The ​Way to Communicate with A Deaf Person



Imagine living in a world of silence. Never hearing the sound of your mother’s voice or waves crashing against rocks. Never hearing the crackle of a roaring fire or the pitter-patter of rain on a rooftop. Never hearing a car racing round the corner or a fire alarm in the night. A muted life is the reality for millions across the globe and yet, for hearing-able people, it is virtually impossible to even begin to fathom the daily difficulties they face. 

Hello. One of the most elementary words there is in human communication. The majority of people can probably even say it in numerous languages – perhaps Hallo in German or Bonjour in French – but shamefully, the vast majority of the Uk population do not know how to say this simple word to someone who cannot hear us. It goes without saying that the obvious way to communicate with a deaf person is sign language but only a tiny number of the hearing population can actually sign. The first record of British Sign Language (BSL) being practiced - in a rudimentary form – is in 1760 at “Braidwoods Academy for Deaf and Dumb” but according to many scholars, it was probably used before the 16th century. Therefore, it is astonishing that we as a nation have made basically no effort to learn sign language in spite of its history. Surely if we want to live in a world where everyone is truly equal then it follows that everyone should learn to sign?

If our aim is to create a fairer society, then teaching sign language in schools is unquestionably the way forward. Sign language is the fourth most used language in the UK, therefore in practical terms, it is far more useful than the foreign languages normally taught in schools, but astoundingly, only 0.01% of the hearing population can actually sign! This is in spite of the fact that there are 11 million deaf or hard of hearing people living in the UK. Accordingly, with such significant numbers, we must address this issue and take action immediately to improve their lives.

 Sadly, the current situation is that because there are so few hearing people who are able to sign it follows that deaf people are, for the most part, unable to communicate with the people surrounding them. This is obviously extremely isolating and if more of us could sign this wouldn’t be the case. Shockingly, currently more than half of the British population say they would feel uncomfortable attempting to interact with deaf people; howeve, if more of us could sign the situation would improve dramatically, making life easier and fairer for the deaf.

Of course, there is no denying the introduction of sign language in to the school curriculum would be a challenge, but if we are truly committed to having a fair and equal society, it must to be done. Clearly, teachers would be required to know sign language to teach it, so a Signing Module should be added to the teacher training course at universities. Obviously, it would be a long time until all teachers could sign but this should not be discouraging. In the interim, there is an abundance of  ways pupils could still learn to sign. It is logical to start teaching in primary school and this could be introduced with something simple such as ‘Sign of the Week’ in the first few years. Subsequently, around P5 - when children are normally first taught languages - they could begin to learn more complex sentences and phrases and teachers could learn sign language alongside their pupils, using online resources like YouTube videos or digital courses. As a result of this being introduced in the early stages of education, it would become the expected norm that children would be able to communicate effectively with their deaf counterparts. How life changing this would be! A case study of a six-year-old boy with moderate hearing loss showed that he hadn’t learned any of the names of the children in class despite being in school for over a year. This inability to communicate with peers is also demonstrated by Faiza, 11, who says "If children learnt more sign, it would mean I'd try to play with them more, If my hearing friends didn't sign, I would feel lonely and sad." These poignant statements illustrate the massive positive impact that signing classmates would have on deaf children. Therefore, there is no disputing that early implantation of sign language into the curriculum would inevitably result in a myriad of benefits for deaf and hearing impaired people.

But how could this all be transitioned to high school education? To my mind, with determination and full commitment on the part of the government and educationalists, sign language could become an intrinsic part of the curriculum with equal status to other languages. When pupils reach High School, they would pick what language they wished to study. At first, potentially, there may be only a few teachers who are trained in sign language, so pupils could either travel to these specialists schools or the signing teacher could be peripatetic. Furthermore, it would make sense for either deaf people to visit the classrooms to aid the teaching process, or pupils could visit schools for deaf children in the vicinity so they could take the opportunity to connect with someone of their own age using sign language, even it was just simple conversation. Another option would be the use of online courses for students such as the excellent one available from the British Sign Language website. If considerable numbers of students and teachers could communicate using sign language, it would mean mainstream schools would become a more accessible place to deaf students, as well as  heightening general awareness of deaf culture. This would help to create a more fair and integrated society – something that should have happened years ago! 

Inevitably, if sign language were to be taught like Modern Languages, a formal qualification would be necessary to give it parity. Currently the SQA does offer qualifications in sign language, however they are not presented in the standard National 5 or Higher format. For that reason, they are is not considered to be of equal status. Thus this course of study should be adapted into the National 5/Higher standard form as this would make it more attractive to both candidates and employers. 

To me, all the evidence would suggest that sign language should be part of the national curriculum. If it were taught in schools, awareness of deaf culture would be raised, hopefully making us all much more kind and understanding; it would also significantly reduce the sense of isolation felt amongst the deaf and remove some of the stigma. Imagine if we had a nation that could communicate not only in foreign languages but also with sign language: what a sign of success. Furthermore, it is far more useful and practical than the languages commonly taught in schools, there by making it a worthwhile and valuable element of the curriculum. In spite of the fact that it will take time to have a sufficient number of trained teachers to achieve the desired impact, there are countless other ways to teach sign language all of which would be effective. We have to accept this would be a lengthy process but a more fair and integrated community would indubitably be worth the effort. We owe it to the deaf community to improve their lives. So, surely in our quest for a fairer world, more students should be granted the opportunity to learn how to sign - shouldn’t they