Lizzie Ward: Moving towards deaf unity

Posted on May 24, 2013

‘I have never felt that anything really mattered but knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed and had done the very best you could.’ – Eleanor Roosevelt.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how people come together to make changes in society. Specifically, about how the Deaf community in the UK has rallied around the campaign for a BSL Act.

For three months, we sent letters and emails to MPs to ask them to support EDM 1167, an Early Day Motion aimed at making the government do more to support BSL users.

Meanwhile, the aim of the BSL Act campaign, which is being driven by a Facebook group, is to give BSL (British Sign Language) legal protection and reinforcement as an official language of the UK.

This would mean that public bodies (such as the NHS, Police and GPs) are legally obliged to provide interpreters, and hopefully other means of access (such as Speech to Text Reporters or lipspeakers) to deaf people around the UK.

As it stands at the moment, access is still incredibly patchy and in some places non-existent; with apparently booked interpreters not turning up (or not having been booked at all), and many other issues, such as poor deaf awareness, relying on family or friends to interpret (not ideal) or poor support within education settings.

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Mostly though, I want to focus on how social networking has created an opportunity for deaf people to express themselves, to share stories, to campaign and rally around a cause more effectively.

What worries me is how there often appears to be a split within the very foundations of the deaf community, or what I consider the ‘deaf collective’ – as not all of us are involved in what is called the ‘big D’ Deaf Community.

I support everyone’s right to access and consider the BSL Act a brilliant step in the right direction. However, I’ve noticed that people who consider themselves ‘little d’ deaf or hard of hearing, or partially deaf, often feel that if they participate in the ‘big D’ Deaf Community it somehow means that their access needs are not being met.

In some cases, people seem vehemently anti-BSL, as if the language itself is to blame for lack of access, or they feel it is incorrectly seen as the only way deaf people communicate, therefore somehow discriminating against ‘little d’ deaf people.

The access tools that I use, like subtitling, captioning, Speech to Text Reporters, lipspeakers, SSE (Sign Supported English) and so on, are the access needs that ‘little d’ deaf people and hard of hearing people feel are being eclipsed by the perceived prominence of BSL.

These access tools are equally essential as part of the access spectrum for all deaf people (including BSL users), and it worries me seeing that people are so divisive with each other.

Instead of division, our voices (and hands!) are so much stronger together. Especially in a time when the government is attempting to erode our civil rights, take away essential benefits, and are attacking the access needs of deaf children in education.

We all have different identities and ways of seeing the world. I feel no conflict between supporting a BSL Act and supporting subtitling and captioning, for example. They are two sides of the same coin. They are both essential.

That is why it troubles me when I see arguments, unnecessary vitriol and negativity in Facebook groups and comment threads that don’t move anyone forward or contribute to change.

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The same arguments and divisiveness have existed for as long as there have been deaf people. When you look outwards, and wonder how it looks when we are trying to raise public consciousness about deaf awareness, this is not an ideal image of the community (or ‘deaf collective’).

What people need, to put an agenda forward – for all forms of access and for the BSL Act – is unity, tolerance and the ability to listen to each other.

Too many voices shouting over each other won’t mean we’ll all be heard – it means that we’ll muddy the waters for each other.

I think everyone should have a chance to speak, and then people need to work towards a solution that incorporates all means of access, as well as gaining recognition for BSL.

Instead of becoming prickly whenever someone mentions BSL (or even speech/lipreading), and saying ‘well what about me?!’ we should all listen to each other, instead of becoming defensive and judgemental. Listening requires patience, and learning from each other.

Intersectionality is not about choosing one or the other aspect of who you are to fit in. I’ve come to the realisation that people like me and my sister can hold seemingly contradictory elements and identities within us – such as an appreciation of BSL, deaf culture and deaf pride – and text and speech based methods of communication:

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ – Walt Whitman.

We need to recognise that we are stronger together – no matter how you define yourself, no matter your deaf identity – and that we can campaign for everything that matters to us together; whether we are women, men, gay, disabled, deaf, from a different culture, a person of color, trans.

We are all stronger together. Everyone has their own opinion, everyone has a story, and they all matter. I feel that listening and respect are key. Working towards unity and therefore collective activism.

IMG_0156Lizzie is a writer, blogger and Deaf Unity’s editor. She always has a few writing projects on the go, including writing her first few novels. Passionate about campaigning and the possibilities of social networking, she hopes her work with Deaf Unity will encourage more people to strive for their dreams and push through the barriers within society. A passionate bookworm and sci-fi/fantasy geek, you can read more on her blog, Cats and Chocolate and follow her on Twitter as@destinyischoice

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