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.

Communicating with MPs about communication for deaf children

Image courtesy of

Yesterday, I braved the freezing elements to get out of the office and head to Westminster for an All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness meeting about communication. The Group is basically an informal bunch of MPs and peers who have an interest in deafness and want to advocate within Parliament for more support for deaf people. RNID and NDCS are both temporary custodians of the group for the year, and this was the first meeting in Parliament with us running things.

Happily, it all went very well, with a respectable turn out from MPs. On our side, NDCS Director of Policy and Campaigns spoke about the need for parents to have impartial information in order to make an informed choice about communication with their deaf child, and for the family to be given support from the local authority in learning how to communicate effectively within the family. Raena, an inspiring mother of a deaf son, followed this with a talk about her own experiences and challenges, and her determination to make sure her son was fully included within the family, with the whole family committing to learning sign language. Hopefully, MPs left with a strong message that it can’t be ethical to leave families to their own devices when learning how to communicate with their own child.

Sadly, the message on impartial information and informed choice was lost on some members of the audience with one person strongly advocating for an oral approach and another for sign language and a range of views being expressed between them which caused a sharp intake of breath in me. I’m always surprised that some people seem to think that one approach is going to work for every deaf child, which cannot possibly be in the child’s best interests. Still, if one good thing came out of the exchange, being exposed to two opposite extreme views always leave me feeling quite reassured that I must be right if I completely disagree with both.

You can read more about the meeting, and one of the speeches, on the NDCS website. Am looking forward to the next meeting already.

New sign language project launches

Back in February 2008, Malcolm Bruce MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness in Westminster, asked Gordon Brown during Prime Minister’s Questions about support for sign language users. Fast forward to today and a consortium of deaf organisations were formally launching the I-sign project and celebrating £800,000 of investment from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to undergo work to raise the status of sign language in England.

I think the i-sign project is a really important and innovative project. It’s been going since early this year and brings together various strands of work which different organisations are leading on, including NDCS, BDA, Signature, RNID and others. NDCS is leading on developing a family sign language website to help families of deaf children learn useful signs for engaging with their deaf child. And we’re taking a close interest in the work being undertaken by Signature to develop a qualifications framework for communication support workers. It’s a two year project with ambitions to become self-sustaining. It’s quite refreshing to see different deaf organisations joining forces in this way.

The new Minister for special educational needs, Diana Johnson came along to the event to lend her support and meet some families of deaf children. She was quoted as saying:

“Overcoming the communication barriers experienced by deaf children is key to ensuring they get the best education possible. The Government is committed to providing parents and the school workforce the communication support they need to ensure deaf children fulfil their potential. I am delighted that we are funding such an innovative and exciting project. Developing qualifications for teachers and providing interactive materials for parents to learn sign language will help deaf children communicate effectively both at home and at school.”

And our deaf work experience student, Paul, ended up giving a short speech in front of the Minister about his own experiences growing up as a sign language user. Probably not what he expected when he joined NDCS for the summer – but we like to keep our interns on their toes…

Overall, a good day for deaf children.

Boost for BSL

Well, yesterday was a pretty dismal rainy bank holiday Monday in London. I spent much of the day wondering if the Eurovision results indicated that the prevalance of deafness in Europe was higher than anyone had ever previously suspected. I was badly looking for a silver lining to the clouds.

And I found it in this BBC news article where Lord Adonis announced more help for deaf children whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL). The BBC doesn’t quite give the whole background behind this story – as well as supporting deaf children in the classrooms with more communication support workers, the funding of nearly £1 million for a project on BSL will also help secure more sign language classes aimed at families.

It’s another good news campaign story for the NDCS and other deaf organisations and individuals, as it followed some sustained lobbying to promote BSL in the classroom and family life for all those children for which sign language is the appropriate communication option. It also follows a trip to Downing Street by NDCS and other deaf organisations to harass the big man himself. Here’s the family photo from that day out.

So what next? From my point of view, we now need to make sure the project for which funding has been provided delivers results that really make a difference to deaf children who sign and their families. We also need to make sure that families whose deaf children do not sign also get the communication support they need. And, of course, there are lots of deaf people out there who feel that the best way of raising the status of BSL is to push for a BSL Act that gives greater legal rights to BSL users.

What do you think? As always, grateful for your comments and thoughts.