Here is the title I would have preferred to use for this article: “W(h)ither lies the Deaf community”, which is the clever title of T.Johnston’s research (*1).
Take away the “h” from whither (an old word for where is it) and we have “wither” – to fade away and die. Does this mean we are witnessing the death of sign languages throughout the world? And if yes, what can be done, and done quickly enough to save them?
Since 2005 the Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group (DEX) has been concerned about the fall in numbers of deaf children learning British Sign Language, noticed during its audit of deaf education.
DEX embarked on a study of language planning, 2016,(*2) to see what parallels there are with endangered and dead spoken languages’ revival, and that of sign languages. The findings are that all spoken living languages have a natural way to be transmitted from one generation to another: intergenerational transmission.
Obviously, sign languages cannot be passed from one generation to another for approximately 95% of parents of deaf children are hearing and do not use sign language. For sign languages to survive they have to be replaced by the state, for example in the same way as Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) are taught in UK schools to children whose parents speak English or Welsh.
Why are sign languages so crucially important, vital enough to ensure their survival? There is the obvious fact that they are our visual languages, with improved access to learning for deaf children. But there is also a deep rooted psychological and, therefore, hidden and unseen need for deaf children to feel they belong to their world.
The feeling that no one else in the child’s world really understands being deaf, or truly has one’s back, so the sense of belonging is often unmet throughout life, and can contribute to life-long lack of wellbeing, resulting in mental health problems and illness.
Research on belonging shows it is a basic human need, almost as important as water and food and the air we breathe for survival. Further research found that even before birth that hearing children hear and then learn the meaning of sounds, not only speech but environmental noise and even of silence.
Belonging to a world of shared sounds makes for a common bond and allegiance, which every child must have in order to feel loved and valued. As an unspoken and intangible characteristic it must be hard for hearing people to grasp the importance of this concept, as a hearing cultural identity is acquired naturally from birth and is a major foundation for the psychological building blocks for children to develop their unique personal identities.
Hearing identity is paramount for hearing people for it bonds them and makes them belong to a shared understanding of the sound-filled world. Research into identity development has further found that not having a sense of belonging can seriously damage children’s development, and it is a crucial human need to feel part of the family, school, friendships and the wider human society.
This feeling of belonging leads us to become social animals and is the motivation for making relationships with our families and friends, and later, work colleagues. Intertwined with this, language is one of the essential keys to cultural and personal identity. People construct their identities in the house of their language.
Yet when we try to apply the same principles of bonding for deaf children, a huge well of dissent arises from many hearing professionals working with them and our experiences and research is discounted or ignored. The government’s philosophy of the assimilation of deaf children into mainstream schools results in what DEX calls “think-hearing identity” where deaf children actually think they are hearing people despite cochlear and titanium implants, hearing aids, and radio aids.
Usually all the children and adults in the deaf child’s life are hearing people, so she or he wants to identify with them and model their behaviour on them. The urge to be the same as one’s family and peers is what drives all animals to survive, so deaf children are no different in this respect.
As one of the first to attend a mainstream school before the advent of PHUs over six decades ago, I personally never had a “deaf enough” Deaf school experience to truly be accepted as a bone fide member of the Deaf community; I also never thought of myself as deaf enough anyway. I also regarded myself a “not good enough hearing person”, which manifested itself as self-loathing and lack of confidence.
The Deaf community consists largely of ex-Deaf school students with shared experiences of being deaf which developed, for many, a strong Deaf identity, and without which many would not have coped in the hearing world: acceptance and often pride in being deaf – which a member of the DEX Deaf Youth Council called “Deaf is Me”.
A smaller number are from Deaf families, some with many generations of deaf relatives. But we are bearing witness to the slow and incremental decline of this community.
In 2017 there were 53,000 school aged children of all levels of deafness in the UK. The tradition is that profoundly deaf children, and some severely deaf, were the only group that had access to sign language. Currently 12% have a profound hearing loss and 14% have severe. Only 29% of profoundly or severely deaf children in England use BSL in some form alongside spoken English (*3).
This is not 29% of the total of 53,000 deaf children, but just 29% of the two categories (profound and severe – 24% of 53,000). From these statistics our estimate is approximately 1,750 deaf children in England use BSL in UK.
Johnston has this to say in his research, 2004 : “Slowly but inevitably, the demand for sign language interpreters as a whole will decrease with the shrinking and aging Deaf community, but this will take several decades….. For teacher training, sign bilingual and sign language–using schools, and government and nongovernment organizations that serve the needs of deaf and hearing impaired children (with or without other disabilities) and their families, the effects will be felt very soon indeed, if not almost immediately. One might argue that the effects have begun to be felt already” – shown as the numbers of deaf people attending Deaf centres already highlights.
The numbers of deaf children attending resourced mainstream schools (having special units from which specialist staff support their deaf pupils into the main school) and Deaf schools have dropped significantly, with 20 units being closed in the last two years.
Only approximately twenty Deaf schools remain, in which 3% of deaf children are placed. There are just 290 resourced mainstream schools in the UK in 2018 of which 6% attend. The dwindling numbers in the Deaf community are therefore not difficult to foretell.
To compound the situation, to gain entrance into resourced mainstream schools deaf children in England must possess an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), or a Coordinated Support Plan in Scotland, which are usually awarded to children who are profoundly deaf. This process places a huge barrier on BSL language learning. For a deaf child to achieve an EHC Plan they must first have permission. If the deaf child’s assessment by the school and the Teacher of Deaf is agreed then an application is made to the EHCP Panel for the deaf child to attend a resourced mainstream school or a Deaf school.
Compare this with the government’s drive for a higher take up of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) such as Spanish. Hearing pupils do not have to be assessed and then re-assessed by a panel before they are permitted to learn a MFL. Why then, are deaf children put through this “not deaf enough” procedure and weeded out as not being suitable to learn BSL or to access the curriculum via BSL?
How is it then possible to confer a Deaf identity on the vast majority of deaf children who go to their local school with no other deaf peers and no access to BSL? In some cases there may be another deaf child in the same school but there could be too much of an age gap or a gender difference, or lack of real opportunity to meet, for a sense of shared experience to emerge. How can they learn to become Deaf is Me without a significant deaf peer group in mainstream schools and deaf linguistic role models? For, like any other language gives users a national identity, sign languages confer Deaf identity.
Deaf clubs are scratching their heads and wondering where deaf young people are. It is looking at the situation through the wrong end of a glass prism to expect mainstreamed deaf children and young people to breeze merrily through the nearest Deaf Centre door. They may have limited social skills, and low confidence and self-esteem which prevents them making the leap of faith into the unknown deaf world. Most do not know what facilities and services are available for deaf people. For many it is one club to which they can never belong, not knowing BSL and because they may be perceived by professionals, and even the Deaf community, as not being “deaf enough”.
Unfortunately the Deaf community sleeps on. We have a situation akin to the climate emergency, where there are climate deniers who do not believe the science proving natural disasters are already happening. In a similar pattern there is a ground swell of deaf people who point to deaf social media, which can include hearing professionals and family as well as deaf people, and old unproven statistics, to scoff that there is no decline in BSL usage.
The reality, like global warming status, is stark, for linguistics do point the way to sign languages being threatened, not only by education but also technology. The greatest threat of all though, is one that is never mentioned yet under our noses as the most obvious one of all, which is that 95% of parents of deaf children are hearing and do not generally know sign languages.
The optimum way of enhancing a deaf child’s Deaf identity is to place all deaf children in bilingual resourced mainstream schools and in bilingual Deaf schools. This is more likely to happen if a BSL Act is passed in parliament which specifically states that BSL must be promoted to parents of deaf children. DEX is working hard to explain how incredibly important this is. We also do have to take up the reins of responsibility ourselves to show deaf ex-mainstreamed young people the way into their new deaf community. The DEX Deaf Youth Council (DDYC) has been occupied for the last five years in learning their deaf identities and about the Deaf community, in fun and wide-ranging activities.
DEX also works with non-signing deaf young people who are cochlear implant and hearing aid users but who are all placed alone, often unsupported, in their local unresourced mainstream schools. A centre for Deaf people has put out its SOS and asked DEX to help. So how to engage other deaf young people in the same plight in the Deaf community when their Deaf clubs are closing and deaf social activities are being less well attended? And can they as ex-mainstreamers, even despite the support offered to individuals and as a group, really belong to the older Deaf community?
Will a new deaf mainstreamers’ community emerge, a space where they feel safe and belong, with the shared bond and allegiance of knowing they are deaf and that Deaf is Me?
*1. W(h)ither lies the Deaf community: Population, Genetics and the Future of Australian Sign Language”, 2004.
*2. Towards language planning for sign languages: measuring endangerment and the treatment of British Sign Language”. Jill Jones (DEX). in “Endangered Languages and Languages in Danger: Issues of documentation, policy and language rights”. Edited by Luna Filopovik and Martin Putz. 2016. John Benjamins Publishing Co.
* 3. Consortium for Research in Deaf Education survey 2017/2018.
Because of long concern about the loss of deaf children’s birthright to their language and community, Jill Jones has written this, as the chair of the Board of Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group (DEX), on behalf of its committed deaf directors.
DEX recently celebrated its 25th anniversary of campaigning and achievements, all based on deaf-led research into deaf education and bilingualism, further backed up by its current work with its DEX Deaf Youth Council and the Calderdale Deaf Youth Hub
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Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Ltd. UK. www.dex.org.uk. October 2019. All rights reserved.
This blog post first appeared on The Limping Chicken