Professor Graham Turner: Why I took a vow of silence, and only used BSL, for one week

Posted on March 24, 2014



Professor Graham Turner of Heriot-Watt university has struck a chord with the Deaf community for taking a vow of silence, only communicating in BSL, for the last week. Here he writes about why he made the decision and the response he has got.

I’m not quite sure what prompted the idea of taking a ‘vow of silence’ for a week, but it seems to have struck a chord with a few folk.

Initially, I just wanted to do something to mark the British Deaf Association’s Sign Language week (17-21 March). The BDA’s programme for the week struck me as impressively ambitious.

I wanted to show my respect for their efforts by chipping in with a small contribution of my own.

It had to be easy to organise and to cost nothing. Austerity, don’t you know?

So I declared a self-imposed week of silence, and used the ‘LifeinLINCS’ blog produced by my department at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh to explain what I was doing, why, and how it felt.

The resulting blog has been described as a “must read”, “very insightful” and “a small epic”.

Extract from Graham’s first blog:

The point is to express solidarity with the Deaf British Sign Language community across the UK. The point is to say we have had it up to HERE with your disrespect for our language, your neglect of our children’s rights, and your unwillingness to listen when we tell you your policies are not working.

So I’m going to sign this week. And, yes, for the first time ever, despite being a hearing person, I’m going to use the words ‘WE’ and ‘OUR’. Not because I’ve vowed to spend one week signing. Because I’ve spent over 25 years working with BSL users, and I have learned to feel utterly ashamed of the never-ending ignorance and arrogance of the hearing majority.

Generation after generation of Deaf people have asked for change. Generation after generation of hearing people in authority – in government, in education, in the health system – have claimed to know better than Deaf people do what is good for them.

They don’t.

And it’s time they showed some humility and LISTENED UP.

 

A Deaf researcher in Scandanavia wrote: “This should be published as a daily column in a national newspaper. I think it would have a huge impact.”

It’s being recommended by their lecturer to sign language interpreting students in New Zealand, and is being ‘liked’ by readers from America and Africa, as well as throughout Europe.

Silence is a simple but striking tool in the hearing world. Feedback indicated that the act of shutting up for a week was itself seen as “a powerful statement”, “a good example for us all” that “all hearing ‘Deafness professionals’ should try at least for a day”, and even “a disruptive, probing intervention—perhaps it might be called ‘activism research'”.

On the fifth day, I blogged about the things that happened to me during the week. It truly had been a quiet revelation, in a number of ways.

But three responses from others gave me the greatest sense that something important could be learned from the initiative.

One was an email out of the blue from a stranger who wrote “I am the mother of three kids, two hearing and one Deaf. Thank you. Your vow of silence means a lot to me. I know all my kids will achieve all they set out to, they will contribute to the society in which they live and work – of this I am sure. However, for one of them society will need to use ATW to access fully the wonders that he is capable of.”

Exactly right – SOCIETY needs equality legislation and decent public services to benefit from HIM. Not just the other way round.

I couldn’t have put it better.

Deaf people also commented in ways that made me feel sure this had been meaningful and worthwhile.

One person replied to someone’s sceptical question about what Deaf people thought of what I had done. The Deaf respondent wrote:

“I can’t speak for others but I am glad we have allies who are not afraid of breaking the silence (pardon the pun!) and actually doing something to raise awareness to [their] networks… [Graham] has a vast hearing network and a certain level of influence in the hearing world (something that I and many other BSL users do not have). His contacts will be reading the blog and become more aware of this language oppression that is still happening in the UK. That’s how I see it.”

Me too.

The final word goes to my closest Deaf colleague. His office is right beside mine, and we’ve worked together for over 10 years. I know we stand foursquare together on BSL issues. Nevertheless, he told me, as the week ended, that he’d never felt more collegially supported by me than through my choice to stand alongside him in this way this week.

Makes you think, eh?

And that’s the whole point.

Read Graham’s blog here: http://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/

G_TurnerProfessor 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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