Jen Dodds: We need to talk about Sign Circle

Posted on August 27, 2013

It’s now a month after Sign Circle and I’m still wearing my wristband.  Don’t worry, it’s been washed daily!  I had such a fantastic time that I can’t bring myself to take it off, because I’m a sentimental old fool.

It was great to catch up with friends there, to shake the legendary Gerry Hughes’ hand and to soak up the atmosphere in general.  Despite the flood warnings (fear not, we had lots of sun too!), most campers’ faces were happy as they were having fun and trying new things, from holding snakes – eek – to making dream catchers.

The best thing about the weekend, though, was seeing all the kids having the freedom to run amok and sign to anyone they wanted.  They got to play with lots of other kids who could sign, both deaf and hearing, and to talk to grown-ups who answered their millions of questions in BSL.  And then there were the Deaf grown-ups who spent a lot of time running around pretending to be monsters, scaring the little kids, who would run off amongst the tents, screaming in near hysteria.  You know who you are! (continued below)

This mightn’t sound like a big deal to some people, but when you’re the only Deafie in the village, it is a very big deal indeed.  In fact, most people who I talked to said how much they appreciated the whole thing.  We all heart Sign Circle.

Every other day, most deaf people probably have to compromise.  In the real world, most people don’t sign.  So, we compromise by speaking to people, by writing things down and gesturing to make ourselves understood.  That’s all fine and well, but can be hard work, can’t it?  No wonder we get so worn out!  We are a linguistic minority, after all; whichever way you look at it.

All deaf people know about “dinner table syndrome” when you’re sitting having a meal with hearing people who can’t sign – you can’t understand enough to follow everything; or perhaps you can’t understand anything at all.  It’s boring!  It’s frustrating!  You hope that everyone eats quickly so that you can be freed from the whole ordeal!

It can be impossibly hard to deal with not understanding your own kids, though.

Sometimes it’s like there’s an evil 1880s audiologist-type person in your head, glaring at you disapprovingly and telling you off; “They’re YOUR CHILDREN!  You should be able to understand them!”

At other times, though, there’s a nice rational person signing “YOU’RE ALL NORMAL! You’re in a linguistic minority, that’s all!”

And yes, however much we all sign at home, that’s a fact.  Let’s not forget how most of the people in this world are hearing… and hearing people love to talk.

For example, my kids are both chatterboxes and are always talking to random strangers, which is both brilliant and maddening.  It’s brilliant to see them developing into confident, communicative little people.  Proud Mummy Moments.  On the other hand, it’s maddening because I can be having a great signed conversation with my son on the way to school, then he’ll suddenly start speaking to a passer-by and I’m totally lost.

I hate it when random people tell me what my kids say, so if I can’t work out what’s happening, I’ll just put on a grin and hope for the best.  Let’s face it; my son is four, and four year olds are bonkers.  They’ll suddenly ask questions about someone in a TV programme that they saw six months ago, expecting you to remember the entire plot, despite the fact that you were washing up at the time.  Because you’re their mum, and you’re meant to know everything, always.

Being a Deaf parent might also mean that complete strangers give you funny looks in the street… but not because you’re signing, oh, no – in 2013, signing in the street is completely normal and fine.

They’re staring at you because you have no idea that your teenage son has cranked up his iPhone and everyone, except you, can hear the awful grime “music” that he’s listening to as you do your weekly grocery shop together.  Or, they’re staring because you seem to be ignoring how your sweet little toddler’s skipping ahead shouting “POOPY!  POOPY!  POOOO!” at the top of her voice.

It happens.

At Sign Circle, though, it was different.  We were in the majority!  I watched all sorts of kids’ confidence grow in different ways as they mastered new aspects of BSL.  I saw their delighted, transfixed expressions as they took part in Ashley Kendall’s Magic Hands workshop.  I smiled as they played together and laughed as they told me about the scary Deaf man who was a monster in real life.  Oh, yes.

We need more Sign Circles!  We need more Ashley Kendalls.  We simply need more people who can sign.

I know that we aren’t alone – in fact, we are many.  We should talk about this more.

I know that our kids will grow up and learn more deaf stuff, although there isn’t a lot we can do to stop them from playing awful music at poor unsuspecting strangers.

In the meantime, I’m keeping my Sign Circle wristband on until further notice.

Jen Dodds is a Contributing Editor for The Limping Chicken. When she’s not looking after chickens or children, Jen can be found translating, proofreading and editing stuff over at Team HaDo Ltd (

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