What is my PhD thesis about?
Can the official recognition of sign language offer a solution to the apparent conflict between disability law and Deaf identity, and if so, how?
It is well documented that the British Deaf community, led by the British Deaf Association (BDA) and Spit the Dummy Facebook group, among others, are collectively campaigning for a British Sign Language (BSL) Act, to formally enshrine the rights of Deaf1 BSL users to receive an education in BSL and access services in their own language.
What I’m interested in is historically, how has the Deaf community reconciled itself with the fact that in order to ‘benefit’ from things like free bus passes, disabled railcards, Disability Living Allowance and other benefits, Disabled Student Allowance, Access to Work etc. (disability laws2) they have or have had to accept the label “disabled”, seemingly anathema to the Deaf identity3.
Also, if sign language recognition is achieved, is the Deaf community prepared to forgo the disability ‘benefits’ they have ‘enjoyed’ for years? Will Deaf individuals be prepared to give up their DLA for the recognition of their language? Or are those ‘benefits’ must haves? Is it possible to have both?
Deaf or disabled?
Traditionally, both disability and deafness have been understood among many people in the UK as primarily medical conditions or illnesses which need to be cured (the medical model), with a shifting focus toward the social model which argues that it is social inequalities that are disabling4.
Although the social model of disability appears to be more favourable than the medical, it still fails to accurately describe the situation of the Deaf community who face a dilemma with regard to the disability laws of the UK because:
“to be Deaf is not a disability in Deaf culture, and most members of the Deaf community see no disability in their way of being. To give up their legal rights would be self-defeating; to demand them under disability law seems like hypocrisy and undermines the Deaf agenda, which aims for acceptance of sign language and Deaf culture”5.
As a potential solution to this conflict, Ladd argues for a new perspective on deafness that he defines as the culturo-linguistic model. Rather than seeing the Deaf community as a disabled group, or as a language minority, Ladd argues that Deaf people are a distinct group which cannot be categorised alongside disabled people or linguistic minorities, but only in their own terms as Deaf people6. What distinguishes the Deaf community as a distinct group is what Ladd terms as ‘Deafhood’7, and the fact that Deaf people use a different language distinguishes them considerably from disabled people in terms of their cultural framework for life as well as the way they interpret the world8.
How would sign language recognition help?
The BDA believes that achieving legal status for BSL as a minority language in the UK – on a par with Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, and Cornish – will give Deaf BSL users the right to challenge organisations that don’t provide BSL as part of their services9. In its response to the Consultation on the Proposed British Sign Language Bill in Scotland, the BDA stated that current legislation has failed to address the issues of:-
- Deaf children failing to achieve the expected levels for Key Stage 2 English and Maths as recently as 2011;
- The attainment gap between Deaf children and hearing children with no special needs is 43%;
- Deaf children of hearing parents have a higher number of referrals (almost double) for mental health issues than Deaf children of Deaf parents;
- Deaf people are denied language and communication access across services;
- Deaf people have problems when they go to the hospital or GP10;
and that a BSL Act will go some way in addressing these issues.
Batterbury argues that in the UK, the UNCRPD is currently the most progressive legal instrument supporting the emergence of sign language policy11, although she recognises that there are potential issues due to the fact that the UN’s requirement for national sign language recognition is enshrined in a disability treaty, at odds with the Deaf identity.
As well as a traditional examination of relevant UK, European and international law in respect of disability laws and sign language recognition, and a literature review of what being Deaf means and what the Deaf identity is, I will also carry out a comparative analysis of 3 other jurisdictions (New Zealand12, Canada13 and the USA14) for comparative purposes, to determine whether a resolution between disability laws and the Deaf identity has been achieved.
By looking at current UK legislation, I will be identifying what exactly are the “disability laws” in the UK and how Deaf people fit in with their respective definitions of disability, and how this sits with the Deaf identity, and compare this position with the New Zealand, Canadian and American jurisdictions. Following on from that, there will an examination of the impact of sign language recognition (or lack of it) has in those jurisdictions, and what the likely effects of such recognition happening in the UK are; at the same time exploring how sign language recognition can be achieved in the UK.
I anticipate that this thesis will be completed in the 2018/2019 academic year, and I will publish my findings and interim reports in the meantime, so watch this space.
- “Deaf” with a capital “D” refers to those born Deaf or deafened in early (sometimes late) childhood, for whom the sign languages, communities and cultures of the Deaf collective represents their primary experience and allegiance, many of whom perceive their experience as essentially akin to other language minorities, Ladd, P, “Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood”, 2003, Multilingual Matters Ltd, xvii
- The term ‘disability laws’ here is used to refer to all legislation currently in force in the UK that affords Deaf people a benefit, a protection or a prohibition, such as the Equality Act 2010, Welfare Reform Act 2012, Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 and Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, and to their equivalent in other jurisdictions.
- Kannapell considers that the issue of Deaf identity is extremely complicated and argues that the definition of cultural identity among Deaf people should be based on how Deaf people view themselves in terms of language identity, personal identity, and social identity (Kannapell, B, ‘Deaf Identity: An American Perspective’, in Erting, CJ, ‘The Deaf Way: Perspectives from the International Conference on Deaf Culture’, 1994, Gallaudet University Press, 45). At its most basic level, it is considered to be the ‘centre’ or ‘core’ of a Deaf person; a different ‘centre’ than that of hearing people, where sign language use and not relying on sound is the norm, not the deviation (Dirksen, H, and Bauman, L, eds., “Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking”, 2008, University of Minnesota Press, 10).
- UPIAS, Fundamental Principles of Disability, 1976, 3–4
- Lane, H et al, “A Journey into the Deaf-World”, DawnSignPress, 1996, 232
- ibid. 15-17
- “A process by which Deaf individuals come to actualise their Deaf identity”, ibid. xviii
- Morris, W, “Theology without Words”, 2008, Ashgate, p 13
- ibid. 1
- Batterbury, SCE, ‘Language justice for Sign Language Peoples: the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Lang Policy (2012) 11:253–272, 254
- New Zealand Sign Language has been officially recognised in the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. I aim to examine what the impact of official sign language recognition has been on the Deaf identity and Deaf people’s disability status in New Zealand
- The rights of Deaf people to interpreters are enshrined in Canadian law, so what then the Deaf identity and disability status of Deaf people?
- The Deaf identity is seen to be at its strongest in the USA, and yet American Sign Language is not recognised as an official language. The Americans with Disabilities Act is seen by many to be the definitive law for disabled people, so what has been the impact on the Deaf identity?