Deaf History

Deaf history in the UK is important to deaf people who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first or main language. Understanding Deaf* history and the impact of Parliamentary decisions on those with profound hearing loss is key to appreciating the barriers faced by sign language users in the modern world. (Deaf* refers to native sign language users who view themselves as members of a linguistic minority).

BSL: how, when and where was it invented?

When BSL learners ask this question, many students are surprised to learn there are historical references to deaf people dating back to Socrates. Here in the UK, there are historical documents dating back to the 1500s that indicate deaf people were part of society and carried out activities such as going to school, working and getting married.  Sign language has probably been around for as long as people have been able to communicate with each other. Nonetheless, there are key historical dates that mark the modern use of British Sign Language in the UK.

Deaf people have fought for equality for over 100 years. Using BSL is central to Deaf identity. Native sign language users do not see themselves as having a disability. Instead, using BSL is seen as central to a rich culture, history and community. 

Historically, when children attended deaf schools, they developed a strong sense of community. This carried on into adulthood when adults attended deaf clubs. In recent times, many deaf clubs have closed so technology now plays a major part in helping sign language users stay in touch with each other. There are a number of Facebook groups such as Deafland UK where members discuss popular news topics and other topics of interest.

 BSL was officially recognised in 2003. Surprisingly, BSL still does not have legal protection, like Welsh or Cornish. However, the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 should increase access to services for those who use BSL. The Deaf community in the rest of the UK are keen to see the UK government protect BSL.

The internet has helped increase interest in British Sign Language by both members of the public and politicians. Hopefully, BSL’s popularity will translate into equality and improved access. 

Our deaf tutors teach our students the fundamentals of Deaf history and the rich culture within BSL. As students progress and become more fluent in BSL, they become involved in the Deaf community. Many students enjoy becoming part of a community that holds strong values of unity.

Deaf History – what it means now

‘Found’ is a short film about Deaf identity. Identifying as a member of the culturally Deaf community is linked to exposure to sign language, Deaf Clubs and other experiences that incur naturally in the signing community.

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