Guest Blog: Why we need to see more of British Sign Language in theatres

By Paula Garfield , Artistic Director of Deafinitely Theatre

Last week was Deaf Awareness Week as well as Mental Health Awareness week and it seems fitting to me that these two issues were acknowledged in the same calendar week as they are linked. Deaf people are twice as likely to experience mental health issues compared to their hearing peers . There are many reasons for this but a huge one, for me, is all about language and communication. 90% of deaf children are born in to hearing families who have little or no experience of deafness and so many of them grow up in families where they feel different, excluded and not part of the communication happening around them.

Add on to this that the use of British Sign Language (BSL) was banned in education from the 1880 Milan Congress of Deaf Education and many of the attitudes from that time are still present today. There is an emphasis on a deaf child’s ability to speak and hear. Many people think if a deaf child speaks well it is a reflection of their increased academic ability and these are attitudes that we need to change. BSL is a language in its own right and those people who use it are just as knowledgeable and intelligent as those who communicate through English or any other language.

Access to language and communication is one of the reasons that I co-founded Deafinitely Theatre in 2002 after working as an actress prior to that. I often found myself as the one sole deaf person in a mainstream cast and often the use of BSL in the play was brief or not explored as fully as it could be. It’s vitally important for people to realise that BSL is a language with a different grammatical structure to English. It is not word-for-sign and can’t be learnt to a fluent level in a few weeks. Imagine you were learning Japanese and had just 3 weeks to look, sound and behave like a native Japanese speaker – it wouldn’t work and unfortunately often doesn’t work in some productions that use BSL within them.

Deafinitely Theatre’s number one aim is to put on bilingual productions in BSL and English but that put BSL at the centre of the stage and not on the side or as an after-thought. Since 2002, we’ve done a main production each year and expanded our work to include a Youth Theatre, an Adult Training scheme and also a family show. All of these strands of work put BSL and deaf people at the centre. Deaf people are the leaders as they are the ones who understand the experience and culture of deaf people. They know automatically the inherent visual nature of BSL and deaf people’s natural communication.

Theatre is a powerful educational tool and something that we can use to challenge these misconceptions about deaf people’s academic ability. I hope that an audience leaves one of our productions having their minds opened to all kinds of possibilities. As Dr I King Jordan (the first deaf president of Gallaudet University of the Deaf in Washington DC) once said – “Deaf people can do anything except hear.” I want a young deaf person to watch our productions and be inspired that they can do anything and I want hearing audience members to re-evaluate the status that is placed on deaf people speaking. As long as deaf people have a language (BSL, English or whatever) then they will have communication and that’s the key.

We at Deafinitely Theatre have also started providing consultancy work to mainstream companies on casting deaf actors, working with deaf actors, translating English scripts in to BSL as well as marketing/promotion to a deaf audience. We also lead bespoke workshops in Deaf Awareness and a variety of areas and I am pleased to see this work growing and us getting out in to the mainstream.

If you’re considering working with deaf BSL-using perfomers or widening your deaf audience, please do consider getting in touch. Make sure it’s a production that lends itself well to including the use of BSL and that you do it wholeheartedly and with artistic purpose, not just as a tokenistic attempt to tick an access box.

My aim, in the not too distant future, is to see more deaf people on stage and also behind the scenes working in roles where they can lead the creative vision of a production so that it fully embraces the language, culture and experience of deaf people. BSL is a beautiful visual, gestural language and now the 4th official language of the UK . Embrace it, use it, treat it with respect and work with those who are fluent users of it to enhance your productions for as wide an audience as possible.

Good luck on your BSL journeys!

SignHealth – 2018 - https://www.signhealth.org.uk/about-deafness/mental-health/

National Deaf Children’s Society – 2018 - http://www.ndcs.org.uk/aboutus/aboutthenationaldeafchildrenssociety/index.html

Dr I King Jordan – interview – 1988 https://www.washingtonian.com/2006/03/01/gallaudet-university-interview-with-former-president-i-king-jordan/

BSL was recognised by the UK Government on the 18th March 2003 - http://old-bda.org.uk/WhatWeDo/BSL_History