Today is the first ever World Sign Language day, so to honour this I have gathered some information about its development and looked back at the history of British Sign Language (BSL). Worldwide there are approximately 72 million deaf people (World Federation of the Deaf) and there are over 300 forms of sign language, including: International Sign Language, Irish Sign Language, Gay Sign Language, American Sign Language and Australian Sign Language. BSL was only officially declared a language in 2003 and was in fact banned from 1880 after The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf declared that sign language was inferior to Oralism. This continued until the 1970s, with deaf children being discouraged and even punished for signing and forced to learn finger spelling and lip-reading. This attitude only changed when it became clear that this method didn’t produce satisfactory results. Deaf people in Britain were signing as early as the 16th century; however it is thought signing existed before this. Most notable is Alexandra, Princess of Wales (1844-1925), Britain’s best known Deaf Royal, who was taught fingerspelling and attended Deaf services at St. Saviour’s Church, London.
During the 18th century a larger number of people being concentrated in smaller areas and consequently communities of deaf people came together, with this a more standardised form of sign language developed. This explains some of the regional sign discrepancies (e.g. London has its own signs for certain colours such as green and purple). In Paris in 1924 the first Deaflymics (then known as the International Silent Games) took place. For the majority of sports, deaf people are not allowed to compete in the Olympics or Paralympics, as they are able bodied, but do cannot hear the starting gun.
There is currently a movement to educate health workers in simple BSL and to educate deaf people about antibiotics and medication, as there is a big issue with miscommunication between doctors and deaf patients. 65% of people who use BSL as a main language cannot speak English or cannot speak English very well (2011 Census for England and Wales). Up to 50% of deaf people have poor mental health, compared to 25% for the general population. This is because a lot of deaf people feel isolated with only 1 in 10 parents learning sign language to be able to communicate fully with their child (9 in every ten deaf children are born to hearing parents). Additionally, in order for a deaf person to seek counselling or talk to a doctor they require an interpreter, which is a breach of confidentiality.
However, BSL is now becoming more and more topical with documentaries such as The Silent Child highlighting some of the current issues faced by deaf people. Campaigning for a BSL GCSE is underway and there is availability to do Level 1- 6 courses in BSL. Though it has taken over 100 years, societies view on sign language is evolving and now I believe there should be more integration of sign language into schools and public service posts.
To get involved in the deaf community visit: http://bradforddeafcentre.org/