A Return to Public Speaking…

It’s been a while since I’ve flexed my public speaking muscles, as it were. Granted, I delivered a talk to members of the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Youth Advisory Board last month, but today saw me deliver a talk to a different audience at NDCS’ Right for the Future conference.

Liam delivering a talk about transitions at the Right for the Future conference in London. Photo: Rosie Eggleston.

With the audience being made up of mainly healthcare and educational professionals, the event brought people together to discuss and share ideas around deaf young people and their transitions through education. I was asked to help deliver a technology workshop, introduce the charity’s CEO (no pressure!) and sit on a panel, as well as give a short five-minute talk about my school experience.

I won’t explore my talk in too much detail, but I thought I’d explore some points raised further. In particular, it’s essential that information about a deaf young person is shared within schools as soon as possible when it comes to transitions, as nothing is worse than the young individual having to repeat their support needs when they start at a new school.

This is similar to support workers sharing documentation to make it easier for a deaf young person to apply for support in their next educational establishment. All of this should be done with enthusiasm and politeness, as any frustration with having to deal with a deaf person’s support requests will only diminish that person’s confidence.

On the topic of confidence, it’s important that both teachers and fellow classmates are deaf aware, as one is essential for the person’s education – the other for their social skills.

I’d encourage you all to have a read of the #RightForTheFuture hashtag on Twitter, which includes a lot of good points raised during the conference. Thanks to NDCS for inviting me down, I had a fantastic day.

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REVIEW: ‘The Silent Child’ – an authentic and emotional Oscar-winning film

‘Short and sweet’ is perhaps the best way to describe Rachel Shenton’s Oscar-winning film, The Silent Child. At a length of just 20-minutes, the debut production from the former Hollyoaks actress succeeds at painting an authentic and pure picture of a scenario many deaf young people face today.

Photo: BBC See Hear/The Silent Child.

Set in a rural countryside village, the film follows a typical family with bubbly child Libby (played by deaf actress Maisie Sly) at its heart. Born deaf, it’s soon established that she has struggled to communicate with the wider world. That is, until support worker Joanne (played by Shenton) is called in by the family to break down the communication barrier.

With charming shots from Chris Overton of Joanne riding her bicycle across country lanes, Shenton’s character has an air of Nanny McPhee about her. With textbooks in hand and the occasional sweet treat, Joanne offers her own real-life magic when she introduces Libby to the magic of sign language – one of the most heart-warming moments of the short film being when Libby signs for the first time.

What follows is the growing anxieties of a mother who sees a child deviating from the ‘mainstream’ route of speech and oralism. From the start, we see mum Sue (Rachel Fielding) portrayed as a snotty, arrogant mother which, at times, falls into cliché traits deaf viewers would have seen or experienced all too often – most likely because the forced oralism of hearing parents on deaf children is far from a rare occurrence.

As soon as we see the upbeat and powerful proof of how expressive British Sign Language can be, the film takes a much more tragic turn as a result of the above. Visual set-ups on-screen create a perfect visual metaphor for how mainstream schools for deaf children – without the right support – can only exaggerate the communication barrier that they face.

The tragic feel, dramatic but in no way inauthentic, is the perfect tone upon which to campaign for more sign language recognition and support in schools, with statistics displayed before the credits roll allowing the film to transcend the realms of fiction to illustrate a real-life problem that many deaf children and young people in the UK face today.

In a production well and truly worthy of its Oscar win, duo Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton perfectly illustrate the communication barrier some deaf young people face with raw, emotional and tragic honesty.

What ‘The Silent Child’s Oscar nomination means for the Deaf community | Liam O’Dell

It was a few days before the Oscar nominations were announced that I found out about The Silent Child. In a BBC News interview, six-year-old Maisie Sly talked about her hopes for a nomination for the movie, which also stars Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton.

Photo: Davidlohr Bueso/Flickr (changes have been made).

In a section of the film’s official website, the plot is described as centring around “a profoundly deaf four year old girl named Libby who is born into a middle class family and lives in a world of silence until a caring social worker teaches her the gift of communication.” Whilst I am yet to see The Silent Child itself, simply put, the film seems to be about the beauty of British Sign Language (BSL) – and that’s a wonderful thing.

With Shenton, who has worked closely with the National Deaf Children’s Society in the past, as the film’s writer, there’s no denying that the passion is present in the script and Chris Overton’s direction. As The Silent Child centres around family life as a deaf person in addition to BSL, it certainly shines a light onto Deaf culture, the Deaf community and our language.

As such, this is why an Oscar nomination is so important to not only the filmmakers, but every member of the subculture which The Silent Child represents. Even a nomination has the power to prompt film fans to seek out the movie, which means more people seeing a story centring around an important subject.

It has the potential to inspire more people to break down the language barrier and BSL, or at least encourage viewers to find out more about life as a deaf person. At the very least, a viewer’s misconceptions are challenged. At best, they see the power of connecting over a language, and seek to learn even basic sign language in order to communicate with any deaf people they know.

On top of all this is the representation aspect. Slowly but surely, more deaf people and deaf-related stories are gaining prominence in the media. From Nyle DiMarco’s success and Switched from Birth in the US, to the great work See Hear and the BSL Scotland Act have led to in the UK, deaf issues are getting the attention they rightfully deserve.

Also, let’s not forget that Maisie is profoundly deaf herself – a detail incredibly important in a film and TV industry which seems to cast non-disabled people, neurotypical people or those without the specific condition in the role. Members of the deaf community have called for deaf actors in deaf roles, and this Oscar nomination serves as recognition that such an initiative really improves the accuracy and quality of a film. The Silent Child‘s success is a small but massively positive step for representation – both in terms of the actual story and the issues it explores, and casting decisions.

Now comes the big ceremony in March, and I wish The Silent Child every success.

A Deaf-Friendly Experience at Go Ape

It’s been a while since I’ve been high up in a forest scrambling through an obstacle course like some budding adventurer. So, when the team at Go Ape got in touch asking if I’d like to see how deaf friendly their activity is, (and bring some friends along too) of course I said yes, ready to relive some nostalgia that the experience may bring.

Young man in blue jumper holding a certificate next to a monkey statue

For those who don’t know, Go Ape! is a high-wire treetop course full of fun obstacles and challenges, swings, zipwires, and more soggy bottoms than an episode of The Great British Bake Off (let’s just say that some of my zip wire landings were far from graceful or heroic).

As well as knowing that it would be a grand day out, I was intrigued to see what changes Go Ape had made to make the activity more accessible to deaf people. I remembered reading an article about some deaf customers being refused entry to Go Ape last year, and so was curious to see what new procedures were now in place.

Even before I set foot on the site, I was sent some videos of the training that’s given to customers, with a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter in the corner of the screen. Granted, whilst I only know a little bit of BSL and am certainly not fluent, one imagines that the videos are quite a useful resource for profoundly deaf visitors. I definitely felt a reassuring sense of déja vu when I was shown the ropes – quite literally, in fact – in person when I went to the Woburn site on Monday.

So, after going through a brief training course – with instructions given by a nice chap named Adam – myself and my friend Josh were ready to do the real thing. At this point, I should mention just how great a job the instructors do at making sure the rules are clear and that everyone is confident with what they are doing. Again, after watching the videos I mentioned and going through it in person, it’s likely that fellow deaf people will feel pretty confident about things when they take on the course for themselves.

This brings me on to a discussion I was having with another member of staff whilst we were putting our stuff in a locker. I had seen that there is a whistle available on the belts we have to wear, but I saw that if you needed help and assistance, you could also shout down to people on patrol below you. However, for deaf people who are unable to speak, I was interested in finding out what exactly happens when they find themselves in a pickle.

It turns out there were a few cases where people had come to the course in advance to get a sense of things, or had an instructor follow them around the obstacles. Whilst it may be worth Go Ape having a think about a go-to policy for this, as mentioned above, all the extensive training beforehand does a good job of making people comfortable and confident – thus reducing the chances of any mishaps.

Also, a quick thank you must go to Kieran, another staff member at the Woburn site that let us skip ahead one course so we didn’t have to wait behind some slower customers. We blazed through the course like the true adventurers we are, and it certainly didn’t feel like an hour and a half since we were putting on our harnesses. Time flies!

Speaking of the course, I’ll keep my description vague (so that there’s still that sense of surprise should you wish to go yourself, and because it’s far better to describe these things in video form instead), but the pictures with clear instructions certainly help participants get to grips with each activity/obstacle, which is fantastic. Highlights included the zipwires, pulling several muscles whilst trying to conquer the stirrups, and The Tarzan Swing – where for a brief second, you can experience a sense of freefall which is incredible.

I would like to thank Go Ape such an incredible day out – I really appreciate it. The company is certainly making some great steps towards making Go Ape more accessible for deaf people, and that’s great to see.

Whilst I was offered this experience for free, the opinions within this post are my own and this post is not sponsored by anyone.

UN’s ‘human catastrophe’ verdict is the latest dent to the Tories’ disability rights record | The Friday Article

How a Conservative government can even begin to dispute the damning report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) this week beats me. After numerous disability organisations complained to the UN about the Tories’ treatment of disabled people, the Chair of the UNCRPD, Theresia Degener described it as a ‘human catastrophe’.

Photo: Pixabay.

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between £2,000 and £3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognised as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” said Degener, as quoted in an article by the Mirror.

Yet, when one looks at the government’s response to the comments, a spokeswoman said it ‘fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives’, before going on to mention statistics such as them spending ‘over £50 billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions’, that they’re a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, and that ‘almost 600,000 disabled people have moved into work in the UK over the last four years’.

It is a response which can be picked apart in a rather hilarious fashion, even when the data appears positive. With regards to the 600,000 disabled people in work since 2013, they fail to mention the recent news that the disability employment gap has remained stagnant at over 30% since 1998, despite launching a commitment to halve the gap in ten years.

As for being a ‘recognised world leader in disability rights and equality’, one does not need to showcase the biggest disability news stories of the past decade to show that this is completely laughable. A UN inquiry last November had some harsh words for the Conservatives, a disabled student took the government to court in 2015 due to it failing to consult with disabled people over changes to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), and without a doubt one of the most appalling statistics which seems to suggest otherwise is that 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 because they were declared ‘fit for work’ after claiming for Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

The Tories ignoring yet another damning report on their disability rights record would not only show a disregard for any public scrutiny, but it would only prove the lack of consideration for one of the most marginalised groups in our society.

It’s why, as always, we must support charities in holding the government to account and demanding change. Granted, saying that we need to continue campaigning is a typical call-to-action when it comes to these sort of social issues, but applying pressure on MPs around disability issues has worked wonders before. Aside from the DSA example mentioned above, the British Deaf Association (BDA) has pushed tirelessly for British Sign Language to be given legal status, and after the UN’s latest verdict, it seems as though that is getting closer to becoming a reality.

“We were impressed with the openness of the committee to listen to our evidence and apply their significant legal experience,” said Dr Terry Riley OBE, Chairman of the BDA. “Therefore we are glad to see that the committee has expressly recommended that the UK government finally legislate to protect language rights of deaf people, and that so many of the committee’s remarks related to this. Deaf people have been passed over too long; there can now be no doubt that the government has been taken to task. Without language rights, we have no human rights.”

There are 13.3 million people in the UK. Whether or not the Government will choose to listen to such a large group of people is another matter for debate (this article suggests that for many years, they haven’t), but now more than ever we must support the charities that are giving a voice to a community which is being unfairly targeted – especially when they claim they are being ‘gagged’ by the Lobbying Act 2014.

The incredible young voter turnout in the recent snap election has shown the Conservative government what can happen when they continue to target a specific group of people in our society. Now, they’ve tried desperately to win back students from Corbynism with a right-wing ‘ideas festival’ and most recently, a grassroots movement called Activate which some people have called ‘the Tory Momentum’.

It’s time for disabled people to do the same, and shock the Conservative Party into making long overdue changes to improve our lives for the better.

Deaf Awareness Week 2017: A celebration of collective action | The Friday Article

‘A celebration’ is the theme for this year’s Deaf Awareness Week – something which, to me, suggests that we should celebrate the power of collective action within the deaf community. It’s now that we should celebrate the charities and campaigners, as well as their achievements. At a time when politics has divided Britain, it’s important for us to show society the power of collective action and what we, as a community, can accomplish.

Photo: Deaf Council.

One example is the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) – a charity with which I have very strong connections. In 2014, I was part of their Youth Advisory Board (YAB), a group of 18 deaf young people from across the UK who came together over the two years to discuss issues affecting deaf people. Whilst on the board, I campaigned for better audiology services and contacted key figures in the NHS about the matter, amongst other things. Now, the new YAB have launched their new campaign, calling for sign language to be taught in schools. They found out that 97% of young people want British Sign Language (BSL) in schools, and through the NDCS, they have taken to the local and national press to get their message out there during Deaf Awareness Week.

Elsewhere, Action on Hearing Loss’ Subtitle It! campaign called on on-demand TV services to provide subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing people. Through an amendment to the Digital Economies Bill, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom has the power to ensure on-demand programmes have a ‘minimum level’ of subtitling.

Then there’s the landmark achievement in Scotland back in 2015, where the BSL (Scotland) Bill became an act, calling for its Parliament to ‘promote the use of British Sign Language’. Now, the fight continues to make British Sign Language a legally recognised language in the UK.

Yet, it’s not just deaf people coming together which we should celebrate, it’s the creative talent of the deaf community, too. Entertainers such as John Smith and Danny’s Skits offer funny videos which promote deaf culture at the same time, and, of course, the deaf website The Limping Chicken offers individuals a platform to air their views on deaf issues.

Every year, the theme for Deaf Awareness Week is different (last year’s was ‘a common purpose’, for example). However, whilst these topics are subjective, it can always come down to highlighting the power of the deaf community. As a strong subculture, we can make positive changes in society and ensure our voices are never ignored.

Sign Language Week 2017: The right kind of fascination

This week, I saw a video of a young deaf refugee named Hamza in Aleppo learning sign language. As well as it bringing me joy, seeing the excitement on his face as he learned the sign for ball and shoe reminded me how and why hearing people should learn sign language in the first place.

Photo: Darelle on Pixabay (Public Domain).

 

The primary factor regarding the why is, of course, to break down the language barrier. As for the how, that’s something I think needs to change in the future.

I learned sign language to communicate with new friends I had just met through a charity, after realising that using pen and paper wasn’t entirely practical and fair if these people were to become my friends for life (which they are). A passion for learning new languages, breaking down this barrier and – quite simply – communicating in a way they would prefer all combined to drive me to become somewhat decent at British Sign Language two years later.

However, in this post I want to talk about fascination, as the need to learn BSL to call your best friend a piece of s*** or tell them to f*** off is still of fundamental important to some hearing people (I should stress, that is some hearing people). It’s not the fascination that’s the problem, it’s more the desire to learn.

To go back to the example of Hamza in Aleppo, we need more people who light up when they are taught such a beautiful, visual language. The fact that there is a language which is so expressive and unifying should be which fascinates us about British Sign Language – BSL should not be seen as a gimmick or something shrouded in mystery.

It’s something which has me on the fence regarding Ed Sheeran’s music video for You Need Me, I Don’t Need You. Whilst I will always value deaf awareness, there is a part of me which agrees with some people’s concerns regarding it being seen as a party trick. It shouldn’t be ‘I can sign this song in sign language’ – the individual should appreciate the language and visualisation behind the lyrics.

In other words, it’s time for a shift in intrigue. The language’s visual beauty should fascinate us, not the fact that it could be used as a simple party trick or way to insult our friends. The fascination should return to the wonder and excitement possessed by six-year-old Hamza from Aleppo.

This post was inspired by the fact that this week is Sign Language Week. For more information, you can visit the British Deaf Association’s website.