Charlie Swinbourne: Science may soon ‘cure’ deafness, but Deaf culture’s loss would be tragic (BSL)

Posted on December 21, 2017

Last night, it was reported that there’s been a breakthrough in treating genetic hearing loss as gene editing has been shown to prevent progressive deafness in mice.

To watch this article in BSL, signed by Elizabeth Bojas from Reflect BSL, click play below, or scroll down to continue in written English.

When I read this, my mind went straight back to Ted Evans’ award-winning film The End that featured a ‘treatment’ much like the one reported yesterday, that ‘cured’ deafness.

The film showed all the ramifications that this ‘treatment’ brought with it, including the end of deafness, and consequently, Deaf culture.

The final scene had Deaf people in tears. (Spoiler alert) It showed the last Deaf man in Britain, then zoomed out to reveal that he was now a museum exhibit, appearing on a screen in the future.

It could be argued that as science advances, the prospect of The End becoming real seems almost inevitable in the future.

It brings with it all kinds of questions. For Deaf people, who value our Deaf world and feel a strong sense of Deaf identity, it is immensely sad to think that one day our culture and language may be in the past.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the Deaf community, with Deaf parents and brothers, often visiting the local Deaf club, seeing amazing stories told in sign language richer than any film I could see at the cinema.

There may be better descriptions of Deaf culture, but for me, the ideas, customs and social behaviour of Deaf people, which makes up our culture, comes from Deaf people being together, seeing the world visually, communicating in sign language, reading lips, and sharing the same experiences.

Beautiful things have come from that culture. I’ve seen great plays starring Deaf actors, hilarious stand-up comedy from John Smith and the Deaf Comedians. I’ve seen sign poetry and Visual Vernacular performances and hilarious Deaf comedy films.

But for me, better than all of those things is seeing a Deaf storyteller signing a funny story at the end of the bar at a Deaf club, keeping a crowd rapt with only the power of his hands, body and face.

Deafness, of course, has its challenges. Society as a whole has a lack of deaf awareness, there’s a lack of access to services, and not enough people know even a basic level of sign language. This makes elements of Deaf life difficult.

But those negatives create a kind of defiance, a close-knit community which is proud of what it is, protective and supportive of each other – in much the same way as people from other minority groups stick together.

In the last few years I’ve made a series of documentaries called Found, about Deaf people whose lives changed when they discovered the Deaf world, sign language and a new community (I’m currently making episodes 4 and 5).

The people I’ve interviewed have regularly described the Deaf world as finding a home, a place where they belonged. One woman last week told me that she would not be here today if she had not found it.

So many people in the wider world don’t understand Deaf culture for the exact same reason that Deaf culture exists – communication.

People will see someone signing and say how beautiful it is, but few go on to learn it. And without learning, how can you really know how Deaf people feel, what makes our world beautiful, how it is every bit the equal of the non-Deaf universe?

For those who live in the hearing world, the Deaf world seems alien, and the superiority of the hearing world is assumed without a moment’s thought.

Yet to Deaf people, it is the hearing world that can appear alien, often hostile, unthinking, unempathetic. The idea that the hearing world is superior – when it neglects and marginalises Deaf people and sign language – can seem laughable.

In a world where people spend much of their lives looking down at screens, being part of a culture which is based on strong eye contact (we could not say anything to each other without it) brings a human connection that many people in the non-deaf world lament the disappearance of (if you want to connect, come and join us).

I could tell hearing people now what a tragedy the loss of Deaf culture would be, but it’d be a shame if they just took my word for it. It would be much better if they went out there, learned some sign language, and met Deaf people, so they could realise the Deaf world’s beauty for themselves – while it lasts.

Please sign Charlie’s petition for better cinema access for Deaf people, here.

Charlie Swinbourne is a journalist and is the editor of Limping Chicken, and is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter. Charlie has just set up his own media production company, Eyewitness Media. Both episodes of his new sketch comedy in BSL, Deaf Funny, can be seen on the BSL Zone website

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