Author Archives: DeafFirefly

About DeafFirefly

I am a Deaf poet working with British Sign Language and English. Working with such different languages has inspired a deep interest in translation and how my work can be made accessible to signing and non-signing audiences. I have performed around the UK including at the Barbican, Southbank Centre and the Albert Hall, as well as in America and Brazil. Several of my poems have been published, most recently in Stairs and Whispers, an anthology by deaf and disabled poets and issue 69 of Magma magazine. My poems cover many themes, from bilingualism to identity, to my beloved cats.

SAVE THE CENTRE FOR DEAF STUDIES!

It has been an amazing week. It started with the CDS Ball in Bristol on Saturday, where I performed a poem, then went to Birmingham on Sunday for InteGreat Theatre’s big hurrah, where I performed a poem, then back to Bristol on Mon only to bounce back again on Weds for meeting and prep for Thursday’s Deaf Explorer Unconference where I was due to present a summary of my trip and perform a poem, then last but not least, BSL Pride day on Saturday where, with the madly talented Jason Sharpe, I was due to perform – you’ve guessed it – a poem.

The CDS Ball, though. Talk about bittersweet. Lovely to see everyone, and pay our respects to the Centre for Deaf Studies and celebrate the fact it’s been around for 35 years. If that sounds somewhat contradictory, it was. Yay, 35 years! Aw, this is the last year of undergraduates.

The CDS undergraduate programme was axed in 2010. This did not pass without comment. There were protests, local news coverage, letters, general outrage. All to no avail. This year will mark the last group of undergraduates to pass through the CDS. So the third years took it upon themselves to organise a Ball in honour of the CDS and all it represents, and I have to give them lots of kudos for rolling up their sleeves and organising it all, I can only imagine the stress. And on top of exams too! KUDOS. *bows*

It was at the M Shed no less, MC’d by Matt Jenkins and featuring a few special guests from the history of the CDS. It was surreal. Everyone was dressed in their finest, including myself, I’d picked out a black velvet jacket, a proper dress shirt, and borrowed some cufflinks from my father. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but the stone in my ring matched my navy blue bowtie. Well you didn’t expect me to wear a dress, did you…?

We even managed to raise a few laughs for Gavin Lilley’s stand-up comedy and the slightly anarchic raffle (where I won a sweatshirt – go, me!) and the golden girls’ speeches – and I hope I don’t get lynched for calling them that, but it was inspiring to see them all on stage and equally depressing to know why we were all there.

Yes, depressing. The Centre for Deaf Studies scored a lot of firsts, from the first use of the term ‘Deaf Studies’, to the first textbook in BSL, which is still in use today; it was at the forefront of research into Deaf Studies, developing that unique field of sociological research, joining up with other areas of sociology, providing safe haven for deaf and hearing academics and students alike. They gathered a brilliant dedicated interpreting team and having a degree from the Uni of Bristol is / was a great start for any would-be terp or academic.

I myself have been a research subject; I was lucky enough to be part of Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence’s Metaphor in Creative Sign Language Project for several years, and I credit my involvement with this project for my development as a poet, both in skills and confidence. I had the opportunity to hang out with some great, talented BSL poets and help with poetry festivals and in return all I had to do was sign a few consent forms and allow Dr Sutton-Spence and her keen research fellows Dr Kaneko and Dr West to film my performances and the occasional informal discussion / interview so they could write papers to their hearts’ desire. For me, it was a fantastic deal. I owe the CDS a lot.

Not to mention the fun I’ve had helping with the interpreting student’s roleplays. As well as giving me a chance to flex my acting muscles, it was fun to see their reactions to the scenarios (given to me by the tutor, so don’t blame me) and also an interesting insight into what goes into a terp’s training. Everybody starts somewhere, including BSL terps. Bless. They’re so cute. I’m going to miss that.

And now tomorrow, there is a meeting. On the 5th July, 2013, it will be decided whether or not to completely and permanently shut down the CDS.

The University of Bristol is insane. It’s like they don’t know what they’re throwing away.

Help them see the light.

There’s still a day in which to send your strongest objections via email to:

Professor Eric Thomas, Vice Chancellor, via his exec assistant:  jami.west@bristol.ac.uk

and

Mr Denis Burn, Chair of Council: denis.burn@bristol.ac.uk and also via  Clerk to Council: hugh.martin@bristol.ac.uk

Advice from savedeafstudies.org.uk updates: http://www.savedeafstudies.org.uk/?p=468

Tell them:

1.     we want the subsidy the Vice Chancellor announced in December – honour the promise!

2.     we want an independent review of the finances

3.     we want a proper impact assessment – the decision affects the Deaf community and the hearing community

Please write now!

For my part, this is what I have sent, with a tiny little bit borrowed from Dr Emery’s letter at the end:

For the attention of Professor Eric Thomas, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol, and Mr Denis Burn, Chair of Council of same.

My name is Donna Williams (BA, MA) and I wish to register my surprise, dismay and extreme disappointment at the prospect that the Centre for Deaf Studies may be permanently and completely shut down. I hold degrees in Deaf Studies with Philosophy and Ethics and Social Philosophy, and it was my hope that one day I would be able to do a cross-departmental Phd between the Centre for Deaf Studies and the Centre for Ethics in Medicine, both of which are highly-renowned academic centres that the University of Bristol should be proud to own, and should, in my view, defend to the last.  The Centre for Deaf Studies has been at the forefront of exciting sociological research of the highest order, research that has contributed to changes in perception of sign language and deaf people. The work of the Centre for Deaf Studies over the last 35 years has been invaluable, both in terms of research and in terms of producing high-quality graduates with good prospects of employment, and the international regard in which it is held is well-deserved. Closing the Centre for Deaf Studies would be an act of academic vandalism.

I cannot believe that the University of Bristol would let such a valuable asset, one that it should proudly boast of, die. Furthermore, it is my understanding that a subsidy of £100,000 was offered in order to keep the CDS open, which was then withdrawn. This only serves to further my disbelief. Why has the University of Bristol not honoured this promise?

I urge the University of Bristol in the strongest possible terms to give a great deal of consideration to any decisions relating to the Centre for Deaf Studies, including an impact assessment; decisions relating to the Centre for Deaf Studies will affect the Deaf community and the wider hearing community as a whole. I also urge you to begin an independent review of the finances so that the Centre for Deaf Studies may demonstrate its financial worth as well as its academic worth.

I appeal to you to rethink your plans to close the Centre for Deaf Studies. Please commit to your original promise not to close the Centre and to offer a subsidy.  That would enable the Centre to focus on developing a top quality institution of research into sign language and Deaf culture, and sign language Interpreting.

It is not too late to put research into the rights of Deaf people ahead of the economics of the current ‘austerity’ climate. In the long term the University will be a great beneficiary.

Please don’t throw away a Centre for learning that is held in such high regard across the world. It should be possible to work out a solution with political will and commitment. If the University is prepared to give the Centre a long term plan, there is no doubt it can continue to be a pioneering Centre for Deaf studies related research.

Yours Sincerely,

Donna Williams, BA, MA

Get writing!

A Series of Unfortunate Events

This is a true account of the events of 26/1/13, a heavily edited version of which is on its way to Virgin Trains customer relations. Why should I pay to be treated like this? I digress. These things were written in the heat of the moment, in a notebook I habitually carry in case I’m suddenly struck by inspiration. Well on this occasion, I wasn’t so much struck by inspiration as the need to vent. And vent. For four hours, this notebook kept me sane.

(Notes in brackets / italics added post-script for clarification / extra comments)

————————————— Notebook —————————

Believe me; I’ve had trouble with trains. Delays, random platform changes, hostile members of the public, clueless conductors, broken screens, non-disabled people using lifts and disabled gates out of sheer laziness whilst I’m ignored, the stories I could tell you would have you weeping with frustration.

Right now, as I draft this in my notebook, I am weeping with frustration.

I have also vowed never, never to use trains again. They’re overpriced, un-disabled-friendly and frankly bloody unreliable. The hell with this.

(I’ve only broken this vow once, the next day when I had to go to Blackpool for the NDCS. Other than trips to London and possibly Cardiff, I don’t intend to break this vow again.)

It began with a busy weekend. After exhausting kitchen service for a charity fundraiser the Friday evening, I was scheduled to go up to Birmingham on the Saturday, for a workshop and a meeting with InteGreat Theatre, followed by travelling up to Preston for a leaving do and to see long-lost Uni friends, followed by giving a presentation for the NDCS on Sunday morning in Blackpool, followed by a long trip back down to Bristol. I had planned to pack a lot into that weekend, I just didn’t realise how much.

It was a long meeting, so instead of catching the 18.20, I caught the 19.20. Or rather, I didn’t. It was cancelled.

So I went to customer reception. They sympathised and said I could catch the train to Chester, changing at Wolverhampton for a train to Preston that would get me there just before 9 o’clock. Remember: this journey was supposed to take one-and-a-half hours. Only thing was, the Chester train was leaving in a matter of minutes, so a mad dash through a typically confusing Brum New Street concourse found me on the right platform just as it was boarding.

Panting, and with jelly legs (I don’t have to move quickly much, and my idea of ‘quick’ is not the same as others’. When I’m in full pelt with my walking stick, I can achieve a very fast hobble) I managed to get a seat, but I didn’t have much time to rest, as before I knew it, we were in Wolverhampton.

I got off the train, and looked for screens. I found some and read: ‘19.37 PRESTON DELAYED’. By this point it was 19.43 and it didn’t say how long the train was delayed for. So I thought I’d better move it and hobbled off down the platform towards the lifts / stairs as fast as I could. The train was on platform 3 and I was on platform 1.

Two women who’d got off the same train as me had the same idea and hared off down the platform and soon disappeared up the stairs; at my fastest hobble I had no hope of catching them – and they were wearing heels for pity’s sake. Luckily though, the lift was right next to the stairs; rarely are train stations so thoughtful.

The lift wasn’t there. It was at the overbridge. I pressed the button. Nothing. I pressed it frantically. Someone getting on at the top, I guessed, but COME ON.

When the lift finally came down, the only occupant was a young man wearing a fashionable t-shirt and ripped jeans, chatting on a mobile, and aside from a sideways glance at me as he sauntered out of the lift without a care in the world, he barely acknowledged I was there. He didn’t look the slightest bit disabled. He looked like a complete and total time-wasting lazy prick.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to remonstrate with him (or punch him in the face) so I leapt into the lift and pressed the button. The doors didn’t close, and a disembodied voice said something. I pressed the button a lot harder, and in their own sweet time, the lift doors started to close.

I hobbled over the bridge as fast as I could and again banged the button for the lift. It was bit quicker this time, there being no lazy able-bodied time-wasting bastards on the other end, but not quick enough. By the time I got to platform 3, the Preston train was long gone.

A lot of emotions, then. Frustration, mainly.

I went back to platform 1 and the ticket / info desk, where I told my sorry story to the sympathetic man behind the counter. He was patient, printed out an alternative train, two alternative trains and wrote on the printout that I could get more help at customer reception. I was guided there by a security man, and met by an apparently friendly lady behind the desk.

Once again, I told my story, that I has just got off the train from Brum and simply hadn’t been able to move fast enough to catch the next train. During the course of the conversation, I discovered that they had actually been holding the Preston train in case there were passengers like me who needed to catch it due to the cancelled trains. They were holding it for people like me. Or rather, people not like me. No doubt those two women who galloped off ran up, got on, the train manager decided that was it, and fucked off.

When I tearfully lamented that I hadn’t known they were holding it, that the conductor on the Chester train had seen my ticket / disabled railcard / walking stick and had apparently not passed on this information, the lady’s reply was:

“You should have asked for assistance at Birmingham.”

Her exact words.

Quite apart from the foray into victim-blaming, the average train station worker is far too busy to do things like help disabled people without at least 24 hours’ notice, which is what most train companies require if people need help – 24 hours’ notice or more that they’re going to need help, whether they know it or not. I had five minutes’ notice, which I then had to use in order to catch the Chester train. If it had been mentioned to me then that they were holding the train in Wolverhampton, I might have asked them to hold it a little longer. Or they could have used some initiative and called ahead to say a deaf, mobility-challenged passenger was on their way. None of this happened. So how was I to know? How was I to know that I would only have a tiny sliver of time in which to catch the next train, that some lazy wanker would hold up the lift, that the train manager would assume that everyone can run that fast?

I found her comment unhelpful on so many levels.

She then went on to say how, if they’d called from Brum to let her know, she could have met me and helped me across. Well, I’m sure she would have – maybe – but again, how was I to know? They didn’t tell me – or I didn’t hear – at Brum that the train was being held, or I bloody well would have asked them to hold it a little longer for my poor little legs.

But they didn’t, so I didn’t, and here was this woman who seemed to be trying to turn it all back on me that it was all my own fault and I should have asked for help. Bitch.

I didn’t know!

I replied that I didn’t know I’d need it and I didn’t usually need assistance, I can get myself on and off trains, I’m just not very quick.

She looked sympathetic but didn’t say much, though she managed to find me a couple of slightly quicker trains, and promised me assistance at Manchester.

At this point, the full, terrible truth dawned on me. I wasn’t being offered two separate alternative trains. These were the alternative trains. I was going to have to go to Manchester Piccadilly and catch another train, and I was going to arrive in Preston at least an hour and a half later than I’d intended.

It doesn’t help that my phone has chosen today to die. I can receive text messages but not send them. I suspect GiffGaff. I had assumed my deal would roll over automatically, after all, that’s what I clicked. Apparently not, and O2 have cut me off. That’s what I think happened, but I don’t know until I go online to check (it was exactly what happened, thanks GiffGaff!). In the meantime, how do I let my friends know, who are expecting to see me at 9, that I won’t be in Preston til at least half 10? This is like being back in the dark ages, or pre-21st century… If I start getting worried messages, I’ll have to approach another passenger and ask to borrow their phone, but hopefully my tearful appearance will inspire sympathy.

Yes, tearful. After I’d thanked the lady for the new printout (my, wasn’t I brought up well) and made my way to platform 2, using the curséd lifts which were now of course moving in a timely manner, and found somewhere to sit, I burst into tears.

Congratulations, National rail, Virgin trains and life in general, after many stressful, delayed, cancelled and generally incompetently run train journeys, you finally broke me. Well done.

I’m now writing this as I head to Manchester. It remains to be seen whether I’ll catch the first connection there. If I miss it, I’ll be arriving in Preston gone 11.

And to make everything better, four rowdy men got on at Macclesfield and as I write, they’re singing loudly and stamping their feet, causing my hearing-aids (which cut out automatically over a certain decibel volume) to switch off intermittently and the vibrations from the stamping causing my seat to shake to the rhythm, because that’s just what I needed right now.

At what point do you stop crying and start laughing?

For the time being, I’ve switched off my hearing-aids and I’ve dried my tears, and I’m down to the occasional resentful sniffle.

In fact, now I’ve calmed down a little, I realise there’s no point in plotting dark revenge.

I don’t yet know why the 19.20 was cancelled, but I’m sure there was a reason. It didn’t occur to the people in customer reception at Brum to call ahead and let Wolverhampton know a deaf half-cripple was about to attempt to change trains, and it didn’t occur to them to let me know the train was being held. The same failed to occur to the train conductor on the Chester train, despite having my disabled railcard and Preston ticket literally waved under his nose. The women who ran off probably had no idea that I wanted the same train, if they noticed me at all. The lazy dickhead was just a lazy dickhead. The train manager of the Preston train has no idea I exist (though maybe they will when my letter arrives at customer relations), and it clearly never occurred to them that slow people might want their train too. The lady in customer reception at Wolves (probably) didn’t mean to be a bitch. The men laughing and singing loudly and banging tables in the middle of the carriage have probably barely noticed the small woman huddled in the far corner, curled up with her hood up and scribbling away in a notebook.

In essence, I am lucid enough to know that most likely, no one person has deliberately set out to fuck me over this evening.

It’s a series of unfortunate events, exacerbated by my deafness and my inability to sprint like Usain Bolt, and my feet hate me for trying.

————————Manchester Piccadilly ————————-

Well, the train that I was on, which was meant to arrive at Manchester at 21.39, arrived at 21.43. What a surprise. And the assistance that the customer reception lady in Wolves promised me at Manchester entirely failed to materialise. Again, oh, quelle surprise. Plus, the train she’d marked for me to catch at 21.46 (hah) was at platform 14. For those unfamiliar with Manchester Piccadilly, platforms 13 and 14 are half a mile from the station proper, and serviced by two moving walkways which – of course – were switched off (double hah). I didn’t even try to cover that distance in 3 mins. As we’ve by now established, I don’t run very fucking fast.

Getting to the ‘lounge’ for platforms 13 and 14, I found my next train was Barrow in Furness, 22.16. As I had twenty mins, I approached a friendly-looking group of coppers and train station security and begged the use of a mobile to text my friend, and my dear Mum who had texted to ask if I was in Preston yet (triple hah!). The nice station security man let me use his, even though I wasn’t crying any more. It was also a blast from the past to use a phone that had 3 letters to a key… but old skills came back, like riding a bike, and I managed a couple of brief texts. Cheers, man. Much appreciated.

I headed down to platform 14 to await the Barrow train. I had time to reflect that if I had just taken my car and braved the Brum traffic system, I would be in Preston, somewhere warm and halfway to drunk by now. But I wasn’t, because I had thought that trains would be simpler and easier.

QUADRAPLE HAH.

And as I was standing there, in the bitter wind and rain and cold, 22.16 came and went. Then when a train arrived at 22.20, the destination said Chester. Chester? I looked up at the screens and where mere moments ago it had said Barrow, they now said Chester. Judging by the looks of confusion and puzzlement around me, the hearing crowd was just as bemused. We must have looked like a bunch of people who have just watched a magician make a car disappear – except they’d made a whole train disappear.

Now that was impressive. There were a few minutes of aimless milling around, as the bereft herd waited for new information. Eventually it came, naturally in the form of an incomprehensible tannoy announcement. I chose a target carefully (no beard, check; looks friendly, check; etc.) and found out the Barrow train was now coming in on platform 13. All well and good, I shuffled over there.

But new information seemed to be filtering through the herd; it seemed the train was in fact coming in on platform 13a. We were on platform 13b. The other end of said platform. Marvellous. I followed the herd, slowly, falling behind as usual. We got there, and sure enough, the screen said Barrow. But after a few minutes of waiting, we all saw a train pull into 13a, lights on in the distance. A few brave souls went to check but it said ‘not in service’. I positioned myself between a and b anyway, as by now I was in a high state of paranoia.

It paid off. The trains’ destination screen changed and became Barrow. I went from being the crip at the back of the herd to being the crip at the front of it. Is this the point at which I start laughing?

Mwahahahahahahaaa.

I just made it, even though I swear I could feel them all catching up to me, and got overtaken once or twice. I am now seated on a warm train, unlike those who suddenly found themselves demoted to the back, and the next stop is Preston. I don’t think I will ever have been so happy to see it in my life.

It’s now 23.11. I left Brum at 19.25. Three hours and 45 mins and we’ve not arrived yet. Over two hours late.

From now on, all long inter-UK journeys shall be undertaken by car. Except to London. I’ve only driven in London once, and never again.

But all other journeys; car. Why should I pay for this?

————————— Post-Script ——————————

Arriving in Preston was joyous. I even walked to the nightclub where my friends were with a spring in my step. But when I got there, the bouncer stopped me. “Mumble mumble mumble” he said, pointing at my legs. “Huh?” I said. “Mumble mumble too casual” he said. I couldn’t believe it. After all that, I was being thwarted at the last hurdle because something I was wearing was too casual?

My main priority at that point was to let my friends know that I was alive and well and not dead in a ditch somewhere near Manchester, so I explained my phone was dead and PLEASE could I borrow one and text my friends? They looked uncertain but one said he’d take me in to find them then we had to come back out. Fine, whatever, fine.

Once in, friends were quickly located, as was the woman of honour (congratulations on the job, Claire Pink! Best of luck for the move!) and our warm greetings may have moved the bouncer a little, but also maybe when I explained to them I was going to be sent back out, I openly pointed accusingly at him, leading him to get some funny looks. He spoke into a radio and suddenly, a man in a suit turned up.

He proceeded to try to explain what the problem was.

“Mumble mumble mumble” *thumping dance music* “mumble mumble mumble”

“What?”

“Mumble mumble mumble” *thumping dance music*

“Is it the bag? The bag is cos I’ve just come from Bristol!”

“No no mumble mumble mumble” *thumping dance music*

“Er, can you text it? Text?” *wave hands vaguely to indicate tapping on a phone*

Thankfully, he obeyed and while he typed, I tried again to guess what the problem was with the bouncer, who was still hanging around.

“Is it the shoes? The shoes?”

“Mumble mumble mumble” he said, while pointing down. I thought he meant the shoes.

At that point, something in me snapped.

“What do you mean?! I’ve had two operations on my feet! These ARE my only shoes!!!”

And bless me, the bouncer, who was a good foot and a half taller and twice my size, actually backed away a little.

“No no no mumble mumble mumble” he said defensively, again pointing down.

“Well, what then?!”

By this time, the manager had finished typing, and rescued the bouncer by showing me the message.

My trousers. Apparently, cargo trousers, even nice ones with a microscopic check design (not denim) are too casual for this nightclub on Saturdays. Well, excuse me.

I took a calming breath and thought.

I typed back that I had some navy blue jeans that looked nice in my bag, would they be OK?

The manager almost seemed relieved. Yes, he typed, that would be just fine.

Was there somewhere I could change?

‘Yes, come with me’, he typed, and even added ‘sorry for the inconvenience’

There you go. Patience in a moment of anger (shouting at the bouncer notwithstanding, normally I’m very nice to bouncers, honest) and problem solved. I was allowed to change and go catch up with everyone, and they weren’t forced to publicly throw a disabled woman out on the street.

It was really great to see everyone! Lots of chatting, and even made some new friends. It really was fantastic to trade news with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years.

In the end, it turned out to be a pretty good night, but no thanks to Virgin bloody trains.

Feel the Music!

On 23rd October, I went to a ‘Feel the Music’ concert, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at BBC Hoddinot Hall at the Wales Millennium Centre. It was held in conjunction with Music and the Deaf, and led by Dr Paul Whittaker OBE, founder and artistic director of same, and Andy Pidcock, creative musician, and the whole thing was conducted by Grant Llewellyn, who has conducted the BBC Doctor Who proms, no less. I just hope I’ve spelt his name right.

It was a stellar cast, with a great orchestra and many more working behind the scenes, and it paid off in droves.

It was brilliant! It was my first concert, and I’m glad I picked this one to go to. It had deaf people firmly in mind, with lots of audience interaction, palantypists, big screens with subtitles and ‘visual representations’ of the music (think psychedelic shapes morphing in time to the music), an interpreter, Tony Evans, who kept up his enthusiastic terping for well over an hour, towel and a bucket for that man please and a very enthusiastic and colourful orchestra. There were lots of children and some NDCS volunteers in attendance, and I certainly embraced my own inner child!

Before the concert proper, there was the chance to talk to members of the orchestra as they milled around with their instruments, happy to explain them to anyone who asked. I met a bass clarinet player (think giant clarinet; a bastard offspring of a clarinet and a saxophone) who explained the concept of a bass clarinet – genuinely new to me – and as a violinist wandered along, I had the opportunity to ask them what was so bad about ‘bum notes’. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen on subtitles, usually as hearing people wince and flinch, but I’ve never been bothered by them nor understood what the fuss was about; it’s just a wrong note. How bad can it be?

The clarinettist and violinist did their best to explain that it’s when two notes clash together – then they demonstrated it for me. They played together, then deliberately did a ‘bum note’ for me, right next to me, and damn.

To explain to my fellow deaf readers who may, like me, not have appreciated a ‘bum note’ in its full glory, find a blackboard. Run your fingernails down it. Feel how the weird vibration sets your teeth on edge and makes your hair rise? That’s what a ‘bum note’ feels like when you’re next to it. Is that what hearing people feel every time they hear a bum note? No wonder they hate it so much, the poor darlings! And bless those two players for their patient explanations and personal demonstrations, really felt like they were only too happy to help me understand elements of music that have passed me by.

One of the things the various orchestra members did was to play their instruments and encourage us to touch the instrument while they were playing – a brilliant idea. Now I know what a violin feels like when it’s played and I think I have a better understanding of why hearing people like it so much; I didn’t really ‘get’ violins before, as they produce a ‘soft’ sound that I perhaps I don’t really appreciate, but they sound nice up close and feel nice when played. Another win for the concert! The best instrument for this though, was the double bass; it feels like a really deep purr, and putting my head on the body of the instrument (yes, really) felt like a deep purr buzzing through my skull. Believe it or not, it was actually quite soothing. Bbbbrrrrrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm……

The concert proper began with some interactive explanations of basic music concepts, with Andy turning it into a game where the audience could ‘boomerang’ sound and bounce it back and forth. There was also a demonstration of the ‘speaker box’ – basically a wooden box on the ground, positioned above a speaker so whatever sound there was blasted through the speaker and made the box vibrate. Andy got a couple of kids to demonstrate it by getting them to stand on it and giving them a microphone, and one innocent little boy was so enthralled with feeling his own voice that he started jumping up and down on it going ‘Oh! Ah! Oh! Ah! Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh! Ah! Yes! YES! YES!’… Whilst my hearing-aids don’t usually pick up low-level sounds, I’ll swear I heard muffled chuckles coming from all around me. Or maybe that was just me – stop it woman, he’s just an innocent little munchkin discovering the vibration of his voice, don’t laugh. A thought process I suspect occurred in many of the adult section of the audience…

I digress. The concert as a whole was enthusiastically delivered, by everyone, and it was a great atmosphere. The kids were really getting into it, and so was I, I loved it. During some of the pieces of music, the audience was invited to go into the orchestra where empty seats had been set up strategically within the orchestra where people could easily be led there and sit down amongst the music, brilliant idea. It’s like being in the middle of a wall of musical sound, it was great. Even better, a guide was asking people in turn if they would like to come and touch an instrument as it was being played as part of an orchestra, and of course I said yes when she came to me. I was led to a violin, which I duly touched, though it did feel a bit strange to touch a stranger’s instrument while they were playing it (get your mind of the gutter, readers) and it was great – seriously, if you can arrange it, sit in the middle of an orchestra in full flow and touch the violin; you‘ll feel the vibrations of not just the violin, but underneath it, the symphony of the whole orchestra. Huh. This must be why hearing people like orchestra music so much. It does actually feel – and sound – quite nice.

I presume the invasion of personal space by random deaf members of the public had already been cleared with the orchestra in advance, but I was still impressed that having people led to them and having them touch their stuff while they were playing didn’t seem to put them off at all, and indeed one of the cutest things I saw that whole evening was a violinist and a little girl:

The guide led the little girl to the violinist. The little girl reached up to touch the violin, but couldn’t quite reach it. The violinist, without breaking stride, gently leaned down so the little girl could touch the violin, still playing all the while. Aw. I wanted to give that violinist a hug. The little girl seemed quite happy as well. Bless. Double bless.

I did that every time we were invited, it was great fun. There was also ‘who wants to be a conductor?’ which was very popular; the children practically rushed the stage and unfortunately I was too slow in making up my mind that I’d like to have a go. Not to worry, it was fun to watch the kids take the orchestra through their paces – and it was amazing to watch the skill of the orchestra that they were able to play to random baton-waving by a child they’d never seen before – kudos! About 20 kids (and adults) did this, with varying levels of knowledge and skill, but I’m pretty sure they all had fun! There were a few show-stealers among them, possible future conductors if I’m any judge, but every single one of them got a round of applause from the audience. The atmosphere was so positive and encouraging, I wish we could have bottled it.

For me one of the highlights of the evening, as a Dr Who fan, was being invited back into the orchestra for the Dr Who theme. And by luck or serendipity, I ended up near the drum section, and as they were inviting us to come and touch instruments, I got to go and touch the biggest bass drum I’ve ever seen. Until that evening, I wasn’t that bothered by the theme tune. It was just weird whistling noises while the TARDIS swirled around.

But standing within the actual BBC National Orchestra of Wales whilst they played it, with my hand on a big bass drum that soaked up every vibration from the orchestra was just fucking magical. It turns out the Dr Who theme tune is far more complex than I had thought. Who knew? In fact I think I’m going put that down as one of the highlights of my life.

Post-concert, I had the chance to chat with several people involved with the show, and was impressed by their enthusiasm; I got the impression the feeling was mutual! Everyone in the audience I spoke to had loved the show, and everyone involved I spoke to had loved doing it. All in all, a great success, and I’m delighted to say that this concert was only the pilot for more concerts planned in February, I’ll definitely be going!

Thanks to everyone involved for such an accessible, educational and thoroughly enjoyable concert! What a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed by an enthusiastic and varied cast, thanks again! And I look forward to the next one 🙂

P.S. BBC’s National Chorus of Wales and Dr Paul Whittaker OBE are teaming up for Handel’s Messiah at St David’s Hall on 14th December, no doubt a more formal event but I’ll be taking a look 🙂

When people are mean…

I’ve had a variety of responses to my ‘shit hearing people say…’ blogs, mostly positive I’m happy and somewhat relieved to say, whether sharing my sentiments, adding their own ‘shit they say’ or joining in the humour, as indeed I am actually trying to be funny-yet-educational with most of my mental responses; unleashing my sarcasm on the various idiotic statements / questions I’ve had to deal with, so that people might laugh and / or make a mental note not to say that to any deaf person they meet.

One or two people have pointed out though, that my comments can be taken negatively. This is true, though they’re not (usually) intended that way; they’re just expressions of the internalised frustration and disbelief some of these comments cause. One person, though, asked:

“Do you think when hearing people say those types of comments… they’re actually trying to be mean?”

I can honestly say no. No, not at all. I’m fully aware that more often than not, silly comments or questions are born entirely of lack of thought or awareness. They’re merely annoying; in the same way that running your fingers down a blackboard and feeling your teeth go on edge is annoying.

When people are actually trying to be mean, it’s much more than annoying. It’s demoralising, disempowering, and infuriating.

People are being mean when:

They pull silly faces and stick their tongue out while saying “can you understand this?”

They hide their lips behind their hand and demand to know what they just said. For extra points, one person who did this then refused to believe I couldn’t do it because I’m totally reliant on lip-reading with non-signers, because ‘you speak so well’. Basically called me a liar and accused me of playing for sympathy.

They flick my hearing-aid with a finger, then laugh as I scramble to save it from dropping on the floor.

They treat me like I’m completely stupid when they realise I’m deaf. I’m considering carrying around my newly-minted MA certificate in order to prevent this in future.

They hoot or yell directly into my hearing-aid, overloading the microphone and electronics and causing me to wince and / or jump; then laugh. Yeah, that’s really funny.

They wave their hands and contort their faces in a very mocking way, not unlike a certain ‘comedy sketch’ broadcast by Saturday Night Live ripping off Lydia Callis, the ASL terp made famous by terping for Mayor Bloomberg during Hurricane Sandy (and kudos to New York for providing a terp for NY’s many deaf residents!). This is an activity usually conducted by drunks. (And for extra points in meanness, compare deaf women to dogs – watch the clip. It’s not just the ‘interpreter’; they all piled on).

They ask if I plan to have children, then suggest I might be irresponsible to pass on my genes when I say I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it.

They say I shouldn’t be driving because I’m deaf (actually, deaf people are statistically no more likely to have accidents, thank you very much) and ask how I know when emergency vehicles are coming. Um, bright blue flashing lights? Plus, they tend to be painted in bright, attention-getting colours. They’re kind of hard to miss. That said, I did nearly swallow my tongue once when I was overtaken by a police car doing about 100mph while I was trundling along at 30 on a quiet road. But that was hardly my fault, by the time I knew they were there, they were half a mile away. That must have been some emergency.

They laugh patronisingly when I misunderstand something and refuse to repeat it.

They say ‘What? What? What?’, making me repeat something over and over, until I lose confidence that I’m saying the bloody word right, before dissolving into hysterical giggles.

They roll their eyes every time I miss something. Sometimes, it’s a martyred sigh, as if I’ve been put on this Earth for one reason only; to test their patience and fortitude. (Learn sign language then, if talking to me is so difficult, or if you can’t be bothered with that, write it down. It’s not rocket science. You’re only making it difficult for yourself and blaming me).

Once upon a time, when I was still a young, nervous deaf person finding their way in the world, on a train back home from Uni, I was peacefully reading a book (one of Terry Pratchett’s, so I was fully immersed) when the train stopped at Birmingham New Street. Since this wasn’t my stop, I continued reading my book.

Suddenly, there was a massive blow to my shoulder, knocking me into the window next to me. In shock, I looked up and there was a man, his fist raised, demanding that I get out of ‘his seat’. Utterly stunned, and struck dumb, I shakily gathered my things and stood up. As I shuffled out of the seat, I managed to find my voice and say: ‘You know, I’m DEAF. A tap on the shoulder is FINE.” Lame I know, but it was the best I could come up with. He refused to look me in the eyes.

Turning around, I found that the entire carriage was watching the scene and felt like a rabbit being pinned by many headlights. Thinking it couldn’t get any worse, I started to shuffle down the aisle, head bowed.

Then, all of a sudden, seats were free. People invited me to sit next to them (seriously, how often does that happen on British transport?) or offered me their own seats. So many people rushed to offer me a seat, it was almost like being royalty. Heavily pregnant royalty. I was suddenly the most popular person in the carriage, while the man slunk into ‘his seat’ and sat looking out of the window to avoid the stares.

I ended up sitting next to a woman who said darkly: “there are ways and means of doing things.” I got the impression that what had horrified the carriage wasn’t the blatant assault per se, but that the man hadn’t attempted to get me out of his seat more politely. How very British.

If this happened to me today, I’d be texting 80999 like crazy to have the guy arrested. But at the time, there was no 80999 and either I didn’t have enough confidence to flag down the train manager or was too much in shock to think of doing so, I’m not sure which. But so help me, no-one is getting away with doing that again.

Add to this all the times that I have been pushed aside or given filthy looks for not moving out of the way when I simply didn’t hear ‘excuse me’. True enough, they’re not being mean because they know I’m deaf, but indirectly it is because I’m deaf. And they apparently can’t see, or be bothered to think to look for, my bright blue earmoulds and goth-black hearing-aids.

This is what happens when people are being mean. Luckily, these types of incidents, where I have to deal with real ignorance and hostility, are few and far between. I’ve only been physically assaulted once (I’m choosing not to count all the times of being pushed aside; those didn’t leave a mark – both on my skin and on my confidence in public spaces) and I steer clear of obvious drunk muppets when I’m out.

I’m happy to say that the vast majority of the hearing people that I have met have been nice, if maybe sometimes a bit clueless. I can put up with occasional daft comments (though I may make a note of them for future blog posts…) because I know that far more often than not, it’s not intended to offend. It’s annoying, it’s frustrating, but it’s unintentional, so I try to deal with those with patience, whatever my mental musings or gripings might be.

But I do wish people wouldn’t be mean.

Shit hearing people say – my top ten!

It seems that lately there’s a theme going around – 10 things not to say to deaf people – with several bloggers coming up with their own versions. I’d just like to wave my hand and mention, humbly, that I did it too, way back in January, inspired by various ‘shit … people say to …’ memes at the time and a deaf person who made their own version. In fact I fear I may have gone off one slightly… or perhaps that should be twice, so I’ve picked ten of my faves from my own lists, based on how often they’ve been said to me and / or level of irritation caused.

I should emphasise that a) most hearing people are lovely, it’s just that there’s always one, and b) the sarcastic responses that follow are not what was said at the time, but mental comments or smart-ass replies that I only managed to come up with after the fact. Usually I go with patience. But that’s not to say I’m not tempted…

With that disclaimer out of the way, here comes my top ten!

1) “Oh, are deaf people allowed to drive?”
Yes. When you ban music, radio, mobiles, people from talking and any and all auditory distractions in cars, you can take my driving licence. In fact, not even then. It’s mine, I passed my test first time, I have a clean record and ten years’ worth of no-claims bonuses, so naff off.

2) “Perhaps you could add your father to your bank account and that way we could call him and discuss things without bothering you with a phone call every time.”
Thank you for that suggestion, HSBC. Or you could just do as you’re damn well asked and just text me if there’s a problem. I’m perfectly capable of managing my own financial affairs.

3) “Aha! How did you know what I was saying?”
Because I know the topic of the conversation, and you’re predictable. Just because I correctly guessed what you said when I wasn’t looking at you doesn’t mean I’ve been faking my deafness for the last 25 years. But saying this as if you’ve just caught me with my hand in the cookie jar just makes me want to hurt you.

4) “You’re so brave!”
Let me tell you a story. My great-uncle was in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. A few days after the D-Day Landings, he was dropped behind enemy lines into occupied France. If I’ve inherited any of that gutsiness I’ll be delighted. But calling me brave merely for getting on with my life somehow feels like an insult compared what people have done and do every day. When I parachute into an enemy-occupied country, you can call me brave.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

(Ode of Remembrance by Laurence Binyon, in honour of Remembrance Sunday just passed)

5) “I’ll tell you later”… “oh, I forgot.”
Oh, for…

6) “How do your hearing-aids work?”
No idea. All I know is; Microphone – delicate electronics – amplifier – earmould. There’s no magic. That really is all a hearing-aid is. And no, you cannot take it apart to find out.

7) “Can you read their lips and tell me what they’re saying?” *pointing to someone fifty feet away*
Oddly enough, no. Nor can I see through clothes, or be repelled by Kryptonite. I have enough trouble with people ten feet away.

8) “Oh, hello.” *turn to computer and mumble unintelligibly. Look up* “well?” (Receptionists in audiology departments should be trained out of doing this with electroshock therapy)
Well, what?

9) “It doesn’t matter.”
Oh, my lord. You did NOT just say that to me. Do you have any idea how many times and how many people have said that to me, to deaf people, the world over? Effectively, what you’re saying is “it doesn’t matter if YOU haven’t understood.”

10) “Why are you ignoring me?”
This isn’t even worthy of a response. I’ll email you my audiogram in an attachment. Or it might be a virus. Say hello to the BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH!

Once again, most people are lovely. But heaven knows, no-one’s perfect.

And if you got a kick out of this, check out ‘Shit people say… to Sign Language Interpreters‘ and the comments. Some of them are priceless!

‘Express Yourself’ at Portsmouth Bookfest!

I’m nervous.

I’m excited.

Regular readers of my blog may know that I had an amazing time at the Signing Hands Across the Water poetry festival in Philadelphia and was exposed to different styles of Sign Language poetry, including use of interpreters to give a voiceover. The ASL poets both had interpreters, whilst none of the BSL poets did, and we had many fruitful and interesting discussions that weekend, some of which are still whirling around my head. Everyone I ask has a different opinion as to whether Sign Language poetry should be translated. Should it have a voiceover? Should it be left ‘pure’? Does it make it easier for hearing people who don’t sign to understand it? Or are we making them lazy and unable to appreciate the beauty of the poetry on its own merit?

By almost sheer luck, I’ve been given the opportunity to explore these questions. I’ve been invited to perform at Portsmouth Bookfest next Monday 29th October, just managed to get hold some final details a few days ago (they’re so busy organising I think they may have forgotten about me slightly – I’d better give them something to remember!) and here is the poster!

Express Yourself BookFest poster

I realise it’s short notice, but will be seeing if we can’t get a video made of the event! I will be performing with Sam Cox, Portsmouth Poet Laureate and Joe McQuilken, Portsmouth Young Poet Laureate, so will be exalted company 🙂 Their poetry will be interpreted into BSL, so a fully accessible event!

As you can see, the theme is ‘Express Yourself’ and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to explore different ways of ‘expressing myself’ through my poetry, by performing various poems with a different degree of voiceover. The first will fully voiced, the last will have next to nothing, and there’ll be varying degrees in between. I’m hoping to get feedback from the audience as to which they preferred and why. The lucky interpeter is Kyra Pollitt, who is not only a highly experienced terp, she’s into poetry as much as I am, maybe even more, and am hoping we’ll be a poetic force to be reckoned with!

I am really hoping that despite the very short notice, we can get some of the deaf community through the doors, please spread news of the event far and wide and see if any sign language poetry lovers would like to come! I am really keen to get feedback from as wide a range of people as possible; from deaf to hearing, from signers to non-signers, from the young to old; everyone – which poem works best and why? Does the voiceover help? Does it distract? Or does the strength of the poem determine its impact rather than whether its ‘translated’ or not?

I’m really keen to get some answers to these questions, even if it only leaves me with more questions! I would love to explore this side of poetry – signed / English, and anyone that wants to join me, and is free at 7pm in the area of Menuhin Theatre, Portsmouth on Mon 29th, is very welcome 🙂

Today, I am a Deaf adult.

Recently, I’ve been reading a new blog over at Becoming Deaf, written by Indi, whose experiences I can identify with. She even has her own ‘things not to say to deaf people’ list, and I suspect she’s been much gentler in her responses than I was in my own lists… I digress. As well as discussing the issue of speech, which I may well take up in a future post, she blogged about being ‘Somewhere Between Deaf and Hearing’ and throws open a question about how people have come to accept their identity. I’ve also been reading Melissa Mostyn-Thomas’ musings over at her Journal on ‘Writing, BSL, my Deaf identity and me’, and with all the stuff I’ve been reading for my dissertation, I’ve got identity themes swirling around.

Identity is a fluid, complex subject at the best of times. Today, I identify as a Deaf adult. With or without the capital ‘D’, I’m deaf. Functionally, I’m missing an average of 90 – 95dB, which makes me profoundly deaf. In non-technical terms, I’d be hard put to it to notice a pneumatic drill or a low-flying aircraft without my hearing-aids. Well, I’d still be able to see them, but you get my drift. I’m D/deaf.

But I didn’t always see myself this way.

A little while ago, someone called me ‘hearing impaired’ to my face. Right to my face. I’ll admit it, I blinked. I looked across to the interpreter to see if I’d lip-read them correctly, but they chickened out and signed ‘deaf people’. Aha, a bit of cultural interpreting there, I fancy, but I know what I saw.

I should say at this point, I am not in any way criticising the phenomenon of cultural interpreting, it is a commonplace, even necessary part of translation; languages are so different that colloquial phrases are often ‘lost in translation’ and culturally sensitive interpreting keeps the meaning. When this person said ‘hearing impaired’ they did mean deaf people in general. It just took me by surprise.

Nobody has called me ‘broken’ to my face in years. Besides, the interpreter in question probably (correctly) guessed that signing ‘hearing impaired’ would get some reaction that the hearing person I was talking to would notice, be it anything from a raised eyebrow to slamming down my pen and screaming “they said what?!”

Then I had a dilemma. To correct or not to correct? “Excuse me, please don’t call me deficient”. In the end, I decided to let it lie. Then I wondered why it was even a big deal. Really, it’s just a phrase. Hearing people often think they’re being politically correct when they use it. It’s used in an official capacity, and is almost commonplace. Why did I even have an urge to correct her in the first place?

I think ‘Hearing Impaired’ came about as an attempt to be a) PC and b) to cover all hearing losses from hard-of-hearing right the way through to profoundly deaf whilst being suitably vague as to not reveal level of actual deafness, in one fell swoop.

The problem with that is, ‘hearing impaired’ effectively says ‘hearing damaged’ (the sign it translates to) ‘hearing deficient’ ‘hearing broken’ ‘a hearing person who HAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEIR HEARING’ ‘hearing abnormal’. Not really the image one wants when one is trying to present deafness as just another spectrum within the bounds of ‘normal’ (See Georges Canguilhem’s book for a fascinating discussion on ‘The Normal and The Pathological’).

To me, my deafness is not what holds me back. What holds me back is society’s inability and sometimes even unwillingness to adapt to it. If there were visual display systems everywhere as a matter of course and all children taught basic sign language (studies have shown that sign language at a young age can improve language uptake, so why not use that instead of bloody phonics?) then the lives of many deaf / HoH / ‘hearing impaired’ people would be improved. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me at all (iffy legs notwithstanding). Plus, ‘deaf’ is, to me anyway, a neutral, factual term, whilst ‘hearing impaired’ says ‘broken hearing person’.

The thing is that until I was about 19, I did see myself as hearing impaired. I’d been told I was hearing impaired all my life, been complimented on my speech, been told that I ‘didn’t need to sign’, congratulated for not doing so, told I was doing ever so well, congratulated for even being able to talk, constantly told that being hearing impaired wasn’t going to hold me back at all because I was so clever. Honestly, there are a few people I’d like to take aside now and have a word with them about messing with kids’ heads.

The problem with the above was that I was still struggling. I was falling behind in school and I couldn’t cope in social situations at all. I can hear voices, certainly well enough to mimic words and be complimented on how well I can do so, but only if the voice is clear, with no distractions, and I can only make sense of the voice if I can see the lips, or have other visual clues such as, say, subtitles. Otherwise it’s just random noise. I can’t understand people if there’s any background noise and group conversations are just impossible, it’s like trying to watch multi-player tennis with an invisible ball.

My point being, I was a very unhappy teenager. Whilst I wasn’t officially diagnosed until 20 or so, I’m willing to bet I was severely clinically depressed from about 13 / 14 onwards. Adults kept telling me I had such a good voice and I was going to do ever so well, and yet I wasn’t.

I struggled socially, had only one good friend, rarely understood anything going on round me, was mocked by my peers and occasionally by teachers, teased to death, pushed around, and didn’t do as well in my exams as I knew I should be doing. The school’s own tests in year 7 (for non-UK, the first year of high school), which weren’t based on the curriculum but on aptitude, put me in the top 3% of the entire year. Literally, I was one of the dozen or so smartest out of 300-odd kids. Why was I still getting ‘D’s and ‘C’s? I just couldn’t understand it at all. I started to think it was my own fault for not trying hard enough. Looking back, the answers are obvious now. Heck only knows how much social information and curriculum I was missing.

What got me through was science fiction and books. I’ve always liked reading; curling up and losing myself in a book, creating a whole other world in my head. I credit my love of reading for my English skills; I certainly didn’t get them from school. By the time I was 14, I was reading Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov. Sci-fi shows such as Babylon 5, Space Precinct, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek TNG, DS9 & Voyager, Farscape, Stargate, any sci-fi show that was subtitled, I watched faithfully. Despite not understanding much of ‘real life’ going on round me, my vocabulary was way ahead of most of my peers. So why wasn’t I doing better in school? You’ve no idea how much I used to beat myself up over this.

As Indi says: “For most of my life, I felt like a broken hearing person… my conversations were mostly guessing games and hard work… People get tired of being asked to repeat themselves all the time, and it really doesn’t take long before you start to internalize that you’re just not trying hard enough, that your communication needs are an inconvenience, that there’s something wrong with you.”

Replace the word ‘people’ with ‘moody teenagers who can sense weakness like sharks sense blood’ and you have my pre-Uni education in a nutshell. Leaving school at 18, I was a shy, socially awkward, nervous hearing-impaired wreck.

My life only began to change when I started Uni, started learning sign language, and started to see myself as ‘D/deaf’. A Deaf person who knew their legal rights, a Deaf person who could adapt to different situations, a Deaf person who could have a conversation in the noisiest, rowdiest places, up to and including next to the speakers in nightclubs. A Deaf person with friends. Friends, plural!

In short, a Deaf person who wasn’t embarrassed, ashamed or afraid to ask for or even demand help.

Is it any wonder I still flinch when someone calls me ‘hearing impaired’? It gives me flashbacks to a time when I really thought it was my own fault for not trying hard enough or not being good enough at lip-reading, at fitting in with a world that for the most part has no idea what it’s like to be deaf.

That’s not to say that I’ve found total acceptance in the signing Deaf world. I was lucky at Uni, but in the years since then I’ve done things like make the mistake of making a joke based on an English pun in front of a Deaf person that I didn’t know well. After I had to explain the joke, which had fallen totally flat, they gave me a look of vague disgust, signed “good English”, and then ignored me for the rest of the night. That hurt. So does being called ‘half-hearing’, ‘oral’, and a sign that translates roughly to ‘speaks well’, but not in a nice way.

Thankfully, I’ve not had to put up with too much of that, and on the rare occasion that it happens, I’ve learned to ignore it, or even make a joke of it. And the truth is, despite all this, I’ve found far more understanding and acceptance within the D/deaf world than I have in the hearing world. Even so, when I picture myself in terms of the hearing and Deaf worlds, I usually see myself in the middle of a Venn diagram, not fully part of either world, yet part of both.

Today, I am a confident Deaf adult. I get on stage and perform sign language poetry, sign songs and occasionally plays. I do presentations for the NDCS. I write, whether it’s short plays or blog posts or a potentially controversial dissertation. I try to educate people on how to communicate with me, how to help me, and what it’s like to be deaf. It’s taken me ten years to get here. It’s taken counselling, some medication, support of friends and family and a lot of hard work.

Here I am.

My name is Donna Williams, aka DeafFirefly, and I am Deaf.

Addendum: And I would like to thank everyone at the University of Central Lancashire, 03-06. I really don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t chosen to study Deaf Studies and Philosophy there, if the other D/deaf students hadn’t accepted me so quickly, and taught me to sign. Choosing to study there was the single most important decision I ever made. It changed my life.

My poems in ‘Whose Flame Is It Anyway?’

“Whose Flame Is It Anyway?” Anthology
A celebration in words and pictures

 

 

Not my book, sadly, but an anthology by Disability Arts Cymru, with poetry, prose, art and pictures of various productions. I’ve been lucky enough to have two English poems accepted for the book, and I’m told there’s a very fetching pic of me in my ‘Queen of the Birds’ Eryr Euraid regalia 🙂

Here’s the official blurb: ‘Through “Whose Flame is it Anyway?” Disability Arts Cymru has uncovered a wealth of talent amongst young disabled people in Wales. For four years, our young poets, painters, performers and musicians have never ceased to amaze & inspire. This anthology is a celebration of their skill and passion.’

Good eh? I’ve been invited to the book launch, where I’ll be performing sign language poems, but sadly, the event is RSVP only. Sorry, folks! The poems – which I still need to compose… – will reflect the English poems I have in the book – ‘When the Dead Are Cured’ and ‘Lament of a Bilingual Poet’. If you wanna read them, you’ll have to buy the book! Speaking of which, you can order here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whose-Flame-Anyway-Macsen-McKay/dp/1907476091

Just to whet your appetite, here are the first three lines of ‘When the Dead are Cured’, affectionately known as the ‘Zombies Haiku’.

Zombies surround me:
Bodies, faces, say nothing.
Only their mouths move.

Ooh, I wonder what I could possibly be talking about? 🙂

 

Access to Justice?

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

A while ago I blogged about the Ministry of Justice’s decision to give the entire court interpreting contract to a certain company called Applied Language Solutions. Applied are a ‘one-stop shop’ of the kind beloved by the Anonymous Interpreter. Things were not going well.

They’re still not going well.

They’re going so badly in fact, that the Commons Justice Select Committee and the National Audit Office have confirmed they may investigate Applied, and the Crown Prosecution Service have delayed signing up fully to the framework agreement under which Applied supply interpreters.

I wonder why things aren’t going well. Maybe we can ask Jajo the Rabbit or Alexander Orlov the KGB Meerkat, both of whom are registered Applied interpreters. Oh, wait.

It seems that their human companions put their details onto a registration form for Applied as an experiment, and both have been sent invitations to an assessment, and regular job updates, despite not yet having attended said assessments, or indeed provided any documentation proving their credentials.

I’m sure it’s OK, no doubt there’s someone out there who really needs their trial translated into fluent nose-twitching and carrot-nibbling. And apparently, despite the stories of these non-human terps going public, they’re still registered and still getting emails.

This stringent adherence to only recruiting the best, most qualified interpreters and quick reactions to potentially embarrassing problems may have something to do with Applied’s woes.

Or it could be that Applied keep sending the wrong interpreter for the language requested; Czech for Slovakian, Latvian for Lithuanian, Somali for Kurdish Sorani, etc.

Or it could be that they think multiple defendants only need one interpreter.

Or it could be that they think that all languages can be found within a 25 mile radius.

Or it could be that the interpreters keep turning up late.

Or it could be that their interpreters sometimes don’t turn up at all.

And the Ministry of Justice have said they are now going to monitor the situation. Wait. Weren’t they monitoring it before?

No.

It seems that Applied have been allowed to monitor their own performance and set their own performance indicators. As the MOJ said in the above article:

“The definitions of whether interpreters completed or not were decided by the company itself”

Under what circumstances does a contractor give a job to a sub-contractor, whilst saying:

“Here’s the money, and don’t forget to monitor your own performance so we don’t have to.”?

The irony here is that a google search for Paul Pindar (the CEO of Capita, the company that now owns Applied) throws up a link to an interview in the Independent, where he’s asked what the first thing he learned in business was. His response:

“One of the early ones was that if there’s an issue to be tackled then you should do it straight away. I’m a great believer that a small problem today becomes a big problem tomorrow. Fix challenges as soon as possible and then, hopefully, none of the problems will get out of control.”

That’s a lesson he would do well to pay attention to today.

Because amongst other horror stories at RPSI Linguist Lounge, there are several of court cases going ahead anyway, despite the lack of or incompetence of an interpreter.

Eventually some solicitor or barrister is going to check the Crown Prosecution Service’s legal guidance on having interpreters for defendants, which states:

“If a defendant requires an interpreter to interpret the proceedings, it is the responsibility of the court to arrange for the attendance and payment of an independent interpreter. See Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 section 19(3)(b) (Archbold 6-39). Where there is more than one defendant, each should have a separate interpreter.

A plea is uninformed if the defendant has not fully understood the nature of the case to which he is pleading because of his inadequate understanding of the language and because of the inadequate explanation given by his legal representative See Cuscani v UK (2002 All ER (D) 139 (Sep).”

I… I’ve just had a vision of the future! I can see… I can see the Court of Appeal, absolutely snowed under by all the appeals under ‘uninformed plea’ arguments. Long, expensive, unprofitable appeals. Small problems turning into big problems, anyone?

Truly, I am a prophet.

But to be fair, Capita (or ‘Crapita’ as they’re known to the Private Eye) are no stranger to problems, so even the deluge of appeals may not be enough to shake Applied and their backers.

Geoffrey Buckingham, the Chairman of the Association of Court and Police Interpreters, has written dozens of letters (some of which I’ve seen, and he presents a very good case – well, he would) to the Minister for Justice, to Capita, to Applied, to just about everyone and has campaigned against the MOJ contract, and earlier this month he delivered a damning speech about the situation for a ‘Training for the Future’ workshop in Helsinki, where he systematically pulled apart the MOJ’s and Applied’s mistakes. Read it, it’s a good speech. He finished by saying that if you don’t speak English, there will be no justice for you in the UK.

For my part, I understand English perfectly. I just don’t always understand it very well when it’s spoken at me, especially across an echoey court from 20 feet away. One of these days, someone might push me too far with daft questions about whether I can drive or whether I can read, and I’m going to give them a slap.

I almost certainly won’t understand my rights when they’re read to me as I’m arrested, which in itself was enough for a case against a deaf man to be thrown out a few months ago. Imagine I get dragged into a court. Most decent interpreters, and this includes Sign Language interpreters, won’t touch Applied with a bargepole. Most likely, I’ll end up with a ‘CSW’ with basic level one BSL. Will I understand the slightest thing? Unlikely.

Justice served? It won’t matter. If I’m found not guilty or the case is dismissed due to crap interpreting, I’ll skip away scot-free while blogging about the uselessness of the interpreter.

If I’m found guilty, I’ll just appeal on the grounds of the useless interpreter, then claim compensation. It’s win-win.

Now think of all the defendants that have been let down by Applied, which according to their own figures runs into the thousands. How many solicitors will start to think along the same lines?

Someone better tell the Court of Appeal to get ready.

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.

Cartoons?

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’…