Liam O’Dell: How to make a success of the Deaf Brexit from the European Union of the Deaf

Posted on April 28, 2017

Brexit is something which concerns the UK’s many subcultures as much as it does the country as a whole.

EU nationals living in Britain (and vice versa) still await a guarantee that their rights will be protected, students don’t know if the Erasmus exchange scheme will continue, and for us deaf people, we could have our own Brexit and leave the European Union of the Deaf (EUD).

It’s an organisation which we’ve had close ties to since the beginning. It was the UK’s representative – the British Deaf Association – which founded the organisation, and Briton John Young was its first President.

With a vision to have everyone’s linguistic rights respected (including those of deaf sign language users), the EUD’s called for the recognition of sign languages in each member state, increased awareness of deaf and disabled refugees, and accessible emergency services – to name but a few of their campaigns.

Our role in these achievements is to change post-Brexit. Whilst the BDA has said that both them and the EUD will do all they can to ensure that we are ‘a vital part’ of the group post-Brexit, a statement by the organisation last year said the UK’s ‘new status’ with the EU will determine our ties with them. Deaf people face their own form of uncertainty over our vote to leave, but we must not let that affect our community, our enthusiasm, and our passion for change.

Now is the time to carry on campaigning and continue the work of the EUD on a national level. This, of course, would be nothing but familiar territory for our Deaf charities, who have already done some incredible work over the years to improve the lives of those living with a hearing loss.

It’s even something which we have seen much more recently in Parliament, with Labour MP Dawn Butler signing a question about the legal status of BSL. We must continue putting pressure on the government when it comes to these matters, regardless of what our future relationship with the EUD will look like.

It will be a challenge which we can all take on together as a strong community, and we still have a long way to go. In terms of accessible emergency services, we already have the brilliant Emergency SMS to thank for enabling people who are deaf or speech impaired to text 999 in a crisis. However, it’s something which we must keep promoting with only 214,000 people registered to the service as of January this year. Whilst we do not know how many of these people are deaf, it’s nowhere near the 900,000 with a severe or profound deafness, that’s for sure.

As much as this ‘Deaf Brexit’ should motivate us to seek change, it also comes with a warning. A vote for us to separate from the European Union and its smaller bodies such as the EUD should not allow us to fall into a state of isolationism.

Deaf culture can always be interpreted as being both inclusive and exclusive. At its heart is a tight-knit subculture with a ‘one big happy family’ feel about it, but at the same time, knowing BSL has become a requirement in order to reap the full benefits of the community. It’s important that we allow other EU countries to find out more about our deaf culture, as we hope to learn about theirs.

At the moment, we have viral videos on Facebook to thank for offering us an insight into the world’s many sign languages – but there’s more to each country’s deaf community than just the language they use. The EUD no doubt allowed the British Deaf Association to find common ground and issues which other member states share, as well as offer them an insight into Deaf communities in other countries. It’s important that in the future, we develop these connections beyond the realms of social media.

Every subculture has the chance to voice their concerns now that Article 50 has been triggered. Of course, we may have to wait a while following the announcement of a surprise snap election, but it’s important that when our government negotiates in Brussels, they are aware of the wishes of Britons from a variety of backgrounds – including deaf people.

Next month, the EUD will meet in Malta to discuss how they will continue co-operating with and supporting the British Deaf community after Brexit. Whilst we wait for them to publish news of their decision, now is the time to strengthen our connections with other Deaf communities in Europe, carry on campaigning, and ensure that the government listens to us. Regardless of our individual stances on Brexit, we can all unite as a community to make our voices heard.

Read more of Liam’s writing for us here.

Liam O’Dell is mildly deaf and uses hearing aids in both ears. Alongside studying for a degree in journalism, Liam enjoys presenting his own radio show, listening to music and reading one of the many books on his ’to-be-read’ list. You can find out more about Liam over at his blog:, or follow him on Twitter: @lifeofathinker.

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