A phrase that Paddy Ladd used in his recent BSL Zone Close Up interviews with Tessa Padden has really resonated with me this past week: “Deaf must”.
Paddy was referring to that in the context of discussing his close friend and mentor, Dorothy Miles’ death. He was originally reluctant to discuss the impact her death had on him, but then blurted out “Deaf must”, and proceeded to answer Tessa’s question. This had a rather profound effect on me, as it has for the first time put a ‘label’ on this obligation towards the Deaf community I feel.
Paddy is a man renowned around the world for coining the phrase ‘Deafhood’ and explaining once and for all what Deaf culture is, its historical significance, how it was manifested in twentieth century Britain, and how it is a seed that is planted in every deaf, hard of hearing and deafened person, waiting for the opportunity just to grow, usually by way of getting involved in the Deaf community and immersing oneself in all the delights (and imperfections) it has to offer.
It was plain to see that Paddy feels that he has a moral responsibility to use the privileges that he has had bestowed upon him throughout his academic career for the benefit of the Deaf community. That included telling us all about his love and respect for Dorothy Miles and his devastation at her death.
This got me thinking about what “Deaf must” means, and to reflect on why it resonated with me. The answer is simple. As one of the very few, if not the only, Deaf BSL solicitors in the UK, I am fully aware that I am very privileged to have managed to attain the status I have. The fact that there is a Deaf BSL solicitor at all must give hope to members of the Deaf community to believe that “I can”. I am mindful that it was the Deaf community who gave me my big break, as it was the Deaf community who allowed me the opportunity to hone the legal skills that I developed at university, allowed me to represent them in all manner of cases. Without the Deaf community, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
This in turn means that I often feel the weight of the Deaf community’s legal needs. When Deaf individuals need legal advice, often the first person that will come to mind, or is suggested to them, is me. Most Deaf people can’t afford legal advice, which means that pro bono legal advice services are all the more important.
With privilege comes a responsibility to give back to the Deaf community
To summarise my obligations to the Deaf community, I must:
- Be available to take on any Deaf individuals’ cases;
- Practise as many areas of law as possible;
- Be willing to provide legal advice on a pro bono basis or for a nominal fee;
- Use cases to establish legal precedents to benefit the Deaf community as a whole; and
- Refer Deaf individuals to other legal advice providers able to provide their services in BSL.
When I was working for the Royal Association for Deaf people (RAD), it was more than possible for me to comply with my obligations. When I left RAD and became a consultant solicitor for Setfords Solicitors, I was still able to meet my obligations, although as a consultant, I wasn’t able to provide legal advice pro bono for insurance purposes, which meant that clients had to pay for my services.
In July 2014, however, I joined academia as a lecturer in legal practice at the University of South Wales and started a PhD. This meant that the time I had to deal with casework became very limited, compounded by the fact that I have recently made the decision to cease the consultancy work and focus on my career in academia.
This means that I am no longer readily available to give legal advice to members of the Deaf community who need that advice in BSL. We all know that there are no legal advice services dedicated to Deaf people in the UK (see this post on Limping Chicken), which makes my decision all the more harder.
There is a silver lining, however. As part of my lecturing role at the University of South Wales, I am also one of the University’s Legal Advice Clinic supervisors. Deaf people can self-refer themselves to this clinic for free legal advice, and will be advised by our students under the supervision of a team of solicitors. Plans for a new Deaf Legal Project are underway, and a new website, Deaf Law UK, stemming from this idea that “Deaf must”.
To conclude, although my personal career has veered into the world of academia, I still very much feel that I have an obligation to the Deaf community to provide much-needed legal advice services, utilising the privilege that I have been afforded. Just to be clear, I am not resentful. It is simply a case of “Deaf must”, and I consider it a honour to be in this position.