet a delegation of sign language users. Gordon agreed and the meeting led to the government-funded project, called I-Sign. The National Deaf Children’s Society was a part of this and led on a workstream to increase access to family sign language. With 90% of deaf children born to hearing families, many families struggle to learn to communicate with their deaf child. Yet most local authorities offer pretty little support to families wanting to learn family-appropriate signs at convenient times at minimal cost. Through the I-Sign project, NDCS created a family sign language DVD and website and working with others helped to pilot special courses in the North West and South West. Do check out the website – it features a beautiful seaside town that makes me wish I could go and live in my computer.

The pilots are now over. But families still need support. Hence, the return of Malcolm Bruce at Prime Minster’s Question more recently to ask if David Cameron would consider rolling out the pilots to the rest of England.

The reply was once again very positive and encouraging. David described sign language as “incredibly valuable”, said the pilots had been “successful” and said he would ask the Department for Education to meet with Malcolm and another delegation. Bingo.

It will be no mean feat to get the Department for Education to agree to a roll-out. But thanks to Malcolm, the mission has made a promising first start. Will the Department refuse to expand on something the Prime Minister refers to as successful?

Watch this space.


Deaf Awareness Week – tip number five

Image courtesy of NDCS

Deaf Awareness Week will be over at the end of this weekend for another year . Sadness, indeed. How was it for you? I think any opportunity to shout out about the simple things that can be done to include and involve deaf people is a good thing. With that in mind, here’s my fifth and final personal deaf awareness tip.

5. Don’t be scared to ask.

I won’t be offended. I probably won’t mind. Yes, go ahead and ask me about my deafness and how I communicate.

I’m often surprised people don’t. Do I look fierce? I may be increasingly grumpy with age but I’m not Gordon Brown, I don’t stab people with pens or call them a bigot behind their back. I’m always happy to talk about myself and my experiences as a deaf person. Frankly, I can’t think of many things more interesting. So go ahead and ask me what helps me understand what’s being said and how I prefer to get my voice across. It’s nice and I appreciate it. It’s better than having impossible conversations, trying to stumble on, hoping for the best before finally discovering that we weren’t actually talking about Chewbacca from Star Wars.

It’s also better than making assumptions about a deaf person’s communication approach straight-off. As a child, I didn’t sign, and would always be confused and irritated when people just started signing to me, without also speaking, before checking that I actually signed myself.

This is not to say that communication isn’t a two-way responsibility. It’s obviously important for deaf people themselves to take charge of their communication and proactively explain to other people what works for them. But many deaf children are not particularly confident in doing so, either because of their age or because they haven’t been empowered to be assertive about their deafness. So my fifth and final deaf awareness tip of the week is: don’t be scared to ask. Get down to a deaf child’s level and ask them to explain to you what communication approach works for them – sign? speech? combination? flags? drums? Make sure they know that they can stop you and ask you to do something in a different way. Check and refine your communication approach as you go.

And that’s it from me. Don’t forget that these are just my own deaf awareness tips that are most important to me – the National Deaf Children’s Society have something more official. And you can also check out a poster done by Welsh deaf pupils last year.

Finally, remember, deaf awareness is for life, not just for one week in May!

Deaf Awareness Week – tip number four

Time for another of my own personal deaf awareness tips? Here’s my fourth:

4. Never say “it’s not important”

Imagine a deaf child struggling to follow what’s going on and asking their friends what everyone is talking about, and the response is “it’s not important” or “it doesn’t matter”. There are few things more deflating or more likely to make someone feel left out.

I can understand some of the reasons why a hearing person might say this. It may be a casual throw-away remark. Explaining it may take more time than it took to say it in the first place. The remark was directed at someone else. Etc, etc. It’s rarely said in malice.

But the point is if it was important enough to say in the first place, then it’s important enough to make sure it’s been understood. Otherwise, it’s like excluding and punishing a deaf child for being deaf. To me, it’s virtually a human right for a deaf person. Few things are more likely to demoralise and undermine someone’s confidence. And there are many deaf children already who are not exactly bursting with confidence.

And if you’re saying “it’s not important” because the deaf child hasn’t understood, then this is just another way of saying “it’s OK to give up” to a deaf child. Is that a message we want deaf children to take on board?

So my fourth tip is to always try and include a deaf child in everything you’re saying, and to never EVER say “it’s not important” (even when it really isn’t important).

My final deaf awareness tip follows tomorrow. Any final bids for what I should cover?

Deaf Awareness Week – tip number three

How is your Deaf Awareness Week going for you? Are you coping with the excitement? It’s the midway point of my five blogs on my own deaf awareness tips. With no further ado, here’s my third tip.

3. Don’t be a parrot.

Yesterday, I blogged that communicating with deaf children and grown ups is all about context. If I don’t understand the context, chances are that I’m going to have major problems understanding what’s being said. Which is why I get incredibly annoyed when, if I don’t understand something, people insist on just repeating themselves verbatim. Again. And again. And again. Until I get incredibly exasperated and flummox off in a huff.

So my deaf awareness tip no.3 is: don’t be a parrot. Don’t repeat yourselves endlessly. Saying the same thing louder or more slowly might help if you’re talking to foreigners, but it won’t help with deaf people. As a deaf child, when someone repeated something I didn’t understand, I would get incredibly annoyed. It always felt a bit demeaning, like I was some naughty boy that just wasn’t paying attention the first time around. Worse, it sometimes made me feel like I was trapped until I could work it out.

What WILL help is explaining it in a different way or outlining the context. Describe what you’re trying to say. Worst comes to the worse, write it down. Text it on your mobile. Point. Use visual clues. Express yourself though the medium of Morris-Dancing if you need to. There’s always another way to be understood. But never give up. And don’t be a parrot.

Again, thoughts on today’s and the other deaf awareness tips very welcome – just leave a comment below. The penultimate tip follows tomorrow…

Deaf Awareness Week – tip number two

It’s day two of deaf awareness week and I’m blogging my own personal deaf awareness tips all week long. Here’s my second:

2. Remember, it’s all about context.

I’ve always thought that communicating as a deaf person is a bit like completing a jigsaw. I have hearing aids and when I was younger I had radio aids too. Sure, they helped which is great. But they don’t “cure” my deafness. Making things louder does not help my strange deaf brain “make sense”, process and understand what the noises mean. So I rely on lipreading to help me make sense of stuff. But this isn’t an exact science either (Charlie Swinbourne’s excellent blog explains more about this). So I might also rely on other clues or use my intuition – if I’m at the Asda checkout, I’m guessing that I’m going to be asked about wanting cash-back or a carry bags. If instead I get asked about the football game last night, I’m probably going to look a bit blank (this is true on nearly all other occasions, but anyhow).

Completing a jigsaw is obviously much easier if you know what the finished product is meant to look like. Or if the individual pieces reveal little clues. It’s the same with me for communication. If I know what you’re talking about in advance, if I’ve got enough clues or if it’s in the right “context”, I can guess or make sense of what you’re going to go on and say, even if I don’t quite catch all the individual words you throw at me.

What does this mean in practice? Well, for example, you could start a conversation by saying what the topic is (“Did you see the TV last night?) rather than launching straight into the detail (“Louis Walsh was an idiot saying yes to that dancing woman on Britain’s Got Talent last night”). If you’re changing the topic or if the topic is alien to the situation, you could, for example, just literally move your hands to gesture you’ve moved on, rather than just immediately segue from asking if I want a cup of tea to the relative merits of the Alternative Vote system. For deaf children, it could mean teachers putting the classroom topic on the whiteboard or literally closing a folder or pile of papers to indicate the end of something and start of something else.

In short, my second deaf awareness tip of the week is: it’s all about context. Make the context clear, and communication will be much easier.

Is this an important deaf awareness tip for you too? Or is there something more important you’re waiting to see? I have three other tips lined up, but leave a comment below to share your ideas and thoughts.

Deaf Awareness Week – tip number one

Don’t pull down the bunting just yet – it’s Deaf Awareness Week!

In the interests of spreading some of that magic “awareness”, I’m going to be blogging this week my top 5 deaf awareness tips. The National Deaf Children’s Society have a definite list in their communication tips flyer but these are my own tips, most important to me, which I’ve picked up in my little life as a deaf child, young person and pretend-grown up. I’ll blog one tip each day – here’s my first.

1. Don’t patronise me.

As a child, one of the things that used to really rile me was people assuming that because I was deaf, I was dumb and stupid. That I was going to be a poor little mute thing, not going to do very much. So many times, I would detect a faint look of surprise when people saw that I – a deaf child – could use the medium of my lips to create speech. This would then turn into a look of astonishment when I not only spoke, but could construct a WHOLE sentence. Some people virtually passed out on the floor when they found out I went to a posh university. Anyhow, the end result of all this was that I was an insufferable show-off as a child, determined to demonstrate that just because I was deaf, I was not stupid.

I hope things are better now. But I still detect sometimes a prejudice that deaf children are never going to achieve as well as other children, and that the National Deaf Children’s Society is wasting it’s time in campaigning to close the attainment gap. And I worry that some deaf children pick up these subtle messages, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think this is not only wrong, but offensive and dangerous.

So my first and, most important, deaf awareness tip of the week is never to underestimate or patronise deaf children when you’re communicating with deaf children and grown ups. Our ears may be wonky but our brains work just fine, thank you very much.

Back tomorrow with my own second deaf awareness tip. Do let me know below what you think of my first or if you want to share your own important deaf awareness tips.

Why never to say “Oh, it doesn’t matter” to a deaf person

Image courtesy of NDCS

A posting by Tiger Mother on the National Deaf Children’s Society website reminded me of a key cardinal rule with deaf children (and adults). If they miss something and ask you to repeat, never EVER say:

“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”

As an adult, I often just say “… but it was important enough to say first time around?” or if it’s someone I know, probably something unrepeatable. I will probably do my glare. I even once told a MP off for doing it.

A lot of deaf children though may not feel quite as bolshy enough to insist it be repeated. And just saying “oh, it doesn’t matter” ends up making them feel left out, alienated and excluded from daily conversations. In my case, I used to actually feel quite paranoid that if someone said “oh it doesn’t matter”, they were actually talking about me in the first place. Sadly, not all of my hearing friends ever realised why. A failure for the deaf awareness training at my school.

Sure, it’s frustrating to have to repeat something that was fairly trivial in the first place. But it’s nowhere near as frustrating as living in a world where you’re missing out on what people are saying because they’re too lazy to repeat themselves.

Am looking forward to reading more from Tiger Mother…