Professor Graham Turner: The great Orkney debate – What did the Deaf decide?

Posted on September 3, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, Bob Duncan wrote about an event taking place at the Edinburgh Fringe. The title – ‘Send the Deaf to Orkney!’ – aroused a lot of controversy. But as one of the 53 Deaf and hearing people who attended on 20th August said, it was “one of the maddest, liveliest events I’ve ever been to.”

Here, Graham Turner explains what he and his fellow debater, Jeff McWhinney of SignVideo, were trying to get at – and why they chose the format they did.

‘Send the Deaf to Orkney’ was designed to be entertaining while tackling serious issues.

Jeff McWhinney and I know each other well. We could both clearly see arguments on either side of this debate, so our main difficulty was to agree who would argue FOR going to Orkney and who AGAINST. We didn’t want anyone to think we personally had narrow, fixed positions: and anyway, the priority was to explore the issues, not to worry about the particular perspective of this or that person.

So we hit on the idea – which would add a bit of humour and Edinburgh Fringe theatricality– of taking it in turns to appear on the pro-Orkney and anti-Orkney sides of the debate.

Graham and Jeff during the debate

Graham and Jeff during the debate

Being Deaf is just like being a member of any other language community – but one distinct difference is the lack of a Deaf ‘homeland’. So the questions were ‘what would a homeland mean to Britain’s Deaf people; and what are the consequences of not having a place to call your own?’

Why Orkney? Because the population of Orkney matches the number of BSL users we expect to be given by the 2011 UK census. Taking Orkney as the suggested homeland gave us an opportunity to challenge that questionable census figure.

A Deaf Orkney would offer a place where the life of the community could be organised in BSL. The future of the language would be assured. But wait a minute: isn’t it true that BSL is now valued by hearing people too? Hearing people love learning BSL – that’s why the idea of a BSL GCSE qualification is now under very serious consideration.

On Orkney, though, no-one would be patronised because they were Deaf. Families could make their minds up about cochlear implants for their children without pressure. Deaf children could be brought up with Deaf values. All very well, says the ‘No to Orkney’ argument, but haven’t you realised – attitudes have changed. If you want to go back to the 19th century, Orkney sounds like the right place to go about it!

Surely money would be saved by sending the Deaf to Orkney, though? Interpreting costs would be zero! Meanwhile, Deaf businesses (e.g. tourism) would boom: every Deaf person the world over would visit. Mind you, integration isn’t expensive nowadays. Technology is improving fast and video interpreting services really work. Thousands of children will study BSL at school in future: the quality of interpreters will then improve markedly because their signing will be so much better, and the fees for bilingual professionals will fall rapidly once the skills shortage disappears.

On Orkney, Deaf people would be able to say ‘no’ to hearing control. Every decision at the local level would be in Deaf hands. Society could be organised to suit Deaf people. But perhaps it’s only by living and working with hearing people that we’ll finally prove what the Deaf Way has to offer. When hearing and Deaf minds bring their strengths together, the results are more powerful than either operating alone.

Professor Graham Turner is Chair of Translation & Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. He leads the team now running the first ever degree course in BSL in Scotland.

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