Providing Learning Support for d/Deaf Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Communication and Deafness

The invisible disability

Deafness has been referred to as 'the invisible disability' - d/Deaf people are not easily identified as disabled, showing no outward signs that they are any different. For them communication, not access or mobility, is the key issue. This is most significant in the case of d/Deaf users of British Sign Language (or any other national sign language), for whom both spoken and written language present formidable barriers.

What is British Sign Language (BSL)?

BSL is the first or preferred language of more than 70,000 Deaf people in the United Kingdom. Like sign languages used in other parts of the world, it is a full and complete language in its own right, with its own grammar, vocabulary and syntax, and is totally separate from English. It is:

BSL has been in use amongst the British Deaf community over generations, developing like any other language. It has, however, been under constant attack by those who see it as inferior and would eradicate it. For 100 years, from 1880 to 1980, it was banned in Deaf Schools in the UK and replaced by 'oralism', with pupils forced to speak and lip-read English, which most could neither hear nor understand. Consequently, most profoundly deaf children learned very little of anything.

The status of BSL rose after a damning report on the failure of oralism (Conrad, 1979), with international recognition of the linguistic value of sign languages, and evidence that deaf children learn more effectively through sign language. 95 per cent of deaf children in the UK are now taught in ordinary schools rather than in specialist d/Deaf schools; however, problems of access still arise through:

Consequently, although more young d/Deaf adults now gain university entrance qualifications, many have experienced restricted educational support, and may have difficulties with literacy in their second language, English.

Students from other countries who use sign language will be unable to communicate with BSL users since all sign languages are languages in their own right and differ in the same way that other languages do.

Why do some d/Deaf students use English (or Sign-Supported English [SSE]), and others use BSL?

The younger a student became deaf, the less likely s/he is to use English. Those born deaf have never heard the spoken word: theirs is a visual world, with visual communication. They cannot relate easily to spoken English, and consequently struggle to understand written English.

Those who lost their hearing after they learned to speak (and possibly to read and write) will have less difficulty with English, as it is their first language. They may use Sign Supported English as an aid to communication. SSE is not a language - it is spoken English supported by signs borrowed from BSL.

What is Deaf Culture?

Deaf Culture cannot easily be defined.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock