The Question: Should deaf clubs be a social sanctuary or a learner’s study period?

Posted on May 16, 2013

Learning sign language is something basically everyone I have ever met says they want to do. Learning a few signs is fun and memorable. Some people I bump into remind me of the signs that I taught them yonks ago. You know, the cute ones like turtle or snail. There is something about the visual language that people just love.

When it comes to the crunch though, becoming proficient at sign language is hard work and takes plenty of practice. There’s a lot more to it than learning that sign for bulls%*t that everybody seems to already know. Figuring out which hand the horns are .. is just the beginning.

Hats off to the many who do make the grade to level one or two; but time without using sign language will consign that knowledge to the dark and dusty corners of the mind. Some are now barely only able to name a snail or a turtle. They’re only just able to explain that they arrived by car, it took 5 minutes and it was, err, um … what’s the sign for sunny? It gets awkward after that.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. The best way to keep using sign language is to go along to your local deaf club where the deaf community will happily chat and facilitate your development. Visiting your local deaf club is an excellent way to study or practice sign language long after the certificate is hung on the toilet wall.

Or maybe, actually, it isn’t.

When I was a kid, I visited deaf clubs almost every week. We went to March, Peterborough, Cambridge and Spalding. My parent’s quadrangle of quality, err, quonversation. I even went to Slough deaf club for an indoor games tournament and to Guildford on the way back from a day trip to France. I still go to Peterborough deaf club when I can. Janet and Simon, who help run it, are good people.


Contrary to my experience though, some hearing or oral deaf people have said to me that they haven’t found deaf clubs to be such a pleasant place to visit. They claimed that they were ignored or felt excluded. ‘Really?’ I said. I wondered if it could be true, so I gave it a little thought.

For many people who use BSL, deaf club is the only time in the week or month to have a decent conversation with friends. No barriers to communication exist there. It’s a signer’s sanctuary. While hearing neighbours can chat across the fence or in the street whenever they want,  some deaf brethren have to wait days or weeks until deaf club opens to do the same. Days or weeks to experience that simple pleasure; the joy of flowing conversation.

Should deaf people have to sacrifice that precious time in order to once again take it v e r y s l o w l y with the latest sign language student? ‘Oh, you arrived by car … and it took 5 minutes … Well done!’

But what if the BSL learner is also deaf?  What about people who were born deaf and didn’t learn sign language as they grew up? Or people who are deaf now but were hearing before. Does that change things? After all, where is the ‘I Used To Be Hearing But Now I’m Deaf Club’ in Slough or Guildford? How are more people going to master sign language unless the people who use it, make the newbies feel at home?

So the question for you, the reader, is this: Should learners respect the very reason that deaf club is there and take no offence if deaf people aren’t queuing up to c h a t? Or should deaf clubs do more to welcome sign language learners, hearing or deaf, with open arms? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

By Andy Palmer, The Limping Chicken’s Editor-at-Large.

Andy volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events as well as working for a hearing loss charity. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP (all views expressed are his own).

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