Bristol's Deaf Community Feel Under Siege
Added 20 Sep 2011
Last week, it was announced that Bristol Deaf Centre, which celebrated 125 years of serving the local deaf community just two years ago, will lose £240,000 worth of funding from Bristol city council. This money paid for their core funding, equipment service and special projects. As a result, the centre is faced with closure, with many staff who have worked there for years served with notices of redundancy.
This comes on the back of the University of Bristol's decision a year ago (despite a campaign that gained international support) to cut a key course at the Centre for Deaf Studies. This year, the student intake for the deaf studies BSc course has stopped and as a consequence, by 2013, the number of deaf studies staff - many of whom are deeply skilled, with years of experience in their field, themselves deaf - is set to be cut by more than 75%. This is a groundbreaking, world-renowned research centre that was the first in the UK to undertake sign language research over 30 years ago.
These two cuts to deaf hubs in the city look like being just the start. In December, the future of Bristol's specialist school for deaf children, Elmfield Deaf School, was placed in doubt after Bristol city council launched an informal consultation about whether its pupils could instead attend units in mainstream schools. Crucially, due to many specialist deaf schools closing across the country, the school also serves many children from far outside the city itself. Elmfield has taken new pupils for this year's intake but its future remains in the balance as staff and pupils await a new council review.
Perhaps just one of these decisions to cut or try and cut, particularly in the current climate, wouldn't seem like the end of the world. But when this all happens in one place, you see how a community can feel under siege, with the very psychological and physical landscape of a city for the deaf people who live there seemingly set to irrevocably change. Jobs are about to be lost, or are in the balance. Deaf and hearing people who currently work together in the deaf community wonder whether it's time to move away, or change careers - if they can. Meanwhile, children wonder whether the environment in which they are educated will completely change, just as older deaf people see a place they have known all their lives, received services from and often contributed to, on the edge of extinction.
We're only just beginning to understand how cuts are affecting deaf services nationwide, most starkly in this online map from the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) showing local authority cuts to education services for deaf children. But never before have we seen so many cuts bite in one place, and so quickly.
Bristol's run of cuts and attempted cuts could be an anomaly, a freak series of decisions that happened to land in the same place at the same time. But there's fear now within the deaf world that it may instead be just be the start. Deafness at its heart affects communication. Are cuts to deaf services seen as an easier cut, when they hit people who use sign language or lipread to communicate, and, as a consequence, may be perceived as being less likely to be able to articulate their concerns to the media and the wider world? As we see services, jobs, places and institutions come under threat and disappear, very few deaf people both in Bristol and elsewhere can now hope to escape the impact of the cuts unscathed.