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Oral / BSL ... Medical / Cultural II

The idea of a continuum (as indicate in the title of this post) is interesting and no doubt reflects the tensions in the minds of ToDs. In my opinion, the idea of a continuum with those end-points is itself unhelpful. It implies that you cannot have one end without the other. So for example it appears that a medical model leads to social integration whereas a cultural model does not. Not true! It implies speaking and listening skills whereas BSL does not. Again, not true!

However, if ToDs think this way, then of course they will be suspicious of BSL and of cultural affirmation.

Deafness is a disability. The impairment of, say, no cochlear hairs, leads to the disability of being unable to hear conversational speech frequencies, which leads to the handicap of difficulty phoning the Broadband tech support. For example. These are loaded terms, but this strict definition of each of them is helpful. Deafness is also a cultural and personal identity for many people. We are social animals and all have a drive to identify with one group or another. Particularly with a group that resonates with us and in which we do not feel relatively deficient. Deaf Culture and the Deaf Community comprises very real things such as visual gags, a particular valuing of information, increased acceptance of difference, and many things very analogous with life on small islands like the Scillies and Channel islands (which is interesting.)

So they are both there and they are not really opposing things because they are different things entirely. Apples and pears. What is unhelpful is not the medical model, but medics denying, hiding, or being ignorant of deafness as a culture and as a linguistic minority. What is unhelpful is not BSL or Cultural inclination, but pro-Deaf Culture people (be they deaf or otherwise) rejecting or being ignorant of the medical side.

My remarks previously about opening the floodgates to oralism reflects really the assumptions that ToDs (perhaps) hold that these are opposing ends of a continuum. Bringing Cueing into literacy and speech therapy for example, is evidence-based, admirable and good. Believing falsely however that therefore BSL is not evidence-based, is not admirable, and is harmful creates the gradient down which the Oral flood sweeps. Just as over-valuing the oral (non-signing) status of a particular college student minimises and neglects the real needs of the signing majority. Horrendous!

Most of our students struggle with literacy, not because of the presence of BSL, but because of its absence. Because they are all very late to decent models of BSL use – mostly coming from naive hearing families. Providing a strong BSL environment from the early years, undiluted by SSE and cueing except in those lessons where they are demonstrably helpful as in ‘phonics’, gives deaf students an immediately accessible linguistically complex and valid first language (BSL), upon which they can build, with the help of Cueing for example, to develop a good working second language of English. Denying them BSL, or diluting it with SSE (which in fact makes it harder to understand because the BSL grammar lends itself to being understood visually whereas signed pidgin English does not) makes the learning of English extraordinarily hard, unrewarding, and depressing.

We need to focus on both, but the detrimental continuum idea means we need to continue to educate ToDs so that the importance of BSL and of formation of positive Deaf identities and not negative (deficient) Hearing ones, does not vanish under the flood of our natural need to fix / cure.

Oral / BSL ... Medical / Cultural

Bits of an email I wrote today.

The historical antipathy towards CIs has matured to an antipathy towards the medical (and by extension anti-cultural-by-omission) attitude towards deafness that the professionals around the CI bring. BCH implant team found that despite telling parents at first interview that signing is vital, and that the child will be deaf post implant still, all parents, when asked next time what they’d been told, said “we were told not to sign”. The hospital context, their own fantasies for their child, and false hopes for the deafness cure, completely overwrote their recall of what they were actually told.

The improving philosophy of deaf education has moved slowly as you know from a post-1880 strict oralism to a bilingual-bicultural approach. However, the weight of the oral approach continues to run through the veins of educators. The oral/English parts completely swamp and marginalise the BSL/Deaf parts. This is because we hearing people, in the backs of our minds, cannot let go of the disability model. ALSO, and this is vital, our brains are wired in English and so we feel as if we are making sense visually when we are waving our hands and thinking in English – ie trying to use “SSE”. We should video ourselves when using “SSE” and play it back without sound to see exactly how much sense we are making. We would be appalled. “SSE” is in quotes here because it is not a thing. It is, strictly speaking, occasional signs with pidgin English lip-patterns. BSL level 1’s, 2’s and 3’s (3’s to some extent) falsely, maintain that there are word-for-sign equivalences, though it is the fault of the BSL curriculum. There are not. However, believing this, and signing “SSE” reinforces the false belief in our minds that BSL is a lesser language – a poor-man’s replacement for English for disabled people. Of course it is not.

The way in which oral approaches, Hearing Culture, and English rush in at the expense of Deaf Culture and BSL was horribly but clearly illustrated in a PHSE class I observed in College a couple of years ago. The entire class except G___ comprised deaf BSL users. The lesson began in good full-BSL (it was B___). But then she stopped and, speaking in good clear English, and signing occasional half-equivalent signs, said, “Oh, I’m sorry G___ . Everybody, I’m going to have to speak and sign at the same time because G___ does not sign.” Oh dear. The entire class slumped as their clearly-accessible communication changed to barely comprehensible SSE because one person there did not understand the first language of the institution. To add insult to injury, there were three CSWs at the back, any one of whom could have sat with G___ and provided a quiet voice-over.

The Deaf Community, and I, understand the value of cochlear implants, digital hearing aids, cued English, and so on. However, there is a valid fear and antipathy towards the overwhelming Hearing culture / disability-focussed / English-based that comes barrelling along with it.

You said that you were surprised how teachers of deaf people did not fall into the expected “Medical/Oral” or “Cultural/BSL” camps. I think this reflects an increasing but insufficient awareness of the issues, and the varying extent to which the medical/oral influence sweeps in at the expense of the, literally, minority (Deaf) values.

This is why I am a fervent advocate for affirmative action in this regard. Deaf students have access to spoken and written English ALL THE TIME, from family, members of the public, TV and so on. While we do have an entirely appropriate duty to develop their literacy, speech and listening skills, it is vitally important not to let that diminish the rest of their education by attempting to educate them in pidgin, and crucially not to let our inherent determination to cure - to turn the students into deficient hearing people rather than confident and sophisticated deaf people – undermine their respect for us as members of staff. As soon as we use speech with them, or use speech in front of them with each other, we are not respecting them as deaf people, and we cannot expect them to respect us back.

We need to use our Deaf awareness and our BSL to fight our own biases and to hold back the tsunami of oralism that naturally pervades.


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