London Disability Capital Conference 2003

I think it is important to start by explaining the focus of my talk, which is about London’s Deaf signing community.

Most London people who have impaired hearing are not members of the Deaf Community. They were acculturated to hearing society, their first language was a spoken one and they became hard of hearing or deafened in the course of their lives, often late in life. The Deaf community does not best represent these individuals.

My talk is not about them; it is about people who grow up deaf, acculturated to the sign language and society of the Deaf community. We identify ourselves as an indigenous linguistic and cultural minority. Amongst London’s diverse communities and languages we are unique in that our language is signed and not spoken.

However, the approach taken generally by the majority hearing speaking society towards us is either the medical or the social disability model. While we share with disabled people and other minority groups in our society the experiences of oppression and discrimination, the reasons are different. Disabled or gay people are not linguistic minorities; this is not the cause of the discrimination they face.

How is our language and culture a disability? To embrace other groups’ definition of our identity is to endorse the cause of our oppression, which we have struggled for so long to overthrow.

Often individuals and groups are treated unjustly and suppressed by means of language. People who are deprived of linguistic human rights may thereby be prevented from enjoying other human rights, including fair political representation, a fair trial, access to education, access to information and freedom of speech, and maintenance of their cultural heritage

Recognising our differences is important. Just as important is the need for us to recognise our common aim of equality, the theme of the conference today and to support each other to achieve that goal.

An example of that is the Disability Capital questionnaire, which was in English, a format that is not accessible to many Deaf people. For those of us who were able to read it in English the questions asked did not readily relate to our daily experiences. By working with David Morris, the GLA’s Senior Co-ordinator for Disability Equality, the BDA were able to promote a Forum for London’s Deaf signers, which was held at City Hall recently. This enabled Deaf people to access the research in our language and to describe our daily experiences of living in London.

Here are some of the issues raised at the Forum:

Promotion of Deaf Culture/BSL

Many Deaf people feel that our culture and language is invisible to the rest of London. London is an international city with a diverse range of peoples and cultures. It celebrates this by positive promotion of events such as the Notting Hill Carnival, the Chinese New Year and Diwali.

March 18th is the date that the Government has finally recognised BSL. We would like to see an International Deaf Day on this date to positively promote the Deaf community in London. Many Deaf people visits London from around the world as well as their families and friends and a festival such as this would enhance London’s image. In the UK, London stands out as the largest concentration of Deaf people. It has recently seen events such as Deaf Idol and the Glamour Ball, which drew 1,000 and 800 people respectively. The DeafRave on New Year’s Eve will welcome 1,000 people not only from London and the rest of the UK but also from Europe and the US.

A Deaf Londoner visited New York recently and was amazed to see in Times Square an ASL signer on the large TV screen signing “Welcome” & “Have a good day!” In Piccadilly Circus we have a large screen advertising er, “Coca Cola!”

Sign Language Cultural Centre

London has Deaf clubs and local groups such as Brent Deaf People’s group but there is no London wide cultural centre. Many Deaf people at the Forum wanted to see a Sign Language Cultural Centre established in Central London. Not only would it serve as a focus for Deaf Londoners and international visitors but also for hearing people.

Amongst the suggestions for the role of the centre are a Deaf museum housing the history of London’s Deaf community and our language, a gallery to display Deaf arts, a café so that international Deaf visitors know where they can come to meet Deaf Londoners and get information to explore London. It could also serve as an information centre for Deaf Londoners.


Serious dissatisfaction was expressed with interpreting services in London. Many people experienced frustration, as there are few qualified interpreters available. There has been a mushrooming of unqualified people presenting themselves as “interpreters” but often cannot even sign fluently. This has an impact on Deaf people in many ways.

Lewisham Hospital is one place that uses a Stage 2 signer for medical consultations. The implications for medical treatment and information for the Deaf person is serious. How can a Deaf person give informed consent to medical treatment if the “interpreter” is unable to translate the information properly? An example is of a woman who attended a hospital appointment having requested a female interpreter. Not only was the interpreter male, but also unable to sign properly. All she could pick up was the word “breast cancer”. She went away without knowing at what stage the cancer was and what the treatment involves.

Students attending further & higher education courses are also faced with this problem. One student doing a BA Arts course had a CSW supplied to give access to the course. The CSW did not know many signs such as “Finland” and had to fingerspell many words.

Deaf people do not have confidence in the current framework of interpreting services in London. London services, hospitals, GPs, police, education varies in the interpreting service offered and use unqualified people. We want to see a properly regulated London interpreting service overseen by us, which would build confidence in the service. We want to see a common interpreting standard adopted by London’s service providers.

We also want to see opportunities provided to people to enable them to properly train and qualify as bona fide interpreters.

Access to London’s cultural life

We are concerned about our culture and social life but also we would like to participate in the wider social life of London. The West End offers theatres and cinemas and it is an enjoyable way of spending you leisure time and arranging trips with family and friends. But if you’re a Deaf signer you need to wait till a show or film is interpreted or subtitled and then it may be on a Tuesday afternoon! Not much good if you want to take a friend out for a birthday treat during a period when the show is not interpreted or if you work during the day. Another issue to be looked at is who choose the interpreters? Better planning and access to give real choice is what is desired here.

The Tate Modern is a good example of what can be done to give access in BSL. On visiting, you can ask for a hand held screen, which gives information in BSL when you tour the building. We would like to see more of this innovation elsewhere in London.

Other leisure activities such as yoga or dance classes were reported by one Deaf person to be inaccessible due to communication barriers. It is not easy to go along and participate if you’re not able to follow the verbal instructions/information. She would like to see Deaf instructors providing access to these leisure activities.

Deaf awareness among London’s restaurants is another issue that would enhance a night out for many people.

Political Representation/”One Stop Shop”

Very little information about the Greater London Authority reaches grassroots Deaf people. Consequently, the GLA’s role as London regional government and strategic authority is little understood.

The political processes that elect the Mayor and Assembly Members exclude Deaf people through lack of accessible information. Many Deaf people feel that there is little knowledge about us by the Assembly members. A suggestion of how this could be solved was put forward at the Forum by electing a Deaf Assembly Member who would be able to consult and represent the Deaf community on the Assembly and the GLA in general!

GLA’s services such, as the Congestion Charge was not seen to be accessible. One woman relate her experience of being unable to pay the charge as the pay tills near her home had broken down. She had no other way of paying the charge and was fined. Her explanation of the circumstances was not accepted and now it is the subject of ongoing court action. She feels that if the GLA operated a “One Stop Shop” she would have been able to explain in person and to prove she is actually Deaf. A “One Stop Shop” would enable many Deaf people to know that there is a central point they can go to resolve problems.

Health & Social Care

The Chinese community have a Healthy Living Centre where people can access services such as a GP or dentist in their language.

This is something we would like to see provided in London for Deaf people where we can see a GP or dentist who is able to sign fluently. There are many gaps in primary care and this would be one of the ways of addressing this. There also a need to look at access to Accident and Emergencies services in London. None of the London’s hospitals have an on-call interpreting service for Deaf people who attend or are brought to A&E.

Social care also does not plan for the needs of Deaf people. For example there is no nursing or care home in London for older Deaf people. Imagine being in a place where no one can sign to you or share your culture.

Access to Information/TV

Access to information in our language is hard to come by. Service providers and public bodies provide translations for spoken community languages but a Deaf individual going into a Council’s office and asking for a sign language translation is met with the usual response of “um, er, we don’t have any facilities for that”.

Ways of providing information in sign language using technology can be done. For example the BDA’s and other websites have video clips of information in BSL. The WISDOM project is developing wireless mobile videophones which could be used to deliver travel information in BSL.

It is hard for hearing people to really understand what it is like to constantly try to access information in a spoken/written language. Imagine only having one 30 minutes TV programme in English. This was mentioned by a Deaf man at the Forum. News and information about daily life in London as reported by the “London Today” programme for example. Elsewhere in the UK there are regions, which transmit a daily signed news programme. London has nothing and Deaf people need to get this information second hand or in English language via subtitles.


The Deaf community has held to a single truth: its Deaf identity, hence our language and culture which continues over the centuries.

The capacity of London Deaf people to challenge the inequalities we face daily is limited by our present capacity. Next month will see the launch of the London Deaf Association as part of the British Deaf Association. This is run by Deaf people for Deaf people. Financial resources need to be looked at to ensure this goes directly to the Deaf Community, which will enable the true voice of Deaf Londoners to be heard.

The GLA has recognised our language; British Sign Language. It now needs to incorporate the London’s Deaf Community in its strategic planning and ensure that research is guided by us. It also needs to support organisations that are run by Deaf people for Deaf people in London. We look forward to working with the Mayor of London & the GLA to turn this BSL recognition into practical steps to achieve equality in all areas of or lives.