I worry that there is a generalised approach to Deaf awareness from hearing people, namely around British Sign Language (BSL).
Of course, the language of our culture and our community is incredibly important, and when hearing people learn it in order to communicate with Deaf BSL signers, it can break down barriers. However, it’s important that hearing people realise that BSL only makes up a small part of being aware of us as individuals – there are so many other important steps we need them to take to move towards a more accessible society.
It’s easy to see why I think this way. Hearing people are far more inclined to pick up BSL because it’s seen as cool, trendy or, worse, a gimmick to pick up and deploy as and when needed. We only need to look at the horrific prevalence of cultural appropriation of BSL on social media – see the recent Olly Murs/Isabella Signs situation – to realise that hearing people will do the easiest thing or bare minimum required to say they are “raising awareness” of our community, often when they are doing the opposite.
How refreshing it would be if it was a trend to tell people to face Deaf people when they’re talking to us, to have patience if we need things clarifying or repeating, and to speak to us in environments which are preferably with good lighting and minimal background noise. Obviously I’d still want hearing people to amplify Deaf people making these points, but I know I certainly wouldn’t be telling people not to speak over us if they were spreading this advice around on TikTok and Instagram. Unfortunately, though, that isn’t what gets people’s attention, but rather a signed version of a Billie Eilish track in complete and utter gibberish.
Let’s not forget that deafness is not a one-size-fits-all thing. There’s several levels of deafness and different ways in which we communicate, including Sign Supported English (SSE, which concerns BSL signs used with English grammar) and speech, of course.
It’s as if hearing people are skipping a step. Countless times after telling someone I’m Deaf, they’ll ask if I can lipread or sign BSL, almost like they can mould our conversation to the limited amount of signs they’ve picked up from YouTube, or over-exaggerate their lip movements for us.
Let me be clear: efforts to break down communication barriers for Deaf people like me are greatly appreciated – of course they are. What we need to see now, however, is hearing people beginning a conversation with asking about our communication needs, rather than relying on assumptions.
And I can see why someone might be tempted to do that. It all comes back to a general awkwardness around what we don’t know, the awkwardness around disability which charities like Scope have talked about before. It feels like a much more comfortable approach to take than asking what, to them, feels like a very big question. It may well be, I suspect, why some might be tempted to say ‘never mind’ or ‘it doesn’t matter’ when it comes to inaccessible conversations. Sure, some of it comes down to the fast-paced world we live in, but some of it could well be a result of the sheer, apparent magnitude of having to rephrase a conversation based on communication needs. It can all seem so big, when it really isn’t.
It’s about acceptance alongside awareness, and part of that concerns accepting the different needs of Deaf people. Signature has a new online Deaf Awareness course which looks at this, and members of the Deaf community are, of course, more than happy to help – you only need to ask.