Let your fingers do the talking

Most of us will become deaf in old age. Why don't we all learn to sign, asks Claire Pasmore
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's official: deaf people are meant to have fun. The House of Lords last week ruled that 22-year-old Rebecca Halliday was entitled to an increase in her disability benefit, to help her to have a proper social life.

Ms Halliday, who is profoundly deaf, had argued that she needed a sign language interpreter when going to the theatre, travelling by train or meeting friends. Lord Slynn of Hadley, giving the main judgment in the House of Lords, said that it was not unreasonable for a severely disabled person to expect to mix with others and to take part in recreational and cultural activities.

This was good news for Ms Halliday, and for the 3,000 severely disabled people who are receiving the higher rate Disability Living Allowance of pounds 33.10, rather than the basic rate of pounds 13.15, following her earlier Appeal Court victory. Officials in the Department of Social Security, on the other hand, must be wondering whether there will now be a rush of cases from people wanting to test what is meant by a reasonable level of social activity. What next: blind people wanting the chance to go skiing? Wheelchair users who want to learn the marimba?

You don't need to be Gordon Brown, or a let-them-stand-on-their-own-two- feet-even-if-they're-in-a-wheelchair ranter in the Daily Mail, to wonder whether giving Becky Halliday higher benefit is the best response to her perfectly real difficulties. If she thinks pounds 20 a week is going to change her social life, either her expectations are pitifully meagre, or sign language interpreters are appallingly paid.

There are an estimated 8.4 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the UK. The idea that they should all trail through railway stations and to meetings with an extra person in tow is absurd (and impracticable: there are fewer than 100 qualified interpreters in the country). Rather than seeking individual, private solutions, this is an area in which a public, collective response might be more effective. And what more collective than for everyone to learn sign language?

It's not such a wild idea. A few years ago many would have scoffed at the suggestion of wheelchair ramps in every new public building. Signing could be taught in schools - in one Middlesbrough primary, for the past year, it has been. A teacher whose first language is British Sign has been at St Thomas More primary school, teaching the national curriculum to five-year-olds for two days a week, for part of which they have also been joined by six pupils from the local deaf school. The experiment was such a success - in terms of the hearing children's enthusiasm and progress, the deaf children's integration, and changed attitudes - that six schools in Birmingham backed by the local education authority, are now seeking to develop it further.

Kathy Robinson, the writer and educationalist who instigated the project, says the children developed many of their own signs, using mime, gesture and facial expressions. "Sign is language in action," she says: it develops awareness of English and general ability to communicate. The children didn't find it too difficult: many signs are intuitive (a hand up as if to say "Hi!" for hello, thumbs up for good). The hearing friends of deaf children often pick up sign vocabulary and grammar without formal instruction.

Children are naturally fascinated by non-verbal forms of communication, by codes and signs. Deaf language has its own, direct, and, to children, comically un-PC quirks and idioms, so that a person might be known as Big Nose or Baldie. Which is not to say that there are no difficulties. Not all deaf people use British Sign Language: David Bower, the actor who plays Hugh Grant's deaf brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral, for example, uses Sign-Supported English. Even so, if the majority of the population could only finger spell, deaf people would be an awful lot less isolated.

More than half - 54 per cent - of people over 60 are hard of hearing. By the age of 70, 75 per cent are suffering from hearing loss to such an extent that they are prevented from functioning as they would wish. To have learnt sign language as children and practised intermittently thereafter would enhance the quality of life in old age. It would mean less shouting, and less dismissal of the elderly as out of touch or stupid when all they really are is deaf.

Interpreters would still be necessary for conferences, meetings, and some job interviews. They would have to study (as for any foreign language) for between three and five years. But Jeff McWhinney, chief executive of the British Deaf Association, estimates that the average person can achieve basic competency in 30 to 60 hours. And nothing can replace one- to-one contact. "If GPs, for example, could sign, it would hugely improve deaf people's access to services."

There would also be incalculable benefits in terms of improved attitudes. Kathy Robinson, whose "dream is that all primary school children will one day learn to sign", says the Middlesbrough children originally believed "hearing was better than deaf". They thought deaf people couldn't speak, and consequently couldn't do the same jobs. By the time they had learnt BSL, they believed deaf and hearing people were the same; that deaf people used their hands instead of their voices; that they were capable of discussing anything and doing the same jobs. This matters, because deaf children do less well at school than their hearing counterparts, are twice as likely to be unemployed, and 50 per cent more likely to be in manual jobs.

Interest in signing is already on the increase, with an estimated 17,000 people taking sign language training in the past year - though enthusiasm tends to be concentrated in multicultural areas, where there is more general awareness of other languages and cultures. There is, however, no doubt that more could be done. Ninety per cent of parents of deaf children can hear, and many of them are slow to appreciate that visual communication is their children's best route to success. Deaf pre-school children are cut off from much television, which could be an invaluable learning tool. While the Broadcasting Act has provided for half of all programmes to be subtitled by 1998, this is no use to non-reading under-fives.

No one would begrudge Becky Halliday her pounds 20 a week, especially in the absence of any other sort of action. But a little money here and there to individuals is not an imaginative response to the isolation of 8.4 million people. Their integration is not, in the end, a financial question, but one of human rights.