40 years ago in the early 1970s, all Deaf organisations in the UK were led by hearing people, BSL was dismissed as a slow method of communication and the right to access information and services in the language was barely a campaigning issue. There were no professional interpreters and BSL users relied on family members and social workers to facilitate communication. Most Deaf people were confined to employment where communication wasn’t key. And there were no subtitles on TV. A lot has changed since then. Penny Beschizza, Jen Dodds and Andrew Don look at some of the campaigns which contributed to this transformation

PUTTING BSL INTO THE TV LIMELIGHT

Demanding a TV programme made in BSL at a time when it was barely acknowledged as a language was a bold move. But the National Union of the Deaf was bold from the day Paddy Ladd and Raymond Lee set up in London in March 1976. It promoted the use of total communication in schools and spoke about sign language in terms of human rights, radical at the time. It also demanded TV access including programmes in BSL - to make their point, it delivered a broken TV set to 10 Downing Street. The NUD won funding to produce Signs of Life, the first programme for Deaf audiences and a forerunner of See Hear which was commissioned by the BBC a year later and continues to run to this day. BDA chair and former See Hear editor Terry Riley says about the NUD: “I will always be grateful to them for their drive, passion and militancy. Without them we would not have the access to TV that we have now.”

DEAF PRESIDENT NOW

Across the ocean, the Deaf President Now campaign erupted in response to frustration that Gallaudet had never had a Deaf president in its 120-year history. When in 1987 Gallaudet’s president Dr Jeremy Lee announced he would be departing this sparked off a campaign, described by its leaders as a civil rights movement, for a Deaf president. It gathered support from Deaf organisations, staff, the student body, a number of senators – even veteran civil rights activist Jesse Jackson backed it. 

Then the Board of Trustees announced that the presidency had gone to a hearing woman, Elisabeth Zinser, on 1 March 1988, leaving students and staff furious. Over the course of a week, this anger escalated into a full scale organised protest, with students boycotting lectures, attending rallies across campus and marching on Capitol Hill. Deaf students from all over the US joined them as the week progressed. This caught the attention of national media and protest leaders were interviewed on Good Morning America and other news programmes. Zinser resigned and Dr. I. King Jordan was named the eighth president – and the first Deaf president – of Gallaudet University. The protestors had made their demands – and won. Greg Hlibok, one of the DPN leaders was named ABC Person of the Week and the US was introduced via the media to an emerging generation of well-educated Deaf people who wanted to lead themselves. Since then, all Gallaudet’s presidents have been Deaf – showing the long-lasting effect of the DPN movement.

Briton Joanne Swinbourne went to Gallaudet in 1989 and remembers “the overriding feeling of Deaf empowerment, Deaf rights and ‘we can do anything but hear’ attitude”: “The TVs around [campus] were showing newsreels and documentaries on the DPN week, so there was a real sense of pride in what they achieved. They were really proud of having I. King Jordan as president too. I came away feeling I too can achieve.”

OPENING UP TV TO DEAF AUDIENCES

In 1980, Deaf Broadcasting Campaign was set up by the BDA and the National Union of the Deaf to campaign for TV access for Deaf viewers. The group renamed itself as the Deaf Broadcasting Council (DBC) after major TV access legislation was passed in the early 1990s. In its quarter century, the group held regional groups and annual open forums where Deaf people could talk about the kind of access they wanted and feedback on the quality of subtitles – this feedback was channelled by the DBC to all broadcasters. 

The DBC worked with Deaf organisations to help them develop their own broadcast policies. It also lobbied the government – when the bills which led to the Broadcasting Act 1996 and the Communications Act 2003 were brought in, neither had any mention of reasonable adjustments for d/Deaf viewers. The DBC was instrumental in ensuring consistent Deaf viewer representation as these bills were discussed and the subsequent Acts would oblige broadcasters to subtitle a certain proportion of its content plus provide BSL access. 

Two key trustees, Austin Reeves and Ruth Myers, were awarded MBEs for their sterling work in broadcasting access issues.

DISABILITY MOVEMENT

While the Deaf BSL community has traditionally seen itself as a linguistic and cultural minority, a movement led by disabled people in the 1970s and 1980s benefited Deaf people. 

Deaf people had a Deaf-led association in the British Deaf and Dumb Association as early as the 1890s but, by the 1970s, hearing people had been at the helm for a long time and many of the services for Deaf people were mission- or social worker-led. The idea of a right to communication access didn’t exist. So when disabled people, spurred on by the liberal thinking and progressiveness of the 1960s, came together to agitate for a move away from a charity mindset and towards a model in which they would enjoy the same freedom, choice and control over their own lives as the rest of society, Deaf people were set to benefit from any subsequent changes. 

The disabled people’s movement was made up of several groups but one, called the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) who began to campaign for the inclusion of disabled people into mainstream society, had a big influence on the tone of the campaign – it wrote a paper called Fundamental Principles of Disability, which challenged the idea of disabled people as helpless and set out what is now called the social model of disability in which they would work and live independently. The changes in attitude towards disability at government level instigated by these campaigners played a big role in the introduction of Access to Work – which has changed the working lives of Deaf people – in 1994 and the Disability Discrimination Act a year later.

THE BSL MARCHES

The Federation of Deaf People (FDP), set up in 1997 by Doug Alker, brought together Deaf activists who were frustrated that, nearly 10 years after the European Parliament passed a resolution on sign languages in 1988, BSL still had not been recognised. When nothing had happened by 1999, the FDP decided it was time to take action. They would organise a march for BSL recognition. 

Much to the FDP’s surprise, 4,000 people turned up to the first march in June 1999. Together, they marched from Temple Place to Trafalgar Square in London, handing in a petition containing 32,000 names to 10 Downing Street on the way. The FDP then went on to organise three more national BSL recognition marches, their biggest bringing together nearly 10,000 marchers in Trafalgar Square in July 2000. News coverage of the marches raised the profile of BSL in the mainstream media. 

Several local BSL marches were also held from 2000-2003 in various places around the UK including Bristol, Birmingham, Preston, Derby, Nottingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Brighton and Newcastle.

In a parallel development, some Deaf activists who felt more direct action was needed set up the Deaf Liberation Front (DLF) in 2001. Amongst other things, they set up roadblocks after some of the marches, aiming to get extra media attention. After one march in Wolverhampton, six members of the DLF (five Deaf and one hearing) blocked a road and were arrested, becoming the first Deaf people to be arrested for political activity linked to Deaf issues. 

Four years after the first march, the government recognised BSL as a language in its own right on 18 March 2003. Campaigners who had hoped this recognition would lead to real change later became disillusioned at its lack of teeth and are now pressing for legal recognition. 

But Jen Dodds who was in the FDP and involved in organising the marches says: “The BSL marches showed the Government that many thousands of Deaf people and our allies really wanted BSL to be recognised and we were actually prepared to do something about it. They also had a great impact on the Deaf community, making many of us feel more confident, aware of our rights and active.”

Published in BDN August 2015 issue