I’m going to be honest – some might even say vulnerable – but in recent weeks I’ve come to question if I can call myself a British Sign Language (BSL) signer, and wrestled with the cultural weight, as it were, which comes with that.
A bit about me, first of all, in case you aren’t familiar. I’m Liam, as far as we’re aware I was born Deaf, and in a medical sense I am moderate-to-severely Deaf. You may already note that I refer to myself as Deaf with the capital ‘D’. The infinite D/deaf discourse is not the subject of this post (in summary, I think the labels are reductive and segregate us when we should be coming together as a community, but obviously people can use whatever labels they like for their own identities), but such is the nature of my job as a Deaf journalist that I am immersed in Deaf culture and the community.
My BSL knowledge, while still nowhere near fluent, is enough to at least hold a conversation with Deaf friends and other BSL signers. I remain forever grateful to fellow Deafies – not least those I met through a charity in 2014/15 – who have accelerated my vocabulary and receptive skills over the years. I still rely on a BSL interpreter to interpret my speech during more detailed conversations with technical terminology for which I don’t know the signs, but basic discussions I am fine with.
I’m also now at the point where I have found the presence of BSL interpreters in an environment helpful, should I miss what has been said orally. To give one example, I saw the musical SIX on tour and by chance, happened to book to see the signed performance. It’s hard for me to pick up on lyrics in songs, and yet I understood more with the interpreter in the corner.
As someone who benefits from BSL in both a communicative and receptive sense, I wonder if I can consider myself a Deaf BSL signer, yet at the same time, I am conscious about just how protective the Deaf community is about its language – and rightly so, after all the oppression they and it have experienced over the years. There’s a reason why Deaf people rally against hearing influencers on social media who appropriate BSL incorrectly for monetary gain, because BSL belongs to the community.
Of course, as I’m Deaf myself, I imagine I’m not approached with the same level of apprehension than if I was to claim I was a BSL signer (let us not unnecessarily gatekeep), but at the same time, I assume there is the retort that anyone who holds a certain level of comprehension of a language can label themselves a ‘speaker’ or ‘signer’ of a language.
For example, there’ll be people who can call themselves a French speaker despite not being French themselves. The curious thing, I suppose, with all of this is what the threshold is for comprehension. At what point does ‘knowing a bit of BSL’ cross over into someone being a ‘BSL signer’ – even at a level which may not be fluent?
Answers welcomed. My relationship with BSL is still being fleshed out and is very much fluid, and any advice to help me understand it further – with the appreciation that I’m approaching such a topic with as much sensitivity as possible – would be much appreciated.