Seen and Not Heard – Until Strictly Come Dancing put the Spotlight on Signing!

Rose Ayling-Ellis’ recent win of Strictly Come Dancing has inspired deaf young people around the UK, as well as sparking an interest in learning Sign Language among hearing fans. In this post, author of Making Sense in Sign, Jenny Froude, welcomes these developments and the positive impact they will have on her own family, as well as a generation of deaf young people. 

Before the Strictly Come Dancing final came the Christmas card from an old schoolfriend whom I seldom see.

“I have thought of you all in the last few weeks. I’ve been glued to Strictly Come Dancing and the beautiful and talented Rose and her partner. They have highlighted the Deaf community. Astounding performance. I’m sure they will win – they certainly deserve to. You too, deserve a great deal of credit for the support and encouragement you have given your son, his wife and family. You must be so proud of all their amazing achievements”.

So, yes, Rose Ayling-Ellis, the darling not only of the dancing world but also the Deaf community, has charmed the team and the viewers and made Sign Language suddenly something to be embraced – watched, learned and, hopefully, used by hearing people as well as by today’s new young deaf generation.

Signing should, like charity, begin at home! My book Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child (2003) which was started when our son Tom was 3 years old and completed when he reached 21, celebrates the infant, deafened by bacterial meningitis at 5 months, who grew up in a hearing family. In responding to USA’s Linguist List deciding that it was only “offering one family’s story so that other parents, teachers, and students can experience one view as they investigate still others on the road to making informed decisions concerning the individual children in their care” a writer of one cover endorsement wrote that his experience had been that “more effective insights are often gained from a personal rather than a text book approach”. And a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) described me in the BATOD (British Association of Teachers of the Deaf) magazine as “the parent you wish you could introduce to the parents of your pupils”.

Despite the time lapse, I like to hope that sentiment is still relevant. Huge developments in technology have taken place and bilateral cochlear implants are available for babies now, but human communication should still take priority, for practical, familial and mental health reasons. Another ToD wrote that, “Jenny describes herself as a ‘lay’ person but she is the expert really; widely informed, from her own experiences but with sound and sensitive appreciation of the D/deaf issues”.

Tom and Alfie – “Where’s my top?”

During the pandemic many hitherto unknown issues have come to the fore. The need for wearing masks has been one of the worst. Following an article in their Magazine on the joys of flirting while wearing a mask, I quickly wrote to The Observer pointing out that eyes alone cannot convey all that a profoundly deaf person needs to know. From a possibly steamy visor, Tom’s wife labouring in summer 2020 would be unable to discern congratulations or concern from just the eyes of an obstetrician, midwife or mother, wearing masks and full PPE, as she gave birth to their third child. I hated the thought of her floundering in such circumstances, when masks made lipreading impossible and words obviously unintelligible. As it happened, after a slow start Alfie proved as anxious as his siblings to arrive speedily and be placed into the arms of his father who had kindly been permitted to attend the third stage. And this baby has been as calm and contented as his adoring sister and brother ever since, enjoying their company during their long lockdown home schooling of his first, somewhat solitary, summer.

Faced first with furlough and then redundancy from the store in which he had worked since it opened 11 years ago when it became one of a number of branch closures, Tom has encountered little in the way of Deaf Awareness. A Job Centre seemed fazed by his needs and he had to rely on his mother-in-law to make contact by phone fortnightly with them whilst he stood beside her and she relayed information. Hardly empowering for a deaf man well able to make contact by email or text, both of which the centre denied him. Job interviews he set up himself took place on Zoom but had to be delayed until an interpreter was available and, having secured employment, there was a delay with Access to Work over which he had no control. A situation unlikely to endear a deaf person seeking work to a possible employer! Thankfully his new colleagues are keen to learn some signs!

While hoping the great British public will not expect all deaf people to dance divinely, any more than they expect them to be as musical as Dame Evelyn Glennie, people in the spotlight do help others to focus on the condition and possibly some of the problems it can sometimes bring in its wake.

From her obvious ability to lipread and with the benefit of some sound from her hearing aids, plus a beautifully clear voice herself, Rose showed her allegiance to the English language and signed what I know as SSE (Sign Supported English), based on signs from BSL (British Sign Language). BSL is a language recognised in its own right since 2003 in this country and those newcomers signing up to classes as a result of Rose may well be initially bemused by the grammar of this living, visual language which was not evident in her speech.

Jenny with her grandchildren

We want our grandchildren to be proud of their parents’ signing skills and if Strictly has drawn attention to signing there is cause for rejoicing! On Christmas morning Tom sent me a little video of 8 year old Daisy, an angel, and 6 year old Oliver, a king, signing a Christmas song in their village church Nativity the previous evening, alongside many young friends doing the same! Signing in a situation like that adds another dimension to the words and to the whole atmosphere (I had been surprised in one of Rose’s interviews when she said that stage musicals had been unknown to her previously. Sign Language Interpreted Performances (SLIPS) are just magical in the right, professional hands and unbelievably captivating to watch). SOLT (Society of London Theatres) regularly produce a free book listing all such performances, plus Captioned, Audio-described and Relaxed ones.

For their parents to not only see the signs but also read the words on a white screen make such memorable events accessible. Daisy, who was fascinated by her own hands at the age of five months, is now astute enough, without ever having been told to do so, to precis important information at the school gate for her mother, and has done so since the age of five when it seems an observant teacher feared it indicated her own sentence structure might be faulty. Her bilingualism at that tender age was obviously not appreciated as her own conversational speech used perfect English! Both she and her brother read well and he astounded me at the age of five when he insisted on reading the first children’s book written by deaf poet Raymond Antrobus, Can Bears Ski? to me, never having seen it before I gave it to him that day! Both children lipspeak and sign sensitively, often unobtrusively, to their parents.

The newest family member has already, at 18 months, a good repertoire of signs and long been endearingly signing “where’s Mummy?” Sign language, as anyone familiar with baby/toddler Tiny Talk groups,  either as a professional or as a parent/grandparent/carer will testify, “jumpstarts” language, be it for hearing or deaf children.  And if in their teen years ours are loath to sign in public I hope by then Rose’s influence will have permeated and publicised signing to such an extent that more and more people will proudly use it. As CODAs (children of deaf adults) ours will appreciate support and deserve all the praise they should get for their skills, gained at such tender ages from the parents they love.

Little did I dream, 40 odd years ago as I embarked on signs with our one-year-old, that I would be so proud to see Tom’s hearing offspring signing to him and his wife. Babysitting his then tiny daughter some years ago, I showed her my book about him. Engrossed, after information overload she briefly fell asleep on my lap, then suddenly woke up and demanded, “and what happened next?”!

I filled in some details for her but the rest is yet to come. For now, she and her siblings hold the future in their hands, just as Tom holds theirs in his.

Jenny Froude

Jenny’s book Making Sense in Sign is available on our website.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in the following titles:

Understanding Deaf Culture by Paddy Ladd

The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages edited by Maartje De Meulder, Joseph J. Murray and Rachel L. McKee

Critical Perspectives on Plurilingualism in Deaf Education edited by Kristin Snoddon and Joanne C. Weber

Get 40% off all our Deaf Studies titles with code DS2022 at the checkout on our website.

Acadeafic: An Academic Platform for Sign Language and Deaf Studies Research

We have recently become a sponsor of Acadeafic, a new academic platform providing blogs and vlogs about sign language and Deaf Studies research. In this post, one of the site’s creators, our author Maartje De Meulder, explains how the idea for the platform came about, what its aims are and what you can expect to find there.

Acadeafic is a deaf-curated multi-author academic platform that allows Deaf Studies and sign language researchers to share their work in a bite-sized format. There is an amazing output of research on Deaf Studies and sign languages (journal articles, books, research projects, dissertations, and more), but as a research community we want to do more to share our work with audiences within and beyond academia, on an open-access basis, and in formats that are easier to digest than full-length academic prose.

All our posts are bilingual, consisting of a blog in English and a vlog in International Sign (or a national signed language). The blogs and vlogs are designed to act as stand-alone pieces and are not necessarily translations from one language to the other. We believe that texts in a written language such as English and in a signed language are often meant for different audiences, and should be produced with this audience design in mind. Therefore, at Acadeafic a written blog can have a slightly different content than a signed video blog, can highlight different issues or examples, and have a different structure or aim. In this way Acadeafic is different from academic peer-reviewed journals such as the Deaf Studies Digital Journal which seeks full-length contributions of original publications in American Sign Language as the primary language of submission, and only accepts English text as a source text to be translated to American Sign Language.

All our submissions go through peer review conducted by a current board of eight reviewers. Since Acadeafic is not an academic journal we do not engage in cutthroat comments from ‘reviewer 2’. Most suggestions are made with the aim of enhancing readability for the blog’s wider audience, although we may also double-check factual accuracy of certain points or ask for links to supporting information. We hold both modalities by the same standards, so vlogs go through review as well. Here, suggestions are made linked to clarity of signing, signing style, specific concepts, etc.

Most of our posts are based on recently published articles or chapters and we also plan to accommodate series of posts based on special issues or edited volumes. We also have posts based on unpublished work such as dissertations, and we are keen to support junior researchers in promoting their work. We offer a space for opinion pieces or blogs related to (doing) Deaf Studies and sign language research, for example working with sign language interpreters, navigating academia as a deaf scholar, research methodology and ethics, organizing writing retreats, and access to academic discourse. Here as well, we are planning a series about and for deaf PhD students, and one about language learning and language biographies.

We are pleased to collaborate with Multilingual Matters on getting this blog out to a wider audience. We are always soliciting contributions so if you want to promote your work, do get in touch!

If you found this interesting, you might like Maartje’s book (co-edited with Joseph J. Murray and Rachel L. McKee) The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages.

Sign Languages are “Real” Languages and it’s Time to Recognise Them

This month we published The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages edited by Maartje De Meulder, Joseph J. Murray and Rachel L. McKee. In this post, and the accompanying video at the end, the editors explain why this book is so important.

With cover art by Deaf artist, Nancy Rourke

Since the 1990s, when Finland and Uganda were the first countries to give their sign languages legal status in law, many countries have followed suit or are still campaigning to achieve recognition of their national sign language(s) in legislation. Until now, these campaigns and their outcomes have remained understudied: why have deaf communities felt that it was necessary to achieve legal status for their sign languages? How does this status relate to that of spoken languages in a specific country? Who was involved in the campaigns? Were there specific strategies used to achieve certain outcomes? Did the legislation have any effect and if so, what kind of effect? Some of these questions have been discussed in separate journal articles or book chapters, but a comprehensive overview and analysis of these laws and campaigns was lacking until now.

Our new book has partly filled this gap. It appears in a context of increasing interest in sign language rights, both among academics and within deaf community discourses. For example, the theme of the upcoming World Federation of the Deaf conference in Paris will be “Sign Language Rights for All”, Norway is preparing a Language Act and draft legislation for Sign Language of the Netherlands will soon be introduced.

The book contains 18 chapters discussing the situation of diverse countries in Europe, USA, South America and Asia. Chapters discuss how countries achieved legal status for sign language, and the state of implementation. This book does not just focus on sign languages; chapter authors discuss the status of the national sign language(s) in relation to laws and policies for spoken languages, and certain ideologies about languages.

While some chapters discuss very recent sign language laws, other chapters look back and assess impact. Other chapters discuss ongoing campaigns. All together, they illustrate the different ways that sign language laws are implemented and managed by governments and deaf communities. For some countries, this book is the first time that the information is available in English.

The campaigns which are the focus of this book were often led by national deaf associations working in partnership with academics in sign language linguistics or Deaf Studies. Since many of these campaigns took place in the past decade, key activists are still involved, and in the book we have actively encouraged academic/community collaborations. All chapters are joint writing efforts of deaf and hearing academics and language activists active in campaigning, researching, or policy work.

The word ‘recognition’ in the book’s title reveals a unique aspect of campaigns for the legal status of sign languages. In most cases it refers to the ‘recognition’ or acknowledgement by governments that sign languages are languages. This concern about sign languages’ status as ‘real’ tends not to occur with other minority languages and is linked to a long history of sign languages being seen as inferior, not ‘real’ languages.

By now, we know that sign languages are languages and the time has come to focus on what it means to effectively recognize those languages and their speakers. This is also the main take-away message of this book: legal status in itself, while often presented as such, is not a panacea. It’s not an end point, but merely a beginning. It is only one part of the bigger picture that alters the status of a language.

We hope this book helps elucidate the process of the legal recognition of sign languages, shows how this is similar or different from other minority language laws, and guides other countries in their campaigns and reflections about future directions.

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Understanding Deaf Culture by Paddy Ladd.

Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child

Next year will mark 15 years since the publication of Jenny Froude’s book Making Sense in Sign: A Lifeline for a Deaf Child, inspired by her profoundly deaf son, Tom. In this post, Jenny updates us on Tom’s story (he is now a father himself!) and reflects on her experience as a parent of a deaf child.

Tom relaxing at home with his family

When my book about my profoundly deaf son (now being reprinted, to order) was launched in 2003, I handed him a copy saying “This is your life Tom – and you can write the sequel”! He rashly agreed, saying and signing that I would have to wait another 20 years! Despite his language in emails being so expressive, I doubt he will be doing that, as he’s too busy working, creating a home and, above all, enjoying his young family with his deaf wife.

It was texts that alerted me to the good news of their births. “It’s baby girl, Daisy Mary Froude … natural birth no drugs used. Both doing well” and, 28 months later “it happened all so fast. So we got beautiful boy Oliver. Came into this world 7.08 p.m.  Not weighted (sic) yet”. I loved his wording;  not a bald “born” but four words that gave more gravity to the event. Both babies were born three weeks early, in a tremendous hurry to arrive, and both passed, as expected, their Newborn Hearing Screening.

In my book, two letters in the Appendix were written by me to Tom, the first when he was barely one year old, the second as he started in secondary school. Were I to write another now, it would be to congratulate him, not only on all he has achieved, but on his skills as a parent. In his own words, he never takes his survival from meningitis at 5 months for granted but, delighting in his new status, said in an anniversary email in August 2013 “bless you for remembering me on this special day that I fought for life. How lucky am I to be here and be a new dad and living my dream!” He had already described, a month earlier, how newborn Daisy “is still bringing joy in our household” and reminded us we didn’t need to be invited to visit. “Time is precious and I want you to enjoy seeing Daisy grow before she gets big”. Later, when his “golden boy” Oliver arrived, he wrote “I love his reactions when he sees me smile back to him. Melts my heart”. Such descriptions must surely be a testimony to his early communication via signing and I shall forever be indebted to the peripatetic teacher who suggested it.

Just as most parents hang on to every one of their infant’s utterances, so I hung on to Tom’s early signs and now I have the joy of watching his hearing children develop their signed and spoken language. The years disappeared as I watched first his daughter (now 4) and then his son (21 months) sign “bird” with baby hands, just as he had done over 30 years ago!

5 month old Daisy still fascinated by her hands late on Christmas night 2013

As a lovingly observant father, it was Tom himself who first noticed that 5-month old Daisy was “getting more fascinated with her hands”. She spent her first Christmas studying them intently at frequent intervals, obviously already aware of what a large part hands played in family life! Poignantly that very day she was exactly the same age as her father had been when near-fatal meningitis struck and robbed him of his hearing.

Oliver, a carbon copy of his dad at the same age, minus the cumbersome bodyworn hearing aid of the early 80s, already has a repertoire of signs and phrases, and babbles beautifully, just as his sister did. I smile as I think back to all those concerned people who asked me “how will they ever learn to speak?”! This sociable little family is surrounded by hearing people of all ages and both love, and are loved by, their part-time nursery school. There have been times, though, when despite both parents’ brilliant lip-reading, an amusing throwaway remark from a toddler has provoked an involuntary laugh from me, and I have looked up to see a quizzical expression on their faces, needing an explanation of my mirth. That can feel painful for both parties…

When Tom was tiny, waiting outside our gate for the school bus, we often met a lady who was fascinated by him because her parents were deaf, which had an enormous influence on her, making her very independent and self-reliant and teaching her tolerance and compassion. She felt she had learnt to understand people, not only through their words but also through interpreting body language, a valuable skill indeed.

I saw this valuable sensitivity manifest in Daisy at 24 months, when she was alerted to the sound of dogs barking. What had been just background noise to me had obviously changed to a frenzied tone which she detected immediately, racing across the garden to fetch her mother, who found a stranger at the door! She also taps her parents to gain attention, lipspeaks with a whisper when occasion calls for it, and signs when making a request or relaying something of interest.

Thanks to their very grounded parents, both youngsters are calm and contented. Oliver’s very infrequent protests seem to be silent ones! After delighting in his first Easter egg hunt his little face said it all as it came to an end. Sorrow and fury combined – but no sound. No howls of rage, just a facial expression to convey his feelings, and all over in a second! How does he know that screams are lost on deaf ears?

Thirty odd years ago I was astounded when a Social Worker with Deaf people was relieved and delighted to find a couple’s newborn baby was deaf. She saw my shock and explained that, had she been hearing, that baby would be destined to grow up having to take responsibility for interpreting for her deaf parents, even in inappropriate circumstances. I cannot imagine our grandchildren ever being burdened with such responsibility but it is interesting to see how, just as their parents are so sensitively attuned to their needs, they seem to adjust to life with the mother and father they obviously adore! It leads to fascinating family dynamics.

In an age now which is more Deaf Aware, people rightly expect access to a fully qualified professional interpreter, especially in legal, medical and educational settings. MP Dawn Butler has made the case for BSL to have legal status as in other countries and, since 2003, it has been recognised here as a language in its own right. And it is reported that University College London will recognise sign language as a foreign language for the first time from September 2017.

Making Sense in Sign has been reviewed by professionals, parents and deaf organisations. A fellow author described its strength as “making the subject accessible to a much wider field than a specialised audience”, a Teacher of the Deaf referred to it as an “inspiration”, seeing language development outside the “narrow confines of the classroom” and concluded “professionals should read this book and refer back to it often”. It has also been seen as a “valuable contribution, long needed in a world that so often presents a negative view of deafness”. Another journalist described it as “moving, instructive, uplifting, funny, thought-provoking and very well written” and a consultant trainer in childcare as “essential reading for care and education professionals, social workers, health visitors and and speech therapists … a moving story which brings the concept of partnership with parents to the fore”. And, yet another, as a “sound and sensitive appreciation of the D/deaf issues: sign, implants”. A mother of a deaf daughter wrote “a book full of hope and exuberant delight in a beloved child”.

I look back down the years with huge gratitude to Series Editor Colin Baker’s insight and apparent appreciation of the personal aspects of my book which were left in and without which I would have felt Tom’s story was compromised. I am gratified that it is read by professionals and students of sign language, and delighted that, as a human story, it is recommended and reaches parents with a deaf child.

Completed, as it was, by Tom’s 21st birthday, my book covered various issues. There are different ones today but parents are still likely to be shell-shocked at an infant’s initial diagnosis at such a vulnerable time. When Tom was deafened as a baby there were 3 specialist social workers in our borough; today there are none. This lack puts added pressure on Teachers of the Deaf who are responsible for ages 0 to 19 years, overseeing audiology and speech and language therapy provision and now social care. Deaf teenagers whose families have never learned to sign are likely to feel isolated at home and those in mainstream can struggle with identity problems. Mental health issues mean that specialist counselling is sorely needed. Good CHSWGS (Children’s Hearing Services Working Groups) bring together all the disciplines which cover hearing loss and can be a forum that benefits all parties, empowering and informing parents.

A poignant “listen” from a deaf man to his hearing son

Via his emails, which have been one of my rewards for all we did to chase language together, Tom has painted a picture of his life today and proved to me that the signs we used have stood him in good stead and given him the power to express his personality. A while ago I had the privilege of signing Bob Chilcott’s beautiful “Can You Hear Me?” in a concert by a local community choir. “My world’s a silent one but it’s enough for me. I hear you through your hands, the movement sets me free. But it would be a special thing to hear your voice, to hear you sing” and it ends with a poignant “can you hear me….?”

My voice is my book. I can hear him through his emails. Both of these are special things.

Jenny Froude

For more information about this book please see our website

Signing and English Language Skills Can Go Hand-In-Hand

Author of  Making Sense in SignJenny Froude writes here about the importance of sign language for deaf children and includes her own experience with her profoundly deaf son Tom, who her book is based on.

This week, nearly 3 decades after he started there, I was back in the Unit (albeit rebuilt and changed beyond recognition) where our youngest son attended nursery school with his deaf peers. Same site, same Teacher of the Deaf and still the same need: Sign Language!

Jenny’s son Tom at his wedding

I was there on an Open Day, to see if the small local charity I represent can assist with some funding for basic, baby signing for new parents. Kate Rowley from the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre gave a presentation on Language Development and Bilingualism. As a deaf daughter of deaf parents, growing up with spoken English and BSL, with both a deaf and hearing child herself and an academic background, she explained the myths and facts about sign language and how language develops.

To some of us there she was reiterating what we had already learned from years of experience but younger parents needed the confidence she could give them. Deaf children are developing English as they learn to sign and by reading with them, using fingerspelling (activated from the same part of the brain) and encouraging them to use correct mouth patterns when signing, even voicelessly, understanding is aided. In an ideal world a deaf child within a hearing family should see them automatically signing amongst themselves, not reserving it for when language is directed specifically at him/her, otherwise they can miss out on the wealth of information hearing children pick up incidentally. (Despite my being acutely aware of this it was not, and still is not, always easy to incorporate in busy family life, especially on social occasions when trying to be hostess/guest/wife/mother and now grandmother! So a minus point for me there then!)

Tom’s wife Mary signing at their wedding

If sign language is reserved solely for the deaf youngster in a hearing environment, he or she can feel it is a less valued communication method, explained Kate, but I hope our son’s slight hiccup in writing an explanation at a young age under his name “proudly found deaf” (instead of “profoundly deaf”) was a significant slip acknowledging his own worth!

Kate concluded by stressing “anything is possible WITH good language skills. Deaf people CAN learn both English and BSL”.  I have only to read newly-married Tom’s emails to appreciate the truth of that. He uses sophisticated words, for which I have no idea of the signs, in the correct context and, as I wrote in my book, when he was starting secondary school “to see you grow up, profoundly deaf, with an abundance of confidence, good humour and concern for others, to see and hear you use language not only for basic needs but to negotiate, to soothe, to tease, to cajole, to question, to predict is a bonus we never dared dream of...” Each thank you card after his wedding was personally written by hand and far, far more than a mere bread-and-butter version!

Tom and Mary’s wedding ceremony with a sign language interpreter

Interestingly both he and his deaf bride elected to make their vows using sign and voice, which proves they embrace both cultures,  and to all those people who confuse speech with language and look at me in disbelief when I say Tom’s language is amazing (although his speech is not clear) I would attribute it to the excellent advice we had from a peripatetic teacher who suggested starting to sign at one year. I hope today’s vulnerable new parents will find in signing the same joy and delight I did.  And, even better, with the vogue for hearing babies to learn signs to “jump start” their language I think any remaining “stigma” (sad though that word makes me feel) some might see in what I consider the lovely method of communication that is a lifeline for some deaf children, could be removed now it is in the mainstream. And, hopefully, that new generation will grow up being fascinated rather than fazed by watching sign language being used, whether by deaf people or interpreters. That has to be a plus!

The biggest stumbling block in the current economic climate would seem to be the prohibitive cost of sign language classes and the lack of specialist social workers with deaf children.  The system is letting them down.

To prevent the angst that is prevalent among some in the older deaf community who feel they were let down years ago by a lack of communication in their hearing families, today’s deaf youngsters (90% of whom are from hearing families) deserve the best we can give them in the way of early communication suited to their needs and hopefully Kate Rowley’s research and presentation (and my book) have suggested the way to go.

For further information about the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre please see their website.

For further information about Jenny’s book please see our website.