What Signing Means to Me by Ann Jillings

If I could choose one moment which encapsulates what sign language means to me, it would be the BSL Rally in Parliament Square on the 28th of January 2022, when my son, Daniel addressed the deaf audience gathered there in support of the second reading of the BSL Bill. It was a proud and emotional moment for me to watch him sign so passionately about the rights of British Sign Language users, in the company of the many respected Deaf role models we had the privilege to meet that day. At the time I reflected on how far we had come since the moment when the ENT consultant told us that our baby was deaf. It had all been couched in sad terms and I remember the many worries about what the future might hold; how much differently would I have felt at that moment if I had known that this is where he would be almost 16 years later; an empowered and enthusiastic campaigner with pride in his deaf identity.


Often people describe such experiences as a journey, if this has been our journey, then I would say that British Sign Language has been our ticket, our passport, and our currency to get us to where we are today.


Once we knew Daniel was deaf, we researched the available choices and communication options; as parents we just wanted the best for him and that meant ensuring he had language no matter what mode that would eventually be. From the start we decided we would use total communication and a language aide (a deaf lady who visited us at home) supported us to learn basic BSL as a family, and then I had funding to achieve BSL Level 1, thanks to support from our amazing Teacher of the Deaf. When Daniel was 18 months old, we learned that he had no cochleae and therefore no access to speech sounds and at that point it was clear that BSL would be his first language. Although I will be honest that this seemed daunting at first, it was encouraging that Daniel was already using sign language because we had learned to sign from the start. The key challenge was to keep growing in fluency so that we would always have full communication with him and to support his own language development. And so started years of courses and study, often travelling to centres much further away to progress to the level of fluency needed so that I could have the same conversations with Daniel as I have with his hearing brothers. We have also had to advocate for Daniel to ensure that he had highly skilled communication support in school from fluent signers, and although both have been challenging both personally and financially, this is the best investment we ever could have made for Daniel. I have had the privilege of learning from experienced Deaf tutors over this time and through them and Daniel, I have gained so much more than a language, BSL is rooted in culture, community, and identity.


Nothing warms my heart more than when we go to Deaf events and I see Daniel animatedly signing, part of a community and in his element. Sign language means that I am not on the outside looking in, but instead I have always felt a warm embrace of welcome with him, able to be part of those events and with a deeper understanding about why pride in his deaf identity is so important.


It is through sign language and his deep sense of deaf identity that Daniel has become empowered to fight for change and in particular the development of a BSL GCSE. We always hoped that the GCSE would strengthen the status of BSL and help pave the way for a BSL Act, ironically, it looks like it will turn out to be the other way round!


As a parent I hope that the BSL Act 2022 brings about far more for deaf children than just the option of a GCSE. I hope that in the longer term, it will ensure that parents of deaf children are offered the funding and support they need to learn BSL at the level of fluency that their child deserves and also to ensure standards so that every deaf child has high level BSL support in school; access to the curriculum is only as good as the fluency of the person signing the lessons.


I hope that in years to come the BSL Act’s legacy will be parents and deaf children being able to express, “this is what sign language means to me.”



(Please note: This blog has been written by an independent author not associated with Signature, any and all views expressed are that of the independent author who does speak on Signature’s behalf.)

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