This article by Liz Searle was first published on The State of the Arts and is republished here by kind permission.
Like any good film, The Power In Our Hands starts with an intriguing discovery: except in this case it’s a real event, and this documentary would never have been made without it.
In 2004, builders found a cache of films, dating back to the 1930s, belonging to the British Deaf Association and long thought lost. This would be a wonderful treasure trove for any association, as a way to recover their history over the decades and see how the organisation had progressed.
What made this so very special is that film is one of the only ways to record sign language-it can be codified and “written down”, but a brief riffle through the pages of the Dictionary of British Sign Language/English will show you how tricky it is.
Nowadays, with access to video technology an option for most of us, deaf people can use software (such as Facetime, Glide, and Whatsapp) to send videos and communicate in real time – a breakthrough.
There is a corpus of BSL being compiled, by University College London, which is another great stride for deaf linguistics. It’s also a bonus for deaf culture, because it is keeping a valuable record of BSL and recognising it for what it is: a real language, with its own grammar and structure.
See Frances Elton’s online videos for more on sign language linguistics. You can even look up the signs for words in various different countries’ sign languages, using the sitewww.spreadthesign.com.
The documentary is a magnificent testament to the BDA (British Deaf Association) – the creators visited deaf clubs and communities around the UK to ask for help identifying the people featured in the films.
Their initial aim was to find forty five people who they could interview in depth – they actually found over four hundred. Famous faces from the deaf community were interviewed and passionately explained what had driven them then, and drives them now, to fight for deaf people’s rights.
It was hugely inspiring to see the young radical versions, signing at Deaf Congress and at public rallies, and heart warming to see them watched by their older selves.
There were academics and activists like Dot Miles, (also a well-known sign poet), who studied at the famous university for the deaf, Gallaudet in America.
She helped to set up the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (now called Signature) and worked with teachers of the deaf. Paddy Ladd was another academic and revolutionary thinker, whose concept of Deaf Pride said that people should be proud of being deaf – that is an intrinsic part of your character and makes you who you are.
His work on setting up the National Union of the Deaf led to many television programmes being created by and for deaf people.
Watching The Power In Our Hands gave me a sense of the history of the struggle, and the continuing need for more awareness of deaf issues and equal access that is critical to deaf people.
With the introduction of Scotland’s BSL bill, there is now movement to gain the same ground here in England-more action is needed to promote the use of BSL.
I felt privileged to have seen this film, and excited by what I saw-but for the deaf audience, I can only imagine how important this is for their culture and identity.
Find out more about how you can see The Power in Our Hands by clicking here.
By Liz Searle
The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.
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