Cuts at the Centre for Deaf Studies mean the educational base for many British Sign Language interpreters has been closed off.
By Sarah Ditum
When I was a kid, I used to play at being deaf by covering my ears. Obviously, this was not a very satisfactory approximation of the deaf experience, and I didn’t really have an inkling of what it meant to be deaf until I shared a car with a hearing friend who works as a British Sign Language interpreter and three other BSL speakers.
Everyone made concessions to my limitations and we talked in a mixture of English and BSL. But as the conversation got more animated, whole digressions and throwaway jokes went on, and I could barely have known what I was missing out on. I was tongueless in that car, and I found it stressful and alienating. I realised as I’d never realised before that I’m not entirely sure who I am if I can’t be heard (probably an especially acute complaint for columnists).
Now imagine that you have that same experience of tonguelessness, but instead of sitting in a car with people you know, you’re seriously ill in a hospital bed – and nobody can explain to you what’s happening. As reported in this newspaper, profoundly deaf Elaine Duncan spent 12 days in Ninewells hospital, Dundee. Despite her repeated requests, she was at no time provided with an interpreter: her appendix was removed without anyone discussing her treatment in her first language.
This is nightmarish stuff, and an everyday reality for many deaf people. The charity Signature says there is a national shortage of BSL interpreters, with only 800 registered interpreters serving a population of 25,000 BSL speakers.
Some less sympathetic commenters have suggested that the solution to this is pencil and paper. But BSL isn’t just a hand-wavy rendering of the English that the commenters know: it’s a language in its own right, with its own history and subtleties. If I had, say, a ruptured organ and a raging infection, I would not care to negotiate my treatment in a second language. More sign language interpreters are essential if deaf people are to have full use of the services and society that are rightfully theirs.
The Centre for Deaf Studies (CDS) at Bristol University is currently studying the health of deaf people as part of a national project. While the full results won’t be available until later this year, the preliminary findings make it clear that restricted access to healthcare is leaving deaf people to suffer serious sickness and harm.
But the opportunity to train interpreters is being taken away. Since 1978, the CDS has advanced the study of deafhood – that is, the culture of deaf people, as described in the work of Dr Paddy Ladd, reader in deaf studies at the CDS. Its undergraduate course has provided a vocational foundation for those who wish to become BSL interpreters. In 2010, the university decided to close that course – because, it claimed at the time, of the “current economic climate“. This academic year will be the last cohort to graduate from the CDS. The educational base for many of the UK’s BSL interpreters has been closed off.
That cutback in teaching has been accompanied by an inevitable cutback in staff. Before the closure of the undergraduate programme, the CDS employed 13 deaf academics; now there are only four. In a statement, the university said: “We continue to explore other activities with staff within the centre.” But a former employee of the CDS I spoke to said that the mood within the centre is not positive at all. Most staff have been given notice that their jobs will end by this summer; few expect the CDS to exist as a meaningful site of research and learning beyond this year.
The diminishment of the CDS is a tragedy. Over 35 years, the centre has helped to shift the perception of deaf people from one of lack and pathology, to one that affirms their language and culture. Its work has spread worldwide, as students have taken the knowledge they gained at the CDS to other countries where they have founded further centres for deaf studies. With its demise, there’s a risk that a whole linguistic culture is being allowed to disintegrate, and it’s an outrageous loss – in terms of deaf people being denied communication, and in terms of hearing people shutting ourselves off from the world of the deaf, as I experienced that day on my car journey.