I lost my job. Rather wonderfully it has led, apparently, to a ground-swell of objection from the rest of the staff. They want to discuss it as a group and so I have written the following as, I suppose, a sort of leaving speech. I am reproducing it here because it quite clearly sums up my position on it.

I have been working here since January 2008 and it has never been easy for me. I trained for and worked my first qualified job in a truly Deaf environment with actively policed policies that we sign for ourselves at all times, and that we strive for at least 50% Deaf staff across the entire staff cohort. I have struggled enormously with the extent to which the Academy has been unable to move, even incrementally, towards such an environment.
However I must be honest with myself that such an environment is my ideal from my experience and not something that the Academy, to my knowledge, has ever clearly striven for. I cannot criticise the place for not meeting my particular ideals.
The pressure from fundholders who are necessarily highly naïve about Deaf education and wellbeing is and has always been increasingly severe, and the curriculum and exam systems are established from the outset from a Hearing perspective that is highly detrimental to Deaf students. Within this context of institutionalised audism it needs to be a very special school that can resource itself, and manage itself, effectively enough to push back, politely but informedly, against those oppressions. To do that, the oppressive factors need to be recognised and it is only Deaf people – people who daily live those oppressions – who can identify them. To expect a school with a highly culturally Hearing leadership to identify, prioritise, plan for, and act against such institutional audism – and to lead by example -  is as naïve as expecting change from a feminist organisation run by dusty old men.
Being asked to leave came as an enormous shock to me. However, I have been similarly shocked by the sudden and comprehensive wave of relief that I felt within just a couple of hours of receiving my letter. I have been agonizingly conflicted for years between my passion for the wellbeing of the students and my frustrations with the Academy – and being asked to leave, and my emotional reaction to it, has provided me with the unexpected insight that I want to leave now. I guess also that I do not want to work for an organization that does not see value in me, and the letter crystallized that for me.
I am very grateful, and to be honest a little bit teary, for the concerns of the staff and I am sorry that my departure only emphasises those feelings and stresses.
I remain as committed as ever to the futures of our students and hopefully I will be able to continue to support them, perhaps more effectively, as an outsider.
With more warmth than I am bloody used to,
Jim CromwellComment
Language Therapy Reporting
Now - I am not a speech and language therapist, but I would have thought it is reasonable to assume that a report about a person's language skill would be clear about a) the modality of the language as tested (ie was it writing/reading or speaking/listening etc) and b) what language was being tested.

I have lost count of how many I've seen that do not meet this minimum criteria. I know how many I've seen that do...
Jim CromwellComment
The Ugly Duckling
Once there was a mummy duck and a daddy duck. Mr and Mrs Duck were so excited because they were waiting for baby ducks! The eggs were nearly ready to hatch, and one day *POP!* *POP!* *POP!* out jumped three fluffy babies. *QUACK!* went the first baby – and Mr and Mrs Duck smiled... *QUACK* went the second baby – and Mr and Mrs Duck smiled... *HONK!* went the third baby – and Mr and Mrs Duck did not smile. Mr and Mrs Duck didn’t know what to do. They were sad and they were frightened.

They went to the hospital. “Look at our child!” they said to the doctor. “Something is wrong!”

The doctor was very clever. He looked at the baby duck with many different special machines. He talked to other doctors. He had meetings. He read books. In the end the doctor knew what the problem was.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, “This is a swan.”

“His name is Ryan” said Mr and Mrs Duck.

“I’m so sorry. Ryan is a swan.” Said the doctor.

Before they knew what was happening Mr and Mrs Duck were sent to all sorts of clever ducks who knew all about swans. They were given all sorts of books and leaflets by clever ducks who knew all about swans. They were given advice and counselling and guidance by clever ducks who knew all about swans. Mr and Mrs Duck had never met a swan before so they were very pleased to talk to these experts. They did not meet any swans, but that was alright. Swans were quite scary, so they thought, and so they were relieved that all the swan experts were ducks.

They were especially relieved that the clever ducks had all sorts of clever duck tricks and schemes to make Ryan be nearly the duck that they wanted.

It took a very long time.

All the time he lived in their nest, Ryan had special lessons to make him sound like a duck. Clever ducks with paint made his snow-white feathers brown and green and black. Some ducks even put him to sleep and, when he woke up, his long graceful neck was short and stubby just like the other ducks. This was much better!

“Quack! Quack! Quack! Sang Mr and Mrs Duck with delight.”

“Quonk.” Said Ryan.

Overhead, a family of swans soared across the heavens.

“I wonder where they are going...” thought Ryan.
Jim CromwellComment
Delayed Access to Visual Language is Neurotoxic

Thanks to a pointer from Kristy Cooper, I've followed links to this interesting page on brain plasticity and language acquisition for deaf children.

"Traditionally, the term neurotoxicity refers to damage to the brain or nervous system caused by exposure to natural or man made substances.  However, I think we need not limit causes of damage to tangible substances.  We can think of language deprivation as a type of poison.  We now have evidence that brain restructuring, altered processing, and decreased cognitive performance are measurable effects of lack of access and the resultant deprivation.  Therefore the behaviors that lead to this end are toxic, and the lack of access is the toxin."

Jim CromwellComment
SSE and Franglais
Title says it all really... To my mind, SSE is the most insidious, damaging, yet apparently innoccuous assault on the linguistic rights of prelingually profoundly deaf children. It only today occurs to me that unless you can justify the use of Franglais with learners of English, you cannot justify the use of SSE with learners of BSL.

SSE and Franglais are linguistically equivalent.
Jim CromwellComment
How to Develop Language
Did you see that Channel 4 item doing the rounds on facebook (and that apparently ended up on Russell Howard’s Good News last week) of the deaf guy in Uganda with no language until someone set up a signing course in his village?


It really upset me – because I can name 11-12 year olds from Cornwall, Devon, South Wales, Dorset, and Surrey for whom the exact same situation applies and we don’t get the luxury of blaming it on a Third World country.

It exists here because of ignorant hearing people with power making ignorant decisions that result in tangible harm. So… the argument is this:
  • People, babies, hearing, deaf, learning disabled or not, require LANGUAGE to mediate their thoughts and understand and articulate their needs. 
  • To develop a language you require considerable access to a rich language environment. 
  • An accessible rich language environment is not a Teaching Assistant with Level 2 BSL. It is not a parent learning Cued Speech. It is not Sign Supported English if your audiometry compromises your speech perception. It is not Makaton. 
  • A rich language environment for a deaf person is one in which they may immerse in a fully visual evolved and true language. In the UK that is BSL. 
  • People in early developmental stages of language require a language environment comprising HIGH QUALITY language. Not language at a similar level to that at which they currently sit. A Level 1 signing kid requires a Level 6 BSL environment not a Level 1 one. A deaf person with learning disabilities requires a Level 6 BSL environment not Makaton. 
  • OK sometimes resources preclude this, but this is the target acceptable context. Care Plans and Statements of Educational Need must state this as the aim and explain why it was not met, rather than aim low so the aim can be met regardless of the developmental harm to the individual. 
 That is it. And I challenge anyone to successfully argue otherwise.
Jim CromwellComment
A very quick bit on autism and deafness
 I had to do a quick piece on ASD and deaf children.

Autistic spectrum disorders are a constellation of difficulties typically involving communication, imagination and socialisation.

Deaf students often have other difficulties alongside of their deafness because the cause of the deafness also causes the other difficulties. Causes such as meningitis, rubella embryopathy, or prematurity. Autistic Specturm Disorder (ASD) is precisely one such difficulty.

The big difficulty is that communication and socialisation problems are often consequences of deafness (notably for the 90% of deaf children in hearing non-signing families) – and they are also hard to assess using tests based on hearing norms or if you are a non-signing deafness-naïve assessor - so it is very difficult to distinguish autistic traits from the consequences of the student’s sociolinguistic context in the home and during the early years at home and mainstream school.

There are specific deafness-related aspects of autism and ASD assessment that naïve assessors would never know. For example certain linguistic “tells” in English – such as mixing up pronouns (you and me) for example – in BSL can be far more common placement errors rather than the rare difficulty found in speech.
Jim CromwellComment
On opportunities to socialise

I am Dr Jim Cromwell MA(Hons) PsychD CPsychol AFBPsS and I am a Chartered Clinical Psychologist at the Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. I have been a Trustee and Chair of the British Society for Mental Health and Deafness, am a Level 4 signer and qualified BSL/English Sign Language Interpreter. I have worked with deaf people since 1988. 

I have been asked to provide an expert opinion on the role of valid opportunities for true socialisation for deaf children and young people. 

In addition to academic success, the critical variable contributing to developing into a well-adjusted adult is identity formation during adolescence, and for deaf people (particularly those born to hearing parents) that involves progressing through the following stages: 1) Culturally Hearing, 2) Culturally Marginal, 3) Immersion in the Deaf World, and 4) Biculturalism. Adolescence in particular is a trial at the best of times, as young people have to negotiate the complex soap opera of adolescent social lives and networks. Communication difficulties can be an enormous barrier to this development and even subtle communication difficulties can make this development extremely difficult. The only way in which this development, this maturity, can proceed is in the context of deaf peers. Age-peers with similar struggles and conflicts, experiences and solutions. 

Deaf young people require a social context in which they feel they belong, and not where they are merely included and presumed to be equal. For deaf adolescents, whose eyes are unproblematic and whose ears are not, that belonging is amongst people who communicate visually (British Sign Language) and who have experienced similar difficulties commonly experienced by deaf people – being a linguistic minority, struggling with day-to-day communication barriers, not sharing a common language with one’s parents, isolation, a distorted and sometimes negative perception of their future, extremely limited knowledge of things that hearing young people pick up incidentally on TV, overheard conversation, and gossip and so on. 

Direct teaching and PSHE, and parental advice, goes some way towards preparing young people for adult life, but that only provides the seeds of knowledge which only becomes deeper and more finessed on a day-to-day basis rubbing shoulders with, and sharing one’s concerns with, like-minded individuals in similar circumstances. That cannot and does not happen for deaf young people deprived of the opportunity to mix with their peers to a comparable level as hearing adolescents can with theirs. 

Deprived of such an opportunity, deaf people often fail to develop an integrated sense of self. They often fail to develop a meaningful and significant sense of belonging in society and gain only a poor understanding of social rules, mores, and responsibilities. They feel isolated, oppressed (albeit perhaps tacitly), and disenfranchised. This combination leads to a highly increased probability of mental health problems, poverty, and civil and criminal offences. Compounding this problem, prosecutions of deaf people are often not followed through for minor offences – because of the technical difficulties of booking PACE interpreters and a desire not to disadvantage the disabled person. No deterrent effect is therefore in place, offending increases until it cannot be ignored, and the deaf person ends up in prison where they cannot access the rehabilitative programmes that they must complete to be considered for parole. 

This is a highly damaging cycle for the deaf person as well as, of course, for society at large. However there is a preventive solution, and that is to absolutely maximise the deaf young person’s opportunities for social development and maturity in a context of like-minded individuals with visual language.

Jim CromwellComment
On Priority
Today I realised a handy thing. "Priority" is not a nominal construct - It is ordinal.

That is, "Priority" is not a label that can be applied to a task (or a bunch of tasks, or - like the reason why I realise this today - all tasks.) A task can only take priority over other tasks (and perhaps not over others). It is to do with ordering tasks.

So if somebody says "Can you make this a priority?", the question must be "A priority over what?" Otherwise it is meaningless.
Jim CromwellComment
Deaf voices and speech perception
I had a realisation today which I am deeply embarrassed to have taken twenty five years to figure out. However, it's worth sharing.

I happened to walk past a hearing person using their voice (plus signs) with a deaf boy who admittedly likes you to do that. He replied using speech which, to be blunt but accurate, was not understandable. I realised that since there is nothing wrong with his mouth, tongue, lips, jaw, vocal chords etc, the parts of his speech that are missing or indistinct are missing or indistinct because he cannot hear either other people making them or himself trying to make them.

No shit, Sherlock. Well, indeed. As I say: feel a bit foolish.

I checked this hypothesis out and it turns out that deafened people's speech, people who were hearing and had perfect speech patterns, lose parts of their own speech in a pattern that exactly reflects their hearing loss (of course!)

Therefore, hearing people can get a VERY good idea of what their own speech sounds like to a particular deaf person, by paying attention to the voice of that deaf person, and that can be an enormous help in reminding you of the need, sometimes, to stop relying on it.
Jim CromwellComment
About the author...
I was asked to write a bit of a biog and, in case I need one in future, I'm leaving it here.

I am profoundly hearing. From many generations of genetically hearing people.

I decided to go to university to study English, but did not plan very well, only applied to universities with beaches, and ended up in St Andrews (three beaches!) where I discovered that in Scotland you study three subjects, not one…! Erk. I followed someone into Psychology, so started doing that. (I followed someone into Logic and Metaphysics as well, but there’s no jobs in that…!) During holidays I had a job doing care work with children with physical and learning disabilities – but the home closed down and they suggested I try RNID Poolemead for bank work.

So I randomly began studying psychology and working with Deaf people in 1988.

I worked mostly with a prelingually profoundly deaf, culturally Deaf man in his mid-twenties, who lost his sight in late teens. He was amazing. Really clever, and clearly not someone I could usefully communicate with, with my RNID-BSL that consisted entirely of TEA, TOILET, NO, and THANK YOU. So I learned Deaf-Blind manual to communicate with him, slowly, and he taught me a lot of BSL. He even taught me ASL fingerspelling one day, when I knelt in front of him doing DBManual on his left hand while he showed me the corresponding ASL on his right. I’ll never forget that.

Seemingly, he also had schizophrenia, though I do not remember any actual mental health input or a coherent assessment or treatment plan. Maybe there was one, but it was not evident to me at that time. And it was that that made me decide that English was going to get me nowhere interesting, but if I pursued the psychology and the BSL I could keep doing this work I was really enjoying – but better and more effectively! So I carried on with the psychology and the holiday work at RNID, informally getting up to about CACDP Stage 1 (the olden days!), then spent a couple of years trying to get into clinical psychology training – which means I needed broader experience, so left the RNID and worked with elderly people for one year and learning disabled people for another – all hearing.

Then I managed to get into Surrey University to do Clin Psych. It could have been anywhere, but I landed a place at Surrey, which covered Springfield Hospital – one of only two Deaf adult mental health services at the time. Again – purely random luck. At Surrey I did a lot of work (as much as they would let me) on Deafness and mental health, including interpreting in therapy and prevalence research, and arranged one of my specialist placements to be at Springfield with Sally Austen.

Third piece of random luck – Sally resigned two months before my placement was due to begin and about one year before I graduated with my doctorate and obviously fairly strong and unique qualifications for her job. She agreed to supervise my placement at Springfield despite working elsewhere (thank you Sally!) and that meant that I had six months to work in the one job I wanted in the UK (I didn’t fancy Denmark House), at a time when they were dealing with their only psychology job being vacant. Frankly, if I couldn’t get the job after that, I couldn’t get it at all.

I did.

So I began working at Springfield full time in 1997, where I worked for the inpatient and community teams, as well as seeing a lot of outpatients, for the whole range of mental health problems from spider phobia to full-blown florid psychosis. Because of the RNID experience I quickly got the Stage 1 BSL certificate, and then over the years achieved Stage 2, Level 3, and Level 4. When I was Stage 1, I used interpreters, but it was never very satisfactory. During the first half of my Stage 2 course I mentioned this to Herbert Klein (during a lunchtime where I was happily and effectively sat talking to a deaf man (Herbert) about complicated mental health issues without an interpreter…!) He pointed this out and suggested I try without an interpreter (with the patients’ consent). I never used an interpreter in therapy again – and the work was entirely more effective, and the therapeutic relationships considerably more meaningful. I would add that later on, when I had Level 4, I would supervise Deaf signing clinical psychology trainees like Jo Atkinson and Sara Rhys Jones, and it was obvious from talking to them that they were able to do even better therapy than me, despite my experience, because they were Deaf. (Though of course, they are also brilliant, which helps.)

In 2007 I left the NHS, and London, to move to Devon, where I completed the NVQ4 BSL-English Interpreting qualification. I hoped to make a career of interpreting, but the Exeter Deaf Academy captured me in a big net and made me feel sufficiently guilty to return to psychology at the Academy.

I’ve been at the Academy since then, providing clinical psychology services to the school and college, doing direct and indirect work, as well as supervising the BSL counsellors. It’s easy for me to say, but I think the interpreting NVQ is a vitally important qualification to have if you work, as a hearing person, in BSL. Particularly in education. This is because it teaches you to think about the nature of language and culture in a way that is necessary to fully understand what BSL is, why it is important, why it differs from English, why SSE feels meaningful when it isn’t, and how BSL grammar evolved to be what it is.

I occasionally add to my Peripheral Brain website, about deafness and mental health. I also facilitate a peer supervision group for senior interpreters. I do very little research because I am opinionated about the piles of bad research that hide the good stuff, and am too obsessional to be able to actually produce good stuff. But I am a great reviewer of research, which I do quite a lot, and I contribute in various ways to other people’s research in the area.

That’s probably it. Narcissistic ramble over.

Jim CromwellComment
Dr Jim's Little Red Book

I began making notes at work to cover various points when explaining to staff why they should shut up and sign. But I got carried away and it turned into a manifesto. So here it is.


Click the picture to download the whole document, or read it below...

Author’s notes


I’m going to say “they” a lot here. That means Deaf people. Why? Because I’m hearing, and I’m talking to hearing people. That’s “us”. “We” are hearing. Yah boo.


I’m going to use a big D for Deaf too. That means culturally Deaf and/or BSL users. I might say Hearing for Hearing culture too, but who knows...? Thing is, deaf people don’t divide neatly into deaf and Deaf people. It’s fuzzy. But, as you’ll hopefully see, it’s not about deafness anyway. It’s about eyes. Read on.

Disability, Impairment, and Handicap. An Englishman Abroad.

Deaf people are disabled. There, I said it. But don’t get all huffy – this is a bold statement that requires definition. Hearing people don’t usually find this contentious, but try it out in the staff room when it’s busy and see what happens... The World Health Organisation distinguishes impairment, disability, and handicap, which are all pretty dodgy words to use these days, but don’t panic. Be bold. It’s useful to be clear what we are talking about and to know the difference between these things, whatever you want to call them. The definitions are:

  • Impairment – Something is wrong with your body that stops part of it working normally.
  • Disability – The consequences of the impairment in terms of what you cannot do.
  • Handicap – The disadvantages you experience as a result of the disability.

For example: 

  • a person may have damaged cochlear hairs (impairment). 
  • That makes it very difficult to hear high-pitched noises, learn speech, or understand speech-sounds (disability). 
  • So communicating with someone who only uses speech sounds, is very hard indeed (handicap). 

In terms of language, deafness like this results in a social handicap, which is a difficulty that exists between people rather than existing in one person. If you think of impairment to disability to handicap, it is like zooming out. You zoom out from cochleas, to one person’s ability, to a difficulty experienced by two people. This difficulty, this handicap, belongs to two people finding it difficult to communicate – just like how a French speaker and an English speaker share a common handicap. Theirs doesn't come from an impairment, but each is disabled because they are unable to speak the other’s language, and they are handicapped by having different languages. In this situation, each person is equally able to learn the other’s language, but in the case of a deaf and a hearing person that is not the case. While it is certainly not easy for a hearing person to learn BSL, it is harder for a deaf person to deal with English speech, and requires expensive technology and these days cranial surgery with outcomes that are not guaranteed. In Martha’s Vineyard  - where everybody knew sign language – having a hearing impairment and related disabilities did not lead to a handicap. Everybody spoke sign language.

If I had a bullet for every time I heard someone say “it is a hearing world out there”, I would have no bullets – because they would all have been used. It is frequently said and clearly untrue. The world “out there” belongs to everybody in it, deaf and hearing, blind and sighted, walking and wheelchair-user, black and white, Welsh and English speaking; and everybody in it has equal rights. Yes, in this country most people speak, and speak English. But no, that does not mean that users of other languages have to learn and speak English, particularly deaf people for whom learning to speak and listen to English speech sounds is physically either very challenging or impossible. Yes, speaking and listening skills are clearly useful skills to have in the world, and developing those skills is important, but it is prejudiced and oppressive to assume that the Deaf person should be more hearing in order to overcome the social handicap. And it is damaging to allow the teaching of speaking and listening to English to make learning other subjects harder due to not teaching them in BSL.

A good way to understand this is the Civil Rights movement in the USA in the middle of the twentieth century. This is because Deaf Equality is a civil right. In 1950’s America it was enormously disadvantageous to be black. But it would be horrific and absurd for black schools to not support the rights of their students or to empower them to assert both their equality and their diversity because “it is a white world”. However many black citizens did not rock the boat. When Rosa Parkes refused to move her seat on the bus, other black people had already moved, and when Deaf people let us off from the responsibility of allowing them to be Deaf and to adapt


communication, it is similar (and just as understandable) to black people humbly moving along the bus.

Deaf people can oppress Deaf people too!

Likewise Deaf schools must advocate for their students’ futures by educating them in their natural language, clearly and strongly respecting them as visual communicators, and ensuring they grow to be Deaf adults with the strength and optimism to stand up for their rights to be communicated with on their own terms.

The world is a Deaf and hearing world, but Deaf schools are exactly that – Deaf schools. They are places where the density of Deaf people compared to hearing is at its highest, and we can usefully think of them as the sovereign soil of ‘Deaf Land’. So, hearing teachers (and other staff) in a Deaf school are like English teachers working in France, with similar obligations – to teach in French, to not speak to each other in English especially when French speakers are there, and to make sure that their everyday French is good enough.

So hearing people should leave their Hearingness and Englishness at the door when entering the Deaf school, and should be using the natural language of Deaf people. 

Places like this often come up with policies that say BSL must be used whenever a Deaf person is in the room. This is brilliant and of course much better than not doing it, but it does not go far enough for three important reasons:

  1. BSL courses do not make you fluent any more than driving lessons make you a sophisticated and responsive driver. The only way to become fluent is to sign a lot. Many members of staff work in completely hearing departments, but even they have occasion, perhaps not often, to communicate with Deaf people - and on those occasions being fluent is clearly more effective than not. But they have very few opportunities to practise their BSL with Deaf people, and the best-trained and best-intentioned person will simply lose their skill and confidence. So, as bizarre as it might seem, signing whether or not a Deaf person is there is a very good idea. It also quickly raises confidence, and lack of confidence is the biggest barrier to signing in front of a Deaf person.
  2. With a policy of signing when Deaf people are there, hearing people feel a real and heavy sense of their heart sinking when Deaf people enter the room, because they have to immediately switch from an English train of thought to a BSL one – and that is really hard. It shows on our faces too. Even if we somehow do hide this on our faces, Deaf people nevertheless still feel responsible for this sudden additional burden and often let the hearing people off the hook. Noooo! This maintains the problems of lack of practice, decreased confidence, and the implicit oppression of the Deaf people – just like people on Rosa’s bus. The additional burden of working in a Deaf school is not the fault of the Deaf person, it is a choice made when applying for a job in a Deaf environment. Signing regardless of the presence of a Deaf person demonstrates respect for Deaf people and an interest and delight in BSL for its own sake - not just as a means to communicate with Deaf people.
  3. Choosing to speak because no Deaf people are present is a decision based on the fact that speaking is easier for you than signing. Life in a Deaf school becomes muuuch less problematic the easier your signing becomes and that happens quite naturally through time spent signing. The more you feel a sense of relief when you stop signing and use speech – the more that shows you need to take the opportunity to practise BSL. The more you sign, the easier it gets, the better you get at it, and the easier your job is, you understand Deaf people better , and Deaf people love and respect you more. Including students .
  4. Despite being officially disabled to varying extents and in various audiological ways, prelingually profoundly Deaf people are a linguistic minority, and a cultural group defined by a shared language as well as shared experiences. To Deaf people it is the linguistic minority status and cultural membership that matters most, and the extent to which disability is an issue is almost entirely a result of the social handicap arising from linguistic differences – differences that are perpetuated and multiplied by hearing people not communicating visually.

Yeah yeah yeah, very groovy, but BSL is, well, kind of rubbish isn’t it?!

It’s got fewer words in it. And there’s so much in English that you can’t say in BSL. Right?

Wrong. Shut up and listen.

BSL evolved naturally amongst Deaf people in this country. It varies regionally with dialects just like spoken English, although BSL also differs regionally with vocabulary - but English not so much. For example signs for numbers and colours vary quite a lot. This is because the media blurred the regional differences in English but not in BSL. Only since the internet has BSL (and signed languages in other countries) started to blur in the same way. Look at

for lots of really good information about BSL.

So BSL grammar of course is naturally evolved, and represents grammatically important things visually - like if we are talking about the present or the past and who-did-what-to-whom. English grammar of course shows these things as well, but not visually. So BSL vocabulary with an English grammatical structure (“Sim-Com” or “SSE” for example) removes the visual grammatical structure and loses important information like tense, who-did-what-to-whom and so on.

BSL  is therefore the natural language of Deaf people because it is purely visual and has evolved from Deaf people communicating. Interestingly therefore, this is the case

regardless of whether or not an individual Deaf person has ever even been introduced to it

. Deaf people’s eyes are just as good as hearing people’s and for a visual person a language with a visual grammar is easier to use even if they may not have yet had an opportunity to experience that due to their home environment or educational history.

Many many Deaf people start to learn BSL for the first time after leaving home, after 18 or 20 years of only knowing English. Why? Because it comes more naturally. A prelingually profoundly deaf child with no experience of BSL must be given opportunities to learn it because it is the easiest language for them to pick up, and to think and reason with. Considering that child to be “oral” because they do not (yet) sign and not offering a rich signing environment is wrong in the same way as discovering a hearing child raised by wolves with only grunts and whimpers and not offering a rich English environment as a matter of urgency. Not providing the opportunity to use the visual language of BSL perpetuates an abuse.

BSL is as linguistically complex as any other language  (including English), but the complexity shows itself in different ways. BSL has fewer signs than English has words, but it expands on them by changing the way each sign is produced. English is different because it uses other words or adds adjectives and adverbs. Such differences do not make a language better or worse. English complexity differs from German complexity in comparably different ways. For example German uses lots of ‘compound words’, words made by joining together smaller words, meaning the vocabulary is either bigger or smaller depending on your point of view. You might think adapting one sign in different ways (BSL) is second-rate. Or having to use lots of words where one will do (English). Or having to shove words together to make new words (German). It is our point of view that affects our opinion of the language, for both German and BSL, and others.

Foreign or second-languages always seem to be relatively simple or pidgin, because we see them through the lens of our own first language – because that is the language we think in. Similarly, we do not notice the ways our own language does pathetically simplistic things because we are too used to it. It’s like why you can’t describe “Hearing Culture” and why fish don’t know what “wet” means. For example, the German for “nipples” is “brustwarzen”, which is a compound word from the German for “breast” and “warts”. Hilarious, right? But the English word “business” is a compound word from another English word meaning “occupied/active” (“busy”) and a suffix meaning “I mean this as a noun” (“ness”). English speakers do not even notice this, just as we do not notice that “become”, “also”, “forty” or “inside” as also clumsy bolted-together compound words. It’s hard even to notice it now I’ve pointed it out, isn’t it?! We notice “breast-warts” but Germans just see, ‘nipples’ . It does not take much for us to consider the BSL sign BELIEVE as a pidgin compound of signs meaning THINK and TRUE. But this is an illusion caused by our own unfamiliarity. It does not mean that BSL is somehow simpler.

Oh whatever... But I’ve seen people signing and speaking at the same time. That’s good isn’t it? TWO languages at once is better than one!

Gah! Nope.

Speaking while signing gives us the impression of communicating well because it matches exactly the thoughts that we are trying to express. But, the visual bit (the signing) contains none of the vital information carried by BSL grammar. This is because there is no word-for-sign equivalence, and vital bits of information carried by things like word order and word endings in English are carried by placement and additional BSL signs. So for example the simple sentence “I was paid by Bob” would likely only be communicated with signs meaning “me”, “the act of paying” and “the name Bob”. Who paid who and when are missing because in BSL they are expressed in the grammar by placement, by a directional verb, and by an additional signed tense-marker about the past sometimes with a subtle shift of head and eye-gaze also showing tense. It sounds good, because in sound it is good. But visually it’s full of holes.

It’s difficult, isn’t it?

Yup. Sorry about that! But don’t give up hope...

Communicating in a second language always feels unsatisfactory – like you can’t exactly say what you mean and have to make compromises - unless you are as fluent in the second language as you are in the first, and you are able to think in both languages equally well. However, thinking in a second language is not an all-or-nothing state of affairs and is in fact like a sliding scale. For example English-speaking BSL students find it hard to give English translations or explain the English meanings of signs known in class as “Multi-channel signs” because these are not taught with an English word translation. But they know what they mean. When you use a multi-channel sign you are thinking, momentarily, in BSL. Now, BSL tutors lie to you! You get taught that ‘this is the sign for “apple” and this is the sign for “happy” and this is the sign for “drive”’ - but this is actually just a simplistic way to teach you stuff quickly. Really they should teach you that ‘this is the sign that deaf people use when talking about the thing that hearing people are usually talking about when they say “apple”, or “happy”, or “drive”’ For something like “apple” or “France” the word and the sign pretty much mean the same thing. France is, after all, one thing. But for things like driving – where “drive” is a catch-all word for all sorts of driving, while the various signs for ‘driving’ imply lots of other information too – or for things like “guilt” or “attitude”, the English words and the BSL signs mean subtly different things. Their meanings overlap, but parts of what the BSL means are not what is meant with the English words, and vice versa.

“What is the sign for ‘because’?”

If you ask a question that starts “What is the sign for...” Deaf people will usually give you an answer. But the answer is misleading because the question is the wrong one to ask as there is no word-for-sign relationship. There is a sign that interpreters usually interpret as “because”, but there are signs often interpreted as “why” and as “through” which are also both used to explain something happened because. In BSL why and because often mean the same thing. But for English speakers this feels very weird.

Why? Because different languages chop up the world in different ways. We chop the world up into categories, then label them with words. But people from different cultures with different languages chop them up in different ways. For example English divides siblings into “brothers” and “sisters” – naturally and obviously (to us) dividing siblings into “male sibling” and “female sibling”. Interestingly Indonesian divides siblings naturally and obviously (to them) into “kakak” and “adik”, which means “older sibling” and “younger sibling”. Both languages have ways to describe age and gender, so both languages are equally able to describe older female siblings and younger male siblings, for example, but these different cultures see the world of siblings in entirely different ways. It is only by learning a second language that we become able to distinguish the world from the words that we use – and to communicate effectively with people who use that language by inhabiting the same world that they do.

When you stop thinking in a word-for-sign way, and sign what you


rather than what you want to


you are signing like a Deaf person, you are making more sense, and you avoid the frustrating sense of not quite meaning...



AUGH! It’s all too much! Surely I should just leave it to the interpreters?

Aah. There’s a thing. Let’s be mean about interpreters...

When communicating through an interpreter, we communicate in our first language and when we do that, we process the conversation in our own language and so in terms of our own Hearing-English labels. We are not able to inhabit the world of the Deaf person, who divides it up in different ways. As much as interpreters enable communication and try their best to give culturally appropriate interpretations, the effect of an interpreter standing essentially between the minds of two people is to


a meeting of those minds. Imagine an interpreted conversation between an Indonesian and an English person about families.... A one-to-one (uninterpreted, direct) but non-fluent conversation will be a partially successful meeting of minds, while an interpreted conversation will be, at best, a more successful meeting of


but not in any sense a meeting of


– of true understanding.

To be fair, interpretation is not an entirely linguistic exercise (it can’t be, remember, because signs don’t mean words, they mean things). Interpreters strive not to interpret the words or signs presented to them, but to interpret the meaning that they consider was intended by the person presenting those words or signs. Sadly, that is a process of educated guesswork and while it is the aim of a good interpreter, they can only work with the words or signs given to them and guess the intention. Interpreting is a process of encoding one language as another in the context of educated guesswork about the intended meaning and the intended intention (which may be different) of the speaker.

In an interpreted interaction there are EIGHT interpretations between person A having something to say to person B, and then forming an impression of B’s response. Not the two that you might expect:


‘A’ forms a concept that he wants to express and encodes it in his preferred language. He says it and the interpreter hears it, let’s assume, perfectly.


The interpreter forms a conceptual understanding of her own from A’s words.


The interpreter encodes that understanding in the language of B. He signs it and B perceives it, let’s assume, perfectly.


B forms a conceptual understanding of the interpreter’s signs.


B conceptualises a response and encodes that in BSL. He signs it to the interpreter...


The interpreter forms a conceptual understanding of her own from B’s signs.


The interpreter encodes that understanding in the language of a. He speaks it and A perceives it, let us assume, perfectly.


A forms a conceptual understanding from A’s words.

Each of these steps is an interpretation that never quite captures what was intended, and A (you!) can only know about the misinformation and dropped detail that you yourself originally encoded. That is about 1/8 of the interaction (since we generally assume – incorrectly - that we understand perfectly the ‘meaning’ of the words we hear.) The interpreter themselves, however, is not much better, being only aware of 1/4 of the misinformation.

Communicating directly gives you a greater and more accurate awareness of where the communication is breaking down, what is being missed, so you can keep trying different things to make yourself clearer. And it makes it more likely that you will be able to inhabit each other’s world. That’s a meeting of minds. Interpreted interactions are not necessarily more accurate. They are less troublesome and shorter, but “easier” does not mean “more effective”.

If asked, Deaf people nearly always prefer you to sign directly, even non-fluently, than to use an interpreter. When they do not, it is usually for one of the following reasons, all of which raise important questions that would need to be addressed:

  • Your signing is so poor as to be incomprehensible. (You need to improve, urgently).
  • They do not want to make your job difficult. (But by not doing so, they sacrifice their understanding to make you, the hearing person, happier. In a Deaf organisation...?!)
  • They do not want to stick their head above the parapet. (If Deaf people do not want to speak out, then the context or organisation is implicitly oppressing them.)

The arguments above imply that you should never speak (unless teaching speech, to be fair). This would be amazing, but we have to be realistic. A realistic commitment, because of the things I’ve described above, would be this:

Try to sign, without speech

- with BSL grammar –

as often as possible.


Whenever you don’t,

question why and

act to fix that for the future


Jim CromwellComment
Cochlear Implants and Deaf Children of Deaf Parents
Well, what do you know!

Read this.


This retrospective study compared the cochlear implantation outcomes of first- and second-generation deaf children.

The study group consisted of seven deaf, cochlear-implanted children with deaf parents. An equal number of deaf children with normal-hearing parents were selected by matched sampling as a reference group. Participants were matched based on onset and severity of deafness, duration of deafness, age at cochlear implantation, duration of cochlear implantation, gender, and cochlear implant model. We used the Persian Auditory Perception Test for the Hearing Impaired, the Speech Intelligibility Rating scale, and the Sentence Imitation Test, in order to measure participants' speech perception, speech production and language development, respectively.

Both groups of children showed auditory and speech development. However, the second-generation deaf children (i.e. deaf children of deaf parents) exceeded the cochlear implantation performance of the deaf children with hearing parents.

This study confirms that second-generation deaf children exceed deaf children of hearing parents in terms of cochlear implantation performance. Encouraging deaf children to communicate in sign language from a very early age, before cochlear implantation, appears to improve their ability to learn spoken language after cochlear implantation.
Jim CromwellComment
In Favour of a Specialist Deaf Neurology Centre

I am Dr Jim Cromwell, MA(Hons) PsychD CPsychol MRSLI. I am a chartered clinical psychologist working with deaf people for sixteen years.

A specialist neurology clinic for deaf people is vital for a number of key reasons:

  1. Hearing people have a lot of auditory cortex, but it is auditory only superficially due to connection to the auditory nerve and is fundamentally auditory only due to its continued processing of auditory stimuli during the early years. For profoundly deaf people this cortex is quickly repurposed to other functions. 
  2. For the above reason, and also importantly due to the use of British Sign Language (BSL) as the native language of communication and of THOUGHT, the neurological architecture of deaf people cannot be assumed to be similar to that of hearing people.
  3. Clinically, for reasons of using a language with a visual grammar, and for reasons of differing neuro-architecture, a deaf patient's neurocognitive functioning cannot be assumed to be based upon the same modular cognitive skill-sets as hearing patients. For example the useful distinction of verbal/auditory and visual memory is meaningless for a deaf patient, and the relationship between motor cortex and language production will be stronger. "Subvocalisation" becomes very different indeed, and so on. 
  4. Neurocognitive instruments are based upon studies of the factor structure of hearing people's cognitive function, but these are invalid and misleading for deaf people. It has been documented repeatedly in the deafness literature that hearing doctors when faced with a deaf patient with whom communication is difficult (including when effectively and appropriately interpreted) rely heavily on these instruments as they appear to be more scientifically robust, when in truth they are dangerously invalid for this group. A specialist centre will be able to recognise and avoid these pitfalls, as well as generate appropriate instruments.
  5. BSL-English interpreted clinical interviews, even at the highest level of competence, yield difficulties that are invisible to the generic-services neurologist and neuropsychologist. Good interpretation of well-formed BSL into well-formed English inevitably also interprets deaf cognitions as hearing ones, masking the important differences for clinicians. Also, neurocognitively impaired deaf people will present with specific language impairments which are impossible to identify via interpretation unless the neuro-clinician is themselves fluent in BSL, or if the interpreter is neuropsychiatrically trained.
  6. Opportiunities for rehabilitative interventions are far reduced for deaf patients, since group interventions are impossible for deaf people in groups of hearing people, and ineffective when accompanied by an interpreter (and also decreasingly effective for the hearing people in that group due to the changed fluidity of the interactions). A specialist centre will be better placed to construct groups of similarly-impaired deaf people due to the increased incidence of those neuroimpairments presenting to clinic. Signing clinicians would be able to run rehab groups comparable to those provided for hearing people.
  7. Equally one-to-one interventions are more effectively implemented when provided directly in BSL, than via interpretation.

I cannot stress highly enough the importance of such a service and would happily make myself available to elaborate on any of the above points.

Jim CromwellComment
Incidence and Prevalence of Mental Health Problems in Deaf People
I was asked again about the incidence and prevalence of mental health problems in deaf people. I've never seen a good answer, so this is mine:

I've seen data that says the incidence (number of new cases per year) and prevalence (number of cases) of mental health problems are the same for deaf and hearing people, and I've seen data saying deaf people suffer from twice as many.
However, you need to define both "deaf" and "mental health problem" before you present such statistics and nobody ever convincingly has, that I know of.
  • Slightly deafened in old age
  • Prelingually profoundly deaf
  • BSL user
  • Unilaterally deaf
  • Fidelity problems
  •  ... etc
"Mental Health Problems" means:
  • Paranoid schizophrenia
  • Alcoholic
  • Aspergers Syndrome
  • Arachnophobia
  • Depression for apparently no reason
  • Depression for a very good reason
  •  ... etc
It is probable that there is a higher incidence because various mental health problems can be caused and/or maintained by THE CAUSE OF DEAFNESS. So you might be deaf from meningitis or a head injury and those things can give rise to all sorts of 'mental' difficulties. Equally the EFFECTS of deafness can cause or exacerbate - such as unemployment, identity problems, exploitation etc. The prevalence may well be higher because deaf people do not tend to seek help, because of lack of education about problems and services, and because of lack of faith in the services that exist (like being able to understand the GP, who may not book an interpreter, and whose receptionist may well just call your name at the appointment time.) Also because psychological therapy is essentially based upon communication ("talking therapies"), there is the whole issue of BSL-English, interpreters, triadic therapy, etc...

So it depends what you mean by the question.
Jim CromwellComment
Deaf Awareness Exercise
I was asked to suggest an exercise for a Deaf Awareness session. These were my thoughts:

I’m thinking about your deaf awareness exercise question. It’s a toughie isn't it, because in fact what you want to say (presumably) is that all your expectations about what it is like to be prelingually profoundly deaf are probably wrong. That is, it is not about LOSS but about being in a linguistic minority. It might be fun to have them do an exercise which is deliberately set up to generate wrong answers (such as, in groups to brainstorm what it would be like to be born deaf. Some responses would be accurate but many would be based upon loss, or missing music or birdsong – the usual hearing stuff) – but THEN to have them do the same exercise but to imagine what it is like living in Shanghai with a population of fifteen English speaking people. Because THAT is more akin to the Deaf experience. Limited access to information, daily communication breakdown, having to be friends with the LIMITED selection of English speaking people despite them being possibly not your type – while also feeling a very real sense of community with those people, people endlessly trying to get you to speak and understand Mandarin even though it is not your first language.

The best school for such people is an English-speaking school with English-language textbooks, teaching all the normal subjects in English but additionally teaching Mandarin. It wouldn’t be teaching all the normal subjects in Mandarin because ‘it is important that you have as much exposure to Mandarin as possible, even at the expense of your education’.

Would it?

Being born Deaf is like being born without ESP. You don’t miss it. Until everyone starts insisting you try to develop a sixth sense and then you start to feel deficient and disabled.
Jim CromwellComment
The Mask Of Benevolence
I am reading The Mask Of Benevolence (Harlan Lane). This quotation strikes me as particularly pertinent.

We were born deaf. We have been married ten years. We work like hearing people, live in a hearing neighbourhood, drive our car like hearing people, and take our vacations in the same places they do. The only difference in our lives is that we are deaf. Our two children, five and seven, were born hearing. Since their birth, their mother tongue is sign. Long before they could use words they spoke with us in our language. From their earliest childhood we made an effort to put them in touch with as many hearing people as possible, because we knew that the hearing world would be theirs one day. Now they are bilingual. Why don't hearing parents do the same thing when they have a deaf child? Why not teach them sign? Why not help them meet deaf people since it is the world they are destined to live in? When we were children, our parents prohibited our using sign. Because the doctors, the professors, the deafness specialists, told them to do that. Throughout all our studies, we were taught speech and lip-reading and hearing culture. But when we started our jobs, we realized that it was all a failure: as far as hearing people were concerned, we had always been and were deaf. They said we were hard to understand and that we didn't understand them. It was hard, humiliating.... Other deaf children should never live through the mutilating experience we have been through.
Jim CromwellComment
In advance of the rebuild

This is part (!) of an email to the architects of the new build for the Exeter Deaf Academy. Here just as a go-to list of key features of Deaf buildings and why they are important.

We need (and this applies across the build because it is about creating a deaf (visual) environment):

  • Glass panels in the doors, with blinds inside to obscure them during sessions.
  • Flashing light doorbells on every door.
  • Flashing light alarms for fire which are of a decent size and actually distractingly visible when they go off (unlike the tokenistic ineffective little strobes we currently have and which you have to be looking directly at to notice them flashing.)

Beyond that, it is important that the building continually reminds hearing people in it that it is a Deaf environment – that is, visual rather than hearing impaired. I used to work in the Deaf-aware conversion of Old Church on Bedford Hill in Balham at National Deaf Services part of South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. It had its shortcomings due to being crammed into the shell of a small church, but it was remarkable for the ways in which it felt Deaf to deaf people (ie didn't endlessly confront them with loss of hearing) and reminded hearing people of its status as a Deaf venue. It had, from memory:

  • A signing receptionist behind glass with no speech grille (!... Bold, I thought.)
  • A pay minicom in reception. Nobody used it, but it was a stark visual reminder of who the service was designed around. Minicoms are defunct these days really, but the principle is enlightening.
  • Holograms opposite the lift doors on each floor with a deaf person signing “GROUND FLOOR” etc. Such signs contain  movement. So did the holograms.
  • Sprung wooden flooring such that people entering the room behind you could be felt walking in.
  • Apparently, the paint on the walls was of a colour suitable for most people with Ushers Syndrome (common in the Deaf community) and, this could be either magic or b.s.,  seemingly went some way to dissipating bold shadows.
  • NONE of the chairs had arms (restricts signing).
  • Some (!) decent flashing light alarms.
  • Flashing light ‘doorbells’ for every office.
  • Vertically slatted blinds (that broke endlessly to be honest) that enabled sun glare to be reduced without reducing the light completely.
  • All light sources were either indirect (bounced off of walls) or diffuse, reducing shadowing.
  • All light sources could be quickly switched off and on again – a common strategy to gain the attention of a Deaf room. No bulbs needed warming up time or flickered while switching on.

I do not doubt that if you wanted to talk to somebody about that building (if you haven't already), [Redacted] would be delighted. He was the first (and still only) Deaf service manager in the NHS. His emails are below.

All such adaptations are, well, not adaptations; and they are not “for deaf staff”. They are for visual/sighted staff, which means everybody, and it is that which will make the rebuild inclusive and equal. Building ramps next to steps highlights a problem and adapts around it, whereas creating an entrance without steps makes it inclusive and equal. So it is with the Deaf community. Everyone has the capacity for visual (signed) communication, whereas Deaf people have by definition no or limited capacity for auditory communication. Everybody in the building will be sighted. Removing the aural and replacing with or highlighting the visual is paramount.

The key to the healthy development of Deaf people is fostering pride in their visual capacity and not constantly presenting them with unnecessary situations in which they are handicapped. I use the term wisely (WHO definitions... Impairment: Loss of cochlear hairs - Disability: Unable to functionally hear speech frequencies at sufficient volume or fidelity - Handicap: Difficulty communicating with people who do not Sign.) Were we to teach BSL in schools instead of French, the handicap would disappear and the impairment and disability irrelevant. It is this social factor that is highlighted in a building where those handicapping issues are removed, and our staff will be reminded on a day-to-day basis that it is not Deafness per se that is the problem. This does not currently happen – in an Academy where staff still (if they remember) book interpreters “for the deaf person” rather than for the person who cannot Sign.

You didn't ask for an essay, and for that I apologise.


Jim CromwellComment