News coverage of the huge Middle Eastern country of Iran is generally dominated by talk of confrontation. Very few westerners go there. So how did a Deaf woman from the UK end up spending two-and-a-half weeks there on her own, on a mission of international co-operation with the Iranian Deaf community? Tessa Padden, a director of the BSL learning resources website Signworld, told us about her memorable trip.
What led to your visit to Iran?
I do love travelling but, to be honest, even though one of my close friends, Mira Goldberg’s family, came from Iran, it was one of the last places I ever expected to visit. Last year at the World Federation of the Deaf Congress in South Africa I was introduced to a very bright and energetic young delegate from Iran called Ardavan Guity, known as Ardy.
Ardy told me about the issues and arguments that were arising around sign language in Iran. A lot of them seemed familiar, e.g. the domination of some old guard ‘experts’, who seemed to be blocking the development of fresher and more authentic contributions from the Deaf community.
One example was on TV, where the people currently presenting and interpreting were using a lot of signs that were not understood by Deaf people in the audience. Often they just made up signs that had nothing to do with natural, indigenous, Iranian (or Persian) Sign Language.
Ardy had been told about my background as a Sign Language teacher and trainer and also my experience as a presenter, translator and interpreter on TV, video and websites. He said it would be good if I could come over to Iran and give some training and demonstrations to Deaf people there about how to promote and develop their own Iranian Sign Language teaching and services. It was a lovely idea, though I honestly never thought it would happen. But I underestimated Ardy’s organising skill and, sure enough, in July this year he had arranged everything for me to go to Iran, including collecting an entry visa in Istanbul, as visas can’t be issued in Britain at the moment.
What were you hoping to achieve?
I was hoping to encourage and motivate Deaf people in Iran to take their linguistic destiny more into their own hands, to tell them a bit about what progress we’d managed to make in Britain, and demonstrate how they could do the same. I also hoped to give them an introduction to how to go on and teach their own sign language.
Tell us about your experiences and achievements there?
Phew, where do I start? It was such a fantastic country, and I met so many wonderful, warm people. In Tehran I stayed with Ardy’s family, in his Deaf parents’ flat, and I enjoyed the hospitality of other Deaf people in other parts. I loved the fresh, organic food, especially the vegetables. The only really difficult part of it was the heat and humidity – it was typically 40 to 45 degrees every day when I was there, and I had to stay fully covered from head to foot all the time, as a woman.
In Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz I gave talks and question-and-answer sessions to audiences of Deaf people from the local Deaf communities. In Tehran there were about 50-60 (they said there would have been more but for the holiday season), the same numbers in Isfahan, and in Shiraz over 100. In these talks I told them about my own personal story from leaving school, when I used to think Deaf people could only work in menial jobs, especially Deaf women after they had children. I told them how opportunities had improved through the work of organisations like the BDA, especially its partnership with Durham University, when over 200 Deaf people were trained to teach BSL through the British Sign Language Training Agency, by people like Clark Denmark and Frances Elton.
I told them about some of the progress we’d made in TV for Deaf people, though it hasn’t always been plain sailing. I explained how BSL/English interpreting has become a fully-fledged profession, which they don’t have in Iran. I described how we’d held BSL Marches, how university research is helping to establish BSL as a recognised language in its own right, though there’s still a long way to go, and how they could aim to achieve the same sort of progress for Deaf people in Iran.
On 12 July I went to Zanjan in the North West, where I taught a group of 12 Deaf representatives from all over Iran for three days. I gave them a basic grounding in the linguistics of sign languages, the importance of sign language teaching led by Deaf people themselves and how to go back and encourage and motivate Deaf people in their own communities.
After that I was a keynote speaker at the first-ever Iranian Sign Language Interpreters Conference. I addressed over 200 delegates and ran workshops for groups of interpreters. So altogether, I worked with between 400-500 people, more than half Deaf and about 200 hearing sign language interpreters and volunteers.
What memories stand out?
The beauty of so much of the country, like the ancient city of Persepolis. The warmth and friendliness of the people. The real hunger of Iranian Deaf people to learn and improve their experience – the same kind of hunger for knowledge I saw in Malawi when I taught there a couple of years ago. I think we could learn a lot from their attitude and desire to learn.
Some cultural things that struck me were how Iranian Deaf people talk across and interrupt each other so much – much more even than we do in Britain. My head was spinning at times! An argument in Iranian Sign Language really is an argument! I began to understand what it must be like for hearing people in this country trying to learn BSL!
More generally, I noticed how Iranians showed their teeth in broad smiles much more than we do in Britain, especially men – that’s hearing as well as Deaf Iranians. They did seem to know about the British reputation for having ‘stiff upper lips’!
One amusing incident happened at a class in Zanjan. I had to keep my hair and my full body covered all the time in public, but once I caught my scarf in a door and it pulled right off! But everybody just found it hilarious. They all had a great laugh about it!
On a serious, practical note, one of the things I found most difficult was adapting to the different calendar. When I was there, it was the year 1391 in the Iranian calendar, and, to make it even more difficult for me, their diary goes from what looks to us like back-to-front. So when I was trying to prepare the training and workshops I was knocked for six trying to work out which days I would be delivering. Then I realised that Ardy was looking through his diary and thinking ‘anti-clockwise’ with the different dates and I was thinking and looking ‘clockwise’! So we had to sit down and work things out day-by-day so that I was clear what I was expected to do and when!
Are you hoping to return again?
I would love to. A lot depends on how relations between Britain and Iran develop, I suppose. They said they would like me to go back to do more in-depth training, which would be good. But who knows?
What’s next for you?
I’m concentrating now on our BSL learning and teaching resources website, Signworld, with my co-director Linda Day. We’re about to launch BSL Level 2, then develop Signworld to Level 3 and beyond, with more services, like online one-to-one tutorials for learners, and for teachers who want support in their teaching.
Interestingly, the Iranians were really interested in Signworld. They’d like something like that over there, because at the moment all they have for teaching sign language is books, which are flat and two-dimensional. Online video is much better for learning how to sign, because it can show live, 3-D movement.
We have great support from the digital agency Sunderland Software City in North East England, where I’m based – Linda is based in Bristol. We hope they’ll give us good advice as we go on developing. I think this is something a lot of Deaf businesses don’t realise, that there are these regional agencies that can be really useful in advising them how to develop their business. More of us could take advantage of that.
The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, training and consultancy Deafworks, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.