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Tackling Deaf People's Oppression
THE YEAR 2001 will be the European Union's European Year of Language, but how will it be marked by the British government in respect of the UK's fourth indigenous language, the language of the Deaf community, British Sign Language (BSL)?
Anne Darby, Nottingham
The government recognised Welsh as an official language of the UK in 1993 and last year recognised the Gaelic and Irish languages.
The Federation of Deaf People (FDP) was formed two years ago. It has acted as a focus for young radical Deaf people who are bilingual and have a strong sense of their Deaf identity to come together, develop political understanding and work together to fight against their own oppression and the oppression of current and future generations of deaf children.
Last year the FDP organised the first-ever petition and march through London for the recognition of BSL. After handing in the 32,000-plus petition at Downing Street, 4,000 deaf people and their allies congregated in Trafalgar Square. It was an empowering experience. This year marches were held in May in Derby and Nottingham, Birmingham in June. London's march is taking place this Saturday 8 July.
The language of the deaf community has always been controversial, mainly because of the debates about the need of deaf children to use it to give full access to education. Roughly there are two camps. Deaf people argue that children need access to BSL while the hearing education system argue they need exclusive access to speech.
The attitudes to BSL have all the hallmarks of colonialism. BSL has been denigrated as a poor substitute for "proper language".
In 1975, BSL was identified as a language in its own right by British university researchers, the development of video technology allowed for research and documentation of the language.
The declaration of BSL as a full language, together with the documentation of the failure of the education system, gave heart to the Deaf community. Deaf people began to take more power through the British Deaf Association (BDA) and radical deaf rights groups and began to press the government to recognise BSL as a language.
The then Tory government was resistant, they denied funds for research into BSL and into the education of deaf children. John Major wrote to a deaf woman saying that the government would never recognise BSL as an official UK language. This was despite the European Parliament calling in 1989 on member states to recognise their indigenous languages and more recently to sign the Council of Europe's charter for regional or minority languages.
The Labour government wants to present itself as more open to the views of the deaf community but in practice has changed very little. Margaret Hodge, the current Minister for Disabled People recently insulted the deaf community and attacked the academic standing of professional linguists by claiming that BSL's status as a language was debatable.
The chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, an organisation close to the Labour government, recently told a deaf woman that the government will not recognise BSL. When challenged, he told her that his remarks had not been fully interpreted, that he in fact said: "The government will not recognise sign language next week".
But if the lobbying campaign is seen to have no effect, more activists will consider non-violent direct action.
Operations on deaf babies to insert cochlear implants in the hope of "defeating deafness" and providing a cure through brain surgery and genetic manipulation are threats to the Deaf community. They send a message that we are so "imperfect" and our presence is so undesirable that we must be manipulated out of society.
The FDP aims to promote an acceptance that diversity includes deafness and eradicate such backward attitudes.
In The Socialist 7 July 2000: