Laugh or Cry?

Sometimes all we can do is point and laugh.

If we didn’t, we’d weep for the ignorance of those whose job it is (supposedly) to know what they’re talking about.

Yesterday, this came to my attention.

Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, produced a consultation document aimed at children and young people to give them a say in how Ofsted inspects Adoption Support Agencies.

So far, so good.

Then they produced a BSL-based version. Jolly good. Was it a video produced by Remark!, scripted by Ofsted? Was it a video of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman translating the document to the tune of humming guitars? Was it a video of the consultation document lovingly translated into sign language poetry by yours truly? No.

It was cartoons.

No word of a lie, they attempted to translate the consultation document into cartoons, and called it BSL-based. Look at it.

In case it’s not clear why this is so tragi-comic, let me explain. British Sign Language is a living, breathing language, relying as much on movement as it does on ‘gestures’. Pictures – or cartoons – of signs next to each other don’t really mean much without context – or movement. It’s like writing down a sentence phonetically in the belief that this will help someone to understand it.

Bee     Ess     Ell     Iz     Ay     Bee     Yoo     Tee     Foo     Lah     Nnn     Gwa     Jjj

Thee     sss     Iz     Ahh     Nnn     Eeen     sss     Arr     lll     T

Or you could just SAY it. Get someone to translate the document into proper BSL and tape it. Tape it!

Without movement and context, those cartoons could mean anything. If, as this document apparently presumes, the respondents’ English is not that good, what are the cartoons meant to express? They’re not exactly clear. On page 5, ‘should’ looks like ‘damn’, ‘what’ could be ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘sky’, ‘god’, ‘up’ ‘ travelling’ – all BSL signs that use an index pointed upwards, and the cartoon for ‘about’ looks nothing like ‘about’ and in fact comes perilously close to looking like the sign for ‘camp’ or, in the hands of not-so-nice people, ‘poof’.

Is that what Ofsted is aiming for? Cartoons that look like any sign that uses that handshape, littered with potentially offensive signs? Well, congratulations. Mission accomplished.

I mean, whose idea was this?

Look at the age group they’re aiming for. Bottom of the first page. 0-17. It’s like they’ve assumed that a 17-year-old BSL user will have the same level of understanding as an infant. On behalf of teenage BSL users everywhere, consider me very patronised.

Are they sure they don’t mean 0 – 17 months? Compare the level of language in the ‘BSL-based’ document with the word document accompanying it. You’ll see what I mean.

And again with the patronisation on page 10. “If there is anything more you wish to say, please ask an adult to help you.” What was the age group again? 0 – 17?

They’ve clearly allowed for those children and young people with communication and learning difficulties with the Makaton, picture communication symbols and Widgit alternatives, and brilliant. Good for them. Very inclusive. Where they went wrong was thinking they could treat BSL in the same way.

Deafness is not a learning disability. BSL is a beautiful language, highly expressive, a language of poetry and creativity; we just had a Shakespeare play translated into BSL and put on at The Globe for Globe to Globe, the multi-language Shakespeare festival to rave reviews for pity’s sake.


If one is aware enough to put the cartoons in the correct BSL grammatical order, then one should have enough awareness to know that BSL is not just handshapes, it’s movement and eyegaze and facial expression and direction and context.

Whose idea was this?

What was wrong with just making a proper BSL version? Just get someone to sign it properly. That way, you could ensure that BSL users would have a good chance of understanding it, instead of patronising them with cartoons that are vague enough that an adult will probably have to explain the cartoons anyway, defeating the purpose of having the bloody cartoons in the first place. Just… do it properly!

And breathe. Om.

P.S. Let’s all write letters like this one and let them know our views on their ‘consultation document’…

16 thoughts on “Laugh or Cry?

  1. Piers

    Ye gods. And they didn’t bother to include signs for some words too, such as inspector, relying on a stick figure instead… I think someone don’t understand what BSL is…

  2. Kelsey Mitchell

    I also wonder, how are the children meant to respond? Are they required to write in English (I’d like to see a 0-3 year old do that) or are they allowed to sign back in BSL? If they sign back, who is going to understand their response, and will it be recorded? If an adult caring for the child is “translating” what the child signs (this is assuming the adult is fluent in BSL) to written English, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the child responding?

  3. stageandsign

    Well said! BSL is a language not a communication aid. There is nothing wrong with makaton and using pictures/symbols to aid understanding but it MUST be understood that BSL is a language in it’s own right and should be treated and respected as such. I’m sure their heart was in the right place but their approach screams of ignorance.

  4. mmostynthomas

    I felt sick when I saw the document. This is Ofsted!! These people are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of children in education and care. How on earth are they going to make sure deaf children and young people are protected when they are confusing BSL with Makaton like this? I blame Something Special on CBeebies. That programme is unfortunately far more pervasive than anything the BSLBT has ever put out – because it’s on a mainline BBC channel.

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Completely agree – Ofsted should know better! Especially than to be influenced by a CBeebies show :s

  5. H-Wo

    This one is even worse (adoption_British sign language). As if the cartoon signers weren’t bad enough, I find it incredibly insulting that they use a stick man to represent not only the ‘inspector’, but also ‘parents’ AND ‘agencies’.

    They also use a face with an actual light bulb above it to represent the word ‘ideas’. Do they assume that BSL is to be found lacking when discussing these concepts? They must think we all carry a lightbulb in our pockets ready for when we have a good idea!!

    Letter of complaint winging its way to OFSTED as we speak!

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Oh my… I didn’t look this far, but now that I am, it’s everywhere. How long have Ofsted been doing this unchallenged??? Thanks for bringing to my attention, this is ridiculous.

      1. deaffirefly Post author

        Let’s hope! Thanks to all for comments, helped me with the letter 🙂

  6. ni

    as a teenage bsl user i feel fucking patronized! >.< and the idea that 17 year olds or even 12 or 8 year olds need an adult to help them say something just because theyre deaf! dont even get me started.
    nice letter as well by the way! considering writing one of my own from the point of view of deaf teenagers everywhere who did hate a really good laugh at this.. at least we had a laugh i guess!

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      You have every right 🙂 and thanks! Go for it, a real live deaf teenager telling them how patronising this was and how much this ‘BSL-based’ document made them laugh may give them pause for for thought!

  7. Pingback: Pictorial BSL – The pros and cons « Stageandsign's Blog

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