Lost in Translation – International Sign Language Day

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Michelle roca

Michelle Roca, Director of the Deaf Service of Caritas writes:

British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are very different, despite the fact that people on both sides of the Atlantic speak English. On one occasion I was trying to connect to an ASL user and find a way to communicate with them. After several minutes of both trying and struggling to be understood, the penny dropped; neither of us were deaf, we could speak to each other in English!

In 2017, the Deaf community joined Fr. Norbert Fernandes and members of his Welwyn Garden City parish on a pilgrimage to Fatima. While we were there we stayed in a hotel which also had a group of deaf people from Belgium. In our group there were deaf people who had Irish Sign Language as their first language. These Irish Deaf people became my interpreters, translating from BSL to Belgian Sign Language and vice versa using their knowledge of Irish Sign Language, so that I could chat with their group.

Although there is a form of the international sign (which was developed by the World Federation of the Deaf for international meetings), the international sign is not recognized as a language. Like Esperanto, the international sign is not used in everyday life.

September 23 is International Sign Language Day, during International Deaf Week. Figures from the World Federation of the Deaf tell us that there are approximately 72 million deaf people in the world. Over 80% of deaf people live in developing countries and collectively there are over 300 different sign languages. Although there are many different languages, many Deaf people around the world face similar struggles over lack of access to information in their own language.

In the 17th and 18th centuries in Martha’s Vineyard, the occurrence of deafness in the population greatly exceeded the average seen elsewhere. Perhaps due to immigration from a small community of people from the Weald of Kent, levels of hereditary deafness were high due to intermarriages within this small community. The recessive deafness gene was apparent in many generations of the majority of families who lived there. Deaf people were seen as part of everyday life; everyone spoke sign language, everyone was included. In 21st century Britain, deaf people still strive for equality and access to information in their own language. In March 2003, BSL was recognized as a real language, but almost 20 years later it still has no legal status. Many deaf people are campaigning for a BSL law through parliament, to ensure that deaf people are not once again denied basic access to public information, as the absence of a BSL interpreter points out. during the Prime Minister’s announcements on the lockdown and Westminster briefings on the pandemic.

We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, one family in faith, deaf and hearing; get to know your deaf siblings – and maybe learn sign language.

For more information on the BSL Act Now! Campaign, please visit the BDA website: https://bda.org.uk/bsl-act-now

Key words: Deaf, Sign Language, Shell Roca, Michelle Roca

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