I-Sign and David Cameron
From PMQs today.

Q11. [65531] Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Following a question from me to the Prime Minister’s predecessor three and a half years ago, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) set up pilot schemes to provide sign language support for deaf parents and their children in Devon and Merseyside. Those have now been completed, and they were a huge success. Will the Prime Minister meet a delegation of deaf parents, their children and their representatives to discuss how that sign language support can be extended to all children and their parents across the UK?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do a lot to support different languages throughout the UK. Signing is an incredibly valuable language for many people in our country. Those pilot schemes were successful. I looked at what the previous Prime Minister said to him when he asked that question, and I will certainly arrange a meeting for him with the Department for Education to see how we can take this forward.
Jim CromwellComment
How Long Have You Been Signing?
People ask me quite a lot, "How long have you been signing?" Usually this is flattering... Only today did I realise the best answer to it:

It's not how long you've been signing that makes you good, but how much you sign.
Jim CromwellComment
Regarding Deaf Executive Staff
This is a copy of an email from Jonathan Isaac to the Chair of BSMHD regarding deaf people in positions of authority. It sums up everything very well indeed.


I’m sure that you and the Board will have given this plenty of thought before you created the person spec for the job. For what they are worth, my thoughts are:

In order of importance

1. Deaf knowledge
2. Organisational skills
3. Sign Language fluency
4. Mental Health knowledge

The Deaf knowledge is by far the most important one. There are plenty of people around with organisational skills and plenty with mental health knowledge. There are a fair few with both. And one or the other (or both) can be picked up reasonably quickly because the organisational skills and mental health knowledge needed for BSMHD are the same as in any mental health organisation – its mainstream stuff. It’s the Deaf aspect that makes BSMHD so different. Hearing people coming in to CEO positions in the Deaf sector do not have a good record. Some go on to do great things in the sector but many of them just don’t get it and either move on quickly or stick around doing damage (I can give you examples of all three). It would also be very dangerous to assume that it will be OK for the Board to contribute the Deaf knowledge, that kind of arrangement undermines the CEO and is usually a recipe for disaster.

I am restricting myself to talking about CEO roles but I’m sure you can see parallels with any job in the mental health and deafness sector. It will be so much more successful to bring a Deaf person up to speed in organisational skills and mental health knowledge than it will be to hope that someone new to Deaf will ‘get it’. BSMHD should also be promoting the training of Deaf people to do the job rather than thinking that the other way round is easier. It may be in the short term, but we will never move on and get to where we want to be if we don’t make that effort at the beginning to invest in the existing Deaf resources.

I have put Sign Language fluency below Organisational Skills because it is an inconvenience not to have it but sufficient communication skills can be learnt over time. However, it will make their job a damn sight easier if they do have sign language fluency from the start.

It certainly isn’t a case of just sticking any old deaf person in the job and assuming they will be the right person ‘because they are deaf’. There are deaf people that see themselves as being disabled and will never understand the cultural and linguistic aspects of being Deaf. And there are culturally Deaf people who cannot see beyond their own personal experiences (as there are in any walk of life). You are looking for a special type of Deaf person but they do exist and it will be worth taking the time to get it right rather than looking for a quick fix.

When I first came in to the Deaf sector in the mid 90s it was around the time of the Gallaudet protests, Jeff McWinney had become the first Deaf CEO of the BDA and there was the RNID/Doug Alker battle. Hearing people leading Deaf organisations was a big issue, and those hearing leaders would justify their positions by saying that their organisation wasn’t quite ready for a Deaf leader yet but that they were training up their Deaf staff and were confident that their successor would be Deaf. We won’t be needed soon, we used to say (and I was one of them). But we have failed, and we should be ashamed. Looking back over those 15 years far too many of the hearing leaders are still in post or have been replaced by more hearing leaders (often by people with no interest in the cultural stuff at all). In so many aspects real change has happened, there are so many more professionals who happen to be Deaf, but CEOs of organisations in the Deaf sector is the last nut to crack. There are no more now than there were then.

And what has become of all those Deaf staff we promised to train up to be the next generation of leaders and we appointed to be our ‘deputy’ Chief Executives? Well, we chose many of them because they were what we called ‘oral Deaf’. They were ‘easier’ for us to work with. But most of them were not culturally Deaf, did not have the passion for it and could easily work outside the sector and so they left. For those that were culturally Deaf the frustration of constantly being told they weren’t quite ready by the hearing cuckoos reluctant to leave the nest became too great and they took their skills elsewhere.

There are many parts of BSMHD’s activities where the Deaf stuff can be picked up by someone with the right attitude. The need for interpreters at events etc are all quite straight forward and in those things it is possible for the Board and others to guide and support.

Where it is crucial to get it right and where the Deaf sector gets it so wrong is in the public representation and influencing of policy arena. Deaf equality issues can only be addressed successfully if they are promoted by a culturally Deaf person. It being a Deaf person meeting the Minister means that 90% of the message is achieved before you start. Don’t fall into the trap of sending along the ‘token Deaf rep’, the ones who for the last 20 years have made a profession out of being Deaf (The ‘user rep’). It needs to be a Deaf person in a position of authority who can talk to them at their level. One who can say on the spot “Yes, my organisation can do that”. One who can talk in terms of ‘what we want’ not ‘what they want’ when talking about the Deaf Community. It’s all far too cosy at the moment. Hearing ‘experts’ on Deaf equality (usually middle aged, middle class, white, male) (and that includes me) fit in very well when meeting the (usually middle aged, middle class, white, male) Government officials. It’s difficult to tell which is which. And the temptation to accept the invitation to contribute to the ‘disability agenda’ is too often too great to resist. Much better to meet the Minister for Disabled People than to meet no Minister at all. But that is so damaging to the cause. We will only see real progress in achieving Deaf equality when Deaf is truly recognised to be a cultural, linguistic issue and not a disability issue. In the disability context all Deaf people are thought of as ‘users’. If we suggest that they should consult Deaf people they say “Of course, we are very good at consulting with users”. And we say “No, you must talk to Deaf people about this because the solutions lie within the Deaf community” and it is seen in the context of a self-help group.

Still, I’ll keep it brief. There you are. That’s what I think.

Jim CromwellComment
Interpreters as fish
Give a man an interpreter, and he can communicate for an hour.

Encourage a man to sign for himself, and he can communicate for a lifetime.
Jim CromwellComment
Comunication Policy for the Deaf Workplace
  • BSL must be used at all times.
  • Speech may not be used except off-site. Exceptions to this are only a) specific parts of specific jobs, such as answering the telephone or Speech Therapy, and b) non-signers who need to use interpreters.
  • Interpreters are only to be used to enable non-signers to communicate with signers.
  • Private conversations must be conducted in BSL out of sight of other people. Use of speech in order to conceal communication from Deaf people is unethical, ineffective, and rude.
  • Face-to-face meetings should be used in preference to webcam. Webcam in preference to email. Email in preference to text message. Text message in preference to speech.
  • All rooms should have flashing light doorbells and flashing fire alarms.

This post will be adapted as my ire develops.

Jim CromwellComment

One of the important keys 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 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.

Vitally, there is a world of difference between integration and belonging. This has been extensively examined in learning disability literature as “inclusion”, “integration”, “mainstreaming” and so on are pertinent to these groups as well. Students require a secondary education where they feel they belong, not where they are merely included and presumed to be “equal”.

Deaf education is a completely different environment from mainstreaming. I have observed deaf pupils in mainstream schools with TA/CSW support and am yet to see this effectively enable the student to take part in classes. The presence of support staff is always seen by the teacher/tutor as a solution to any problems there may be, and so they direct their attention solely to the hearing students, leaving the support staff to mop up any difficulties. This ghettoises the part of the room with the small huddle of deaf people and support staff. It also means the tutors believe they can progress at the usual pace and the deaf students are always consequently behind the rest of the class. In addition, complicated GCSE or A-level material is delivered to the student by support staff members who are not themselves qualified in those subjects. Students therefore are obliged to deal with not only their own ignorance of the subjects, but also that of their support staff.

The presence of support staff in a classroom can be as, if not more, disabling than the root hearing impairment. Hearing students are far less minded to attempt to socialise with deaf students who appear to require adult assistance to function. Even with that support removed during break times, secondary student relationships are built and adapted continually, not just in break times, and it would be impossible for a deaf student to even remotely catch up with or begin to be a part of those relationships outside of class time.

The available peer group for mainstreamed deaf students therefore is restricted to those other students supported by the unit, which has far fewer numbers, and far fewer possibilities for age- or gender-peer relationships. The likely trajectory for identity formation within this context is towards identifying oneself as peripheral/remedial hearing, rather than as avalued and competent deaf person.

In the UK and elsewhere there is very definitely a hearing culture and community, although for hearing people this is a hard idea to grasp; and similarly a strong Deaf culture and community. I worked for a long time offering therapy in BSL to deaf people with depression and anxiety, among other mental health difficulties, and they uniformly described the “hearing world” and “deaf world” as being worlds apart, and feeling as if they did not belong to either. As therapy progressed over the months and mental health problems resolved, so the sense of belonging to both worlds/communities increased, and indeed in BSL-space the two worlds were located closer and closer together. There is not an identifiable community or culture of hearing-impaired or deafened people and, being such a varied population anyway in terms of communication modality / assisted and unassisted audiometry and so on, where such a person feels they belong is very much up in the air. A positive self identity as any sort of person requires a sense of belonging, and a sense of self-worth, so a student needs to be placed within a group of people with whom they feel they belong and where the need for artificial assistance, be it via staff support or equipment, is as low as possible as those assistive interventions can also be socially disempowering or act as additional obstacles (as alluded to above re mainstream secondary education.)

I cannot stress enough the important distinction between belonging and inclusion.

Jim CromwellComment