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
A Natural Language
Just a brief passage pinched from Lee Fullwood with good references evidencing BSL (or ASL) as the natural language of Deaf people. English does NOT have a visual grammar; it can describe visual things, which is completely different.

If signing is the chosen mode of communication, the large proportion of families will first have to learn it. Needless to say, the deaf child will often be exposed to a less than perfect delivery. Nevertheless, children exposed to manually encoded English (SE or SSE) have been shown to be able to refashion this system and move it in the direction of BSL, innovating signing forms similar to those characteristic of BSL (Brennan, 1987). Gee and Goodhart have also shown that American children, confronted with a poor signed input (often impoverished forms of manually encoded English), will generally innovate their own signed forms similar to those characteristic of American Sign Language (ASL) (in Sacks, 1989). Some researchers have also found that children can construct grammatically perfect ASL, even when they are exposed to imperfect variations of that language (Newport and Supalla, 1988 in Sacks, 1989; Singleton and Newport, 1993, in Pinker, 1994).

Brennan, M. (1987) British Sign Language: The Language of the Deaf Community, in Booth, T. and Swann, W. (Eds.) Including Pupils with Disabilities, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, HarperCollins

Sacks, O. (1989) Seeing Voices. London, Pan Books.
Jim CromwellComment
Oral / BSL ... Medical / Cultural II
The idea of a continuum (as indicate in the title of this post) is interesting and no doubt reflects the tensions in the minds of ToDs. In my opinion, the idea of a continuum with those end-points is itself unhelpful. It implies that you cannot have one end without the other. So for example it appears that a medical model leads to social integration whereas a cultural model does not. Not true! It implies speaking and listening skills whereas BSL does not. Again, not true!

However, if ToDs think this way, then of course they will be suspicious of BSL and of cultural affirmation.

Deafness is a disability. The impairment of, say, no cochlear hairs, leads to the disability of being unable to hear conversational speech frequencies, which leads to the handicap of difficulty phoning the Broadband tech support. For example. These are loaded terms, but this strict definition of each of them is helpful. Deafness is also a cultural and personal identity for many people. We are social animals and all have a drive to identify with one group or another. Particularly with a group that resonates with us and in which we do not feel relatively deficient. Deaf Culture and the Deaf Community comprises very real things such as visual gags, a particular valuing of information, increased acceptance of difference, and many things very analogous with life on small islands like the Scillies and Channel islands (which is interesting.)

So they are both there and they are not really opposing things because they are different things entirely. Apples and pears. What is unhelpful is not the medical model, but medics denying, hiding, or being ignorant of deafness as a culture and as a linguistic minority. What is unhelpful is not BSL or Cultural inclination, but pro-Deaf Culture people (be they deaf or otherwise) rejecting or being ignorant of the medical side.

My remarks previously about opening the floodgates to oralism reflects really the assumptions that ToDs (perhaps) hold that these are opposing ends of a continuum. Bringing Cueing into literacy and speech therapy for example, is evidence-based, admirable and good. Believing falsely however that therefore BSL is not evidence-based, is not admirable, and is harmful creates the gradient down which the Oral flood sweeps. Just as over-valuing the oral (non-signing) status of a particular college student minimises and neglects the real needs of the signing majority. Horrendous!

Most of our students struggle with literacy, not because of the presence of BSL, but because of its absence. Because they are all very late to decent models of BSL use – mostly coming from naive hearing families. Providing a strong BSL environment from the early years, undiluted by SSE and cueing except in those lessons where they are demonstrably helpful as in ‘phonics’, gives deaf students an immediately accessible linguistically complex and valid first language (BSL), upon which they can build, with the help of Cueing for example, to develop a good working second language of English. Denying them BSL, or diluting it with SSE (which in fact makes it harder to understand because the BSL grammar lends itself to being understood visually whereas signed pidgin English does not) makes the learning of English extraordinarily hard, unrewarding, and depressing.

We need to focus on both, but the detrimental continuum idea means we need to continue to educate ToDs so that the importance of BSL and of formation of positive Deaf identities and not negative (deficient) Hearing ones, does not vanish under the flood of our natural need to fix / cure.

Jim CromwellComment
Oral / BSL ... Medical / Cultural
Bits of an email I wrote today.

The historical antipathy towards CIs has matured to an antipathy towards the medical (and by extension anti-cultural-by-omission) attitude towards deafness that the professionals around the CI bring. BCH implant team found that despite telling parents at first interview that signing is vital, and that the child will be deaf post implant still, all parents, when asked next time what they’d been told, said “we were told not to sign”. The hospital context, their own fantasies for their child, and false hopes for the deafness cure, completely overwrote their recall of what they were actually told.

The improving philosophy of deaf education has moved slowly as you know from a post-1880 strict oralism to a bilingual-bicultural approach. However, the weight of the oral approach continues to run through the veins of educators. The oral/English parts completely swamp and marginalise the BSL/Deaf parts. This is because we hearing people, in the backs of our minds, cannot let go of the disability model. ALSO, and this is vital, our brains are wired in English and so we feel as if we are making sense visually when we are waving our hands and thinking in English – ie trying to use “SSE”. We should video ourselves when using “SSE” and play it back without sound to see exactly how much sense we are making. We would be appalled. “SSE” is in quotes here because it is not a thing. It is, strictly speaking, occasional signs with pidgin English lip-patterns. BSL level 1’s, 2’s and 3’s (3’s to some extent) falsely, maintain that there are word-for-sign equivalences, though it is the fault of the BSL curriculum. There are not. However, believing this, and signing “SSE” reinforces the false belief in our minds that BSL is a lesser language – a poor-man’s replacement for English for disabled people. Of course it is not.

The way in which oral approaches, Hearing Culture, and English rush in at the expense of Deaf Culture and BSL was horribly but clearly illustrated in a PHSE class I observed in College a couple of years ago. The entire class except G___ comprised deaf BSL users. The lesson began in good full-BSL (it was B___). But then she stopped and, speaking in good clear English, and signing occasional half-equivalent signs, said, “Oh, I’m sorry G___ . Everybody, I’m going to have to speak and sign at the same time because G___ does not sign.” Oh dear. The entire class slumped as their clearly-accessible communication changed to barely comprehensible SSE because one person there did not understand the first language of the institution. To add insult to injury, there were three CSWs at the back, any one of whom could have sat with G___ and provided a quiet voice-over.

The Deaf Community, and I, understand the value of cochlear implants, digital hearing aids, cued English, and so on. However, there is a valid fear and antipathy towards the overwhelming Hearing culture / disability-focussed / English-based that comes barrelling along with it.

You said that you were surprised how teachers of deaf people did not fall into the expected “Medical/Oral” or “Cultural/BSL” camps. I think this reflects an increasing but insufficient awareness of the issues, and the varying extent to which the medical/oral influence sweeps in at the expense of the, literally, minority (Deaf) values.

This is why I am a fervent advocate for affirmative action in this regard. Deaf students have access to spoken and written English ALL THE TIME, from family, members of the public, TV and so on. While we do have an entirely appropriate duty to develop their literacy, speech and listening skills, it is vitally important not to let that diminish the rest of their education by attempting to educate them in pidgin, and crucially not to let our inherent determination to cure - to turn the students into deficient hearing people rather than confident and sophisticated deaf people – undermine their respect for us as members of staff. As soon as we use speech with them, or use speech in front of them with each other, we are not respecting them as deaf people, and we cannot expect them to respect us back.

We need to use our Deaf awareness and our BSL to fight our own biases and to hold back the tsunami of oralism that naturally pervades.
Jim CromwellComment