Juliet England: There are better ways for the NUS to support deaf people than banning clapping and whooping

Posted on May 3, 2017

What to make of the recent news story that those running the National Union of Students (NUS) conference muttered darkly, if vaguely, of ‘consequences’ for delegates who cheered , clapped or whooped speakers?

The reason given was that such sounds “had a serious impact” on the ability of some of those attending to access the event fully, particularly deaf students.

According to vice-president for welfare at the union Shelly Asquith, there had been “a number of requests for people to stop” expressing support for a speaker in this way.

Those present were urged instead to wave their arms in the air, ‘jazz hands’ style, in the manner of a West End chorus line, as an alternative celebratory gesture when newly elected president Shakira Martin took office at the NUS Brighton conference.

The request prompted Durham University attendees to put forward a motion banning all clapping and whooping at every future NUS meeting.

The motion proposed “reduced cheering or unnecessary loud noises on conference floor, including whooping and clapping.”

According to the Telegraph, the motion argued that “access needs of disabled students are disregarded or overlooked in terms of conference member behaviour and NUS structures,” leading to disabled students’ safety and wellbeing being compromised.

Clapping and cheering alienates deaf delegates while triggering anxiety in others, the motion insisted.

This is not new. Previously, the NUS reportedly requested jazz hands rather than applause as the NUS’s women’s conference gathered in Solihull two years ago. The body’s women’s campaign described whooping as “fun for some but super inaccessible for others”.

This time around, the jazz hands request divided social media users, with some branding the notion ‘childish’ and ridiculing the ‘supposedly adult’ NUS members, while others praised the inclusivity of the idea.

After all, many hearing people probably don’t realise the jazz hands gesture is British Sign Language for clapping, and it does mean everyone can take part. But do deaf and hard of hearing people (of which I am one) really find clapping that offensive? Is there any evidence to suggest it really can trigger anxiety?

Aren’t things like BSL interpretation, subtitled presentations, hearing loops and the like more important in terms of accessing events such as this? It’s a quarter of a century since I was a student, but surely the NUS should be devoting its energies to campaigning for communication support for members who can’t hear, rather than obsessing about stopping people clapping?

As many have pointed out, doesn’t making gestures of appreciation that are seen but not heard exclude visually impaired delegates? Could arm waving jazz hands style potentially alienate amputees? Equally, those who are deaf can see that people are clapping even if they can’t hear the sound of hands being put together. Equally, up to a point, cheering can be lipread, and you can see two fingers being put to a mouth to whistle in triumph.

What’s more, surely clapping and whooping would need to be prohibited everywhere for such a ban to be effective? Even if the odd student meeting bans it, deaf people  will still come across it in other situations, from theatre visits to football matches and even some business presentations.

One of the problems is that complaining about clapping plays straight into the hands of the likes of the Daily Mail and its sneering commentators – hi, Richard Littlejohn! The eminently unlikeable columnist wrote:

“Since when has ‘jazz hands’ been ‘the approved celebration’ anywhere?” (Well, since BSL was invented, actually, Rich, but never mind.)

He jeered: “Celebrating diversity can throw up some tricky dilemmas. I hadn’t realised until now that people upset by loud noises were an officially recognised vulnerable minority. Can’t wait for the job ads in the Guardian.”

Of course he wrote such things. What do you expect?

But am I missing something here? Maybe clapping is indeed offensive and exclusive to those who can’t hear?

After posting a plea for thoughts on the Deaf Opinions Facebook group, I got a few comments back, all decrying ‘the PC brigade gone mad’.

One group member, who is deaf, Lesley Hunter, said: “I do clap, cheer and wave hands, depending on the time and place. The NUS hasn’t thought about this properly. What about the blind or those with no arms? This was probably done with the best intentions regarding deaf students, but one size doesn’t fit all.”

Another respondent wondered how many deaf people the NUS actually consulted before talking about a ban on clapping. (Sir, I salute you for a good point well made.)

Another, reasonably enough, pointed out that jazz hands can be seen in a darkened theatre. Fair enough. But I would have thought the NUS gigs mostly took place in a brightly lit space.

Admittedly, one respondent commented: “As an autistic person who finds clapping physically painful to my ears, it causes anxiety. I would love it if people did ‘jazz hands’ rather than applauding. It’s fine to request it and people are usually happy to accommodate. It’s not ‘banning’ or ‘PC gone mad’. It’s being considerate.”

However, when I mentioned the story on my own page on Facebook, everyone who replied (admittedly all hearing) again left comments in the ‘political correctness gone mad’ vein.

Perhaps the best was from someone who said: “Should we do less banning and more trying to accommodate everyone? Could whooping be accompanied by air punches or something so that appreciation is shown both visually and aurally? Is it less about banning and more about making people aware of how to be inclusive?”

Although one person said: “as an autistic person who finds clapping physically painful to my ears and causes me anxiety, I would love it if people would ‘jazz hands’ rather than applaud. It’s fine to just request it instead of clapping and people are happy to accommodate. Thats not ‘banning’ its not PC gone mad, its being considerate.”

At a time when the needs of deaf students as a specific group and the wider deaf community more generally are so often so poorly understood, it’s hard to see how the NUS is doing itself or its membership any real favours.

I’ll leave you to mark your enjoyment of this article in the manner of your choosing.

Read more of Juliet’s articles for us here. Juliet England does freelance social media and PR work for cseeker.

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