The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at the Edinburgh Fringe is a strand which gives university lecturers the chance to debate the subjects they research in a humorous and audience-friendly way.
One year ago, in an event called Send the Deaf to Orkney, Professor Graham Turner (Chair of Interpretation and Translation Studies at Heriot Watt university) and Deaf entrepreneur Jeff McWhinney debated whether Deaf people could benefit from having a ‘homeland’ (read Turner’s article about it here).
I didn’t see last year’s event, but being on holiday in Scotland this summer, I was determined to go this time, and I wasn’t disappointed.
This year’s debate was called Speech Sucks: The Future Signs, and Turner was up against his colleague Gary Quinn, who is Deaf.
The two of them debated whether, in a fast paced digital world, sign language is becoming obsolete, or whether there is a value in signing that means it has an edge over speech – in the visual and physical form of the language.
Every member of the audience was given a white plastic glove or a paper plate, and at various points in the show, we had to hold one of them up depending on whether we thought the argument for sign language was winning (you’d hold up the glove), or speech (the plate).
Each man took it in turns to argue each side of the debate, and did so in BSL (interpreters were on hand to translate their signs into speech for hearing members of the audience).
There were some real laugh-out-loud moments, not least when Gary Quinn, finding himself arguing against BSL, sighed heavily, revealing to the audience just how hard he was finding it to criticise his own language and culture.
After both halves of the debate, audience members got up to give their thoughts, with many Deaf people giving passionate defence of BSL, and hearing people also getting up to give a non-Deaf perspective on the arguments they’d heard.
Although the subject of the debate was provocative, the atmosphere was warm and light-hearted, and what came across most strongly to me was how the arguments both men were making seemed far more accessible than they would have been in another environment. It showed how humour can bring Deaf culture into the mainstream, breaking down barriers.
How often do hearing people get a sense of how the Deaf community feel? How often do they come to understand the arguments surrounding sign language?
Likewise, how often are Deaf people challenged by the arguments against sign language, before being given the chance to respond, in a way that has the potential to win over hearing people?
I came away feeling strongly that the Deaf community needs more events like Speech Sucks, taking place at a mainstream festival, encouraging hearing and Deaf audiences to understand and explore both sides of the arguments that define Deaf lives.
I’m already looking forward to seeing next year’s debate.
Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist (Guardian, BBC Online) and award-winning scriptwriter. His short film The Kiss was shown at Bradford International Film Festival in March, and his comedy Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool can now be seen on the BSL Zone by clicking here.
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