Scottish-born, Clark Denmark, is now a freelance Deaf lecturer, with an MA in Sign Language and Deaf Studies. He has been at the heart of Deaf Studies and BSL teaching and learning, both nationally and internationally for over 30 years

MY HEART REMAINS IN SCOTLAND

I grew up in Glasgow, Scotland and lived there until I was 17 years old before attending Gallaudet University in America. A few years later, I returned home to Scotland before joining my parents, who had then moved to England. I returned and lived in Scotland until I was 30, before finally moving back to England where I worked at Durham University. Although I still live in England, my heart remains in Scotland. 

GET EVERYONE INTERESTED IN BSL

I grew up in a Deaf family who were already using BSL. I was first approached by the BBC as they wanted to include BSL in their broadcasting and were looking for a tutor. They contacted me and I began to train those who then went on to become teachers themselves – it grew from there. 

This was great because it became easier for hearing people to learn to sign. It could be taught in a variety of contexts such as teaching families, teaching those who work in schools with Deaf children, aspiring interpreters and people who work with deaf people. It could also be used for those working in front line services as a way to communicate with Deaf people. This is the best method to get sign language out there.

Another way is for Deaf people themselves to ask a hearing person if they can sign and if not, why not? 

I get a bit fed up when I see Deaf people say, “Oh I’m deaf, have you got a pen and paper?” like it’s something to be sorry about, or it’s their fault. 

When a Deaf person meets a hearing person, they should say, ‘Hi, can you sign? No? Oh, that’s a shame...’

It gets them to think twice. It puts the onus onto the other person, instead of putting the Deaf person in the position of being felt sorry for. In turn, the numbers of people learning to sign will grow. 

MY VIEW: BSL (SCOTLAND) BILL

I think it’s great. It’s so important! I’d like to congratulate those who have worked hard to get it to where it is especially Lilian Lawson who has been working on this for a long time, under the Scottish Council on Deafness. 

The campaign started around 2007 – 2008 and got slightly sidetracked but is now back on course and seems to be going through which is fantastic. 

We know that the BDA has been running for over 125 years now and was set up when people were concerned about being oppressed. The Milan conference had taken place and there were concerns about the threat to Deaf schools and sign language. 

We, the community, knew this wasn’t right and if we sat back and did nothing we would have submitted to the oppression. That’s why the BDA have fought and campaigned for so long. 

WE NEED TO PROTECT BSL AND MAKE IT LAW

Back in 2003, the government gave a ‘token’ recognition to BSL but it has not been made into law. Before this, there was other legislation in place that said services should be provided in BSL, but there was nothing to say that it was a must. 

It would be dangerous to rely on these pieces of legislation. Why? Because, if a service such as Access to Work that provides for BSL is cut – there is no other legislation to challenge that and stop it from happening. 

The token recognition of BSL in 2003 did not come with any powers to dictate what must be provided. 

The Equality Act of 2010 is good but it does not specifically state anything in relation to the language. 

There is nothing in itself about the language – that’s the risk. 

THE BSL (SCOTLAND) BILL IS ABOUT PROTECTION

Without this Bill, where would the protection be?

The Communication Act of 2003 talks about access to telecommunications and television. It says that services must be provided in Welsh and Gaelic, but there is no mention of BSL. While there is a reference to subtitles under Television, this is not a sign language – and there is only a mandatory provision of just 5 per cent for BSL access. There is evidence to show that some TV broadcasters are pulling out of this and instead just giving their funds to BSLBT to produce programmes in sign language. 

Whilst this is positive, it limits Deaf people’s access to mainstream channels. If this was law – it would 
be much more powerful. This is why it is a must. 

This is about our fundamental human rights. It is the first of its kind to talk specifically about a BSL Act. Scotland have got it right. 

It makes me proud because of my Scottish heritage – but we all have to support and encourage this Bill for our future generations.

WE NEED RECOGNITION FIRST

It is very important to have BSL in education, but we need the recognition of the language first. Once we have that, then we can challenge the decision-makers and say now that we have a recognised language, what about the rights of our Deaf children? 

It won’t work if we focus too heavily on the other issues first without the legislation of the language. That why we need the recognition of the language as a foundation first. Education should be treated in the same way, but that’s the next step. First we need to gain our basic language rights.

IT WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE TO EVERYDAY LIFE

The BSL (Scotland) Bill Facebook page shows how many of us experience difficulties in everyday life. Without rights and a recognised language – these will continue and it’s awful, tragic even. The only way to avoid this is through legislation. 

If the English or Scottish government are worried about the financing or funding they needn’t be because it’s already there. It’s in all the other policies and legislation. 

We now just want validation and recognition of these into one place, one law. We want a clear checklist of BSL services such as employment, education, health and communications. Right now, everything is hidden within other polices or legislation. The majority of people don’t know where the information is, so by having one clear piece of legislation that sets out our rights and language, puts us on par with other languages such as Welsh and Gaelic. 

We need that first. How we do that goes back to sign language. Teaching people to sign and getting sign language out there in the community. That’s how. This is the first step.

• Born and educated in Scotland, Clark was instrumental in helping develop Durham University’s ground-breaking sign language training course, which provided the first formal qualification for teachers of BSL in the UK. 

• Later, whilst Director of Education and Training at the BDA, he was responsible for introducing a number of innovative training opportunities for deaf people. 

• When the University of Bristol’s Centre for Deaf Studies established Britain’s first degree in Deaf Studies in 1992, Clark was a natural choice to join the staff. 

• Over the next 15 years, Clark taught sign language, sign language teaching, deaf history and deaf politics. 

• As a member of the BSL and Deaf Studies team at UCLan, Clark has been a key member of the BSL: QED project, which established the first national curriculum for teaching BSL in universities, as well as various European partnership projects such as Signs2Go.

It was his idea. Invite just one Minister to an Open meeting and put BSL on the map. And it worked, leading to the formation of the Scottish Parliamentary Group on BSL. Now it’s time for a new Act, says Jack Giffen.

“After Scotland was granted home rule in 1999, I as Secretary of the BDA Scottish Regional, arranged for John Munro MSP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West to come to a Rally in Inverness to meet Deaf people. He was impressed with our BSL language that he brought this to the Scottish Parliament, seeking recognition of BSL. But this did not form a Bill at the time and now, sadly, John Munro is deceased. 

“In 2000 I presented a play called A Signer’s Dream, about the past and present and future history of our language. It ran for three nights to both deaf and hearing audiences. Shortly after that, the UK Government (thanks to the efforts of Deaf people in England) recognised the BSL language, but no further progress was made. 

“In Scotland, there are two languages. One is English, which is the standard language taught in all schools. The second is Gaelic, recognised by the Scottish government, but is a “highlanders” language only  taught in North West Schools. In Glasgow, we have a large school staffed by Gaelic teachers. Parents who wish their children to speak Gaelic send them to this school (no English is spoken or written inside the school – only Gaelic). So why then, can’t there be a school for deaf children, using sign language supported by teachers trained in sign language?” 

Published in BDN March 2015 issue