Why everyone benefits when more staff are trained in BSL

Every person who learns British Sign Language adds to the experience of the Deaf community and the inclusive culture of their college

Every person who learns British Sign Language adds to the experience of the Deaf community and the inclusive culture of their college

22 Jan 2024, 5:00

I began working as a British Sign Language (BSL) teacher at City Lit in 2018. My learners encompass a wonderfully diverse range of adults from 18 to 60. Each has their own motivation for learning BSL. For some, it’s work or fun. Often, it’s because they have people in their lives whom they wish to empower and support.

Learning BSL can be beneficial for a range of reasons – and you don’t need to know someone personally who is Deaf to start. Every learner who becomes a skilled signer has a positive impact on those they communicate with, and on the wider Deaf community. When you learn BSL, you are discovering not just language and linguistics but a whole culture. This is the rich history of a minority who have fought for equality and access – a history full of oppression, but also solidarity.

It’s important to know that history, because Deaf people today are still affected by it. I didn’t have access to signed education until the age of 17. I learned Sign Support English (SSE) from the wonderful CSW (Communication Support Work) at City Lit while I was studying design and art foundation at Southwark College.

I grew up at a time when oralism was still the norm. This culture came from the shadow of the 1880 Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf, held in Milan and notorious for recommending that sign language be banned. For much of the 20th century up until the 1990s, schools promoted oralism rather than bilingualism in Deaf education. Only in 2003, after Deaf people had been campaigning for years, was BSL officially recognised by the British Government. It wasn’t until 2010 that the motions passed in Milan in 1880 were rejected in Vancouver at the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf.

Actively encouraging staff in FE to learn BSL challenges this history. And colleges have so much to gain: everyone benefits when more staff receive training in BSL rather than rely on a sign language interpreter to engage with Deaf students. Teachers are better equipped to foster a welcoming environment and more aware of the needs of their learners, which can help reaffirm inclusive teaching practices. This is also an opportunity for integration with Deaf culture and a springboard for learning experiences that enrich the whole college community.

I grew up at a time when oralism was still the norm

Experiencing Deaf culture is imperative to breaking down barriers and creating allies for my community. I encourage my students to attend events: last year, for example, I took some of my learners to the BSL rally to experience first-hand the Deaf community coming together. It’s important to me remain tightly woven into that community. In 2014, I started the ‘BSL News’ Facebook group to provide social media content in BSL on current affairs and Deaf news. We regularly film ourselves explaining what’s going on in the world, giving Deaf people the opportunity to access information and ask further questions. The group, now with 7,000 members, has gone on to cover Covid news, election information, and cost-of-living advice.

On Saturday 13 April, I look forward to taking part in Deaf Day, City Lit’s annual event for the Deaf community. Now in its 26th year, Deaf Day is a free annual one-day event at City Lit celebrating Deaf culture. It is an opportunity for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to get together, socialise and celebrate Deaf provision and the Deaf community – increasing our social impact and strengthening the community. This has been part of City Lit’s ethos since its early days; some of its first courses in 1919 were lip-reading courses for deafened soldiers returning from WW1.

As a new learner ambassador for Learning and Work Institute, I’m passionate about advocating for the transformative effects of lifelong learning. For me, that extends to colleagues too. Everyone benefits from the culture of learning and openness we create in our colleges. Let’s make BSL integral to it everywhere.

Emma Iliffe won the tutor award at the Festival of Learning 2023. Nominations for this year’s awards are open until 2 February. Access them here

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