Charlie Swinbourne: The EU Referendum has divided the Deaf community

Posted on June 23, 2016

Today, like millions of other Brits, I’ll be heading to a polling booth to place my vote in the EU Referendum.

From a Deaf perspective, what’s been great about the referendum is how engaged Deaf people have been with the debate, saying whether we want to Remain or Leave.

I wrote a BBC News article earlier this year about how important Facebook has become to the Deaf community, and it’s clear from the many posts on my Facebook feed that much of the Deaf debate on whether to Remain or Leave has been through the social networking site.

Even when there were no accessible campaign materials (though BSL videos for both sides were later provided) Deaf people were already debating the issues either openly through status updates and comments, or in Facebook groups – often in signed videos (I should say, it’s not all been online – there has also been several BSL debates in real life). That engagement has increased in the last few days and weeks.

The fact that Deaf people can now communicate widely and rapidly with one another online during situations like this is a huge change from just a few years ago, where many of us would have only been able to discuss and debate the issues locally at Deaf clubs, depending on the limited (and often inaccessible) information available.

Now, despite the fact the mainstream world could still do far, far more to give us access, at least we can see what a range of people in our community think, and also access information videos in BSL that help us to make up our minds.

So there’s been great positives to take from this Referendum.

But there’s also been a negative, too, and this lies in how divided our community has become over the last few weeks and months, between people voting for either side.

One post really stood out for me last week, and it came from a leading figure in the Deaf community. In a written and signed post, he said that he felt concerned that some people were not accepting other people’s perspectives, that they had already made up their minds, when it was important to consider both sides before coming to a decision – and respect those that don’t agree with you.

Other posts and comments I have read have been from people explaining that they got a backlash in some Facebook groups if they said they were going to vote for the other side, and this led to them leaving those groups.

More seriously, there have been allegations of racism in some groups, and of people being personally abused for their political views by others who don’t agree with them.

What’s clear is that whichever way the vote goes today, our community has become divided over the issue of whether Britain should stay in the European Union or not. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps it could be said that our community is divided in the same way as Britain generally seems to be at the moment. It’s clear that people in different parts of the country, or from different economic backgrounds, feel very differently about the EU. Maybe the Deaf community reflects this.

However, another thought I have pondered in the last few weeks is that in many ways, the Deaf community has had very little access to politics historically, and has had very little opportunity to debate political issues in the past. And maybe that’s why things have been so divisive.

What’s clear is the Deaf community wants to be a part of the political process, and feels as strongly about the issues – if not more strongly – as non-Deaf people do.

However, we may still be learning – as a community – how to debate, how to reason with one another, and how to accept that different people may have different opinions, but still shake each other’s hands and stay friends at the end of the day.

I guess that’s what it comes down to for me. As a community there is so much that binds us together – our shared experiences, language and culture – that it is such a shame to see friendships end, and goodwill disappear, because people take political differences personally.

My hope is that we learn from this referendum, whatever the result, and take those lessons forward to the next vote, possibly a general election, and debate with one another in a more positive way.

Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being an award-winning filmmaker. He has just completed two new episodes of his documentary,  Found, about Deaf identity. He previously wrote and directed the comedies The Kissand Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool along with other film and TV credits. As a journalist, he has written for the Guardian and BBC Online.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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