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British deaf culture and history

  • Name
    Dorothy Hardy
    COG-MHEAR Research Programme Manager

Dr Robert Adam, joined us recently during a visit to the National Robotarium, to give a talk in British Sign Language (BSL) about British deaf culture and history.

The use of sign language goes back a long way in the UK. During the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks used signs with which to communicate, so that they could maintain their vow of silence, and were among the first to educate deaf children. The first record of someone using a sign language interpreter in court is in 1725, and the first deaf school in the UK was established in Edinburgh in 1760. But it was not until the 1950s that Sign Language started to be seen by teachers and scholars as languages with vocabulary and grammar.

In 2015 the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 aimed to ‘raise awareness’ and ‘improve access’ to British Sign Language (BSL) giving the language more status and recognition, and this was followed by the British Sign Language (BSL) 2022 Act that was passed in Westminster. There are approximately 50 000 to 70 000 people in the UK using British Sign Language (BSL), with 9 million deaf and hard of hearing people in UK.

He explained that there is a vibrant and varied deaf culture, This minority language and cultural group has over the years been oppressed because of the lower status of sign languages. Having said that, being deaf is multifaceted, like other aspects of a person’s identity. Everyone has a different experience.

Deaf role models for young deaf people are vital. He had these, having himself had deaf parents who used sign language. Robert’s parents knew they would have to work harder to get him access to education because in his time expectations for deaf children were not high, and sign language was not seen as an appropriate language of instruction. He recounted stories about growing up such as watching films without captions, and making sense of the story with school friends, and later watching ‘Jaws’ for the first time with captions. His dad also recounts playing football with a body-worn hearing aid as a hideously noisy experience each time the ball hit the hearing aid strapped to his chest. Deaf schools are considered a repository of culture, so are deaf families and other contacts such as clubs.

We discussed hearing technology. Robert pointed out that it is important to find out how deaf people use hearing aids, before designing new ones. His impression is that many deaf people use hearing aids as support or augmentation, for example to be able to hear environmental sounds.

And what about the possibility of machines that can read sign language? How would a conversation work? Would the machines respond with set, signed phrases? Existing technologies are already helping the deaf community. Texting and email have been game changers in improving the ability to communicate. Many apps can now be used through a phone, but Alexa does not work with sign language. The game Fortnite does now include signing avatars.

There’s a need to ask about the priorities for what is required. A starting point is to improve the corpuses of signed data, to give a pool of knowledge from which development and machine learning can be carried out. Recording of natural, signed conversational data, with all its personal and regional variations will be key to this. The aim is now to include deaf people in development of inclusive technology and to make the deaf experience central to this.

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