Deaf Roots & Pride: Bringing sign language into the home

john family with collate mcmahon 2

BDA Northern Ireland project which appoints families with BSL tutors was set up after mentors observed communication frustrations between the young people they work with and their parents and siblings. John Cradden reports.

Learning any new language is hard work, particularly if opportunities to practice it outside of a classroom setting are not always available.

But if you have the opportunity to learn as a family in the comfort and intimacy of your own home, this can make a huge difference to the speed at which you acquire fluency. After all, you are all living together under the same roof and communicating constantly day after day, so the opportunities to use it are practically endless.

Of course, any family will need an incentive to become a truly bilingual household – such as moving to a country where the language is not your native one. But when it comes to British Sign Language, the incentive will already be there if you have a deaf child in your family.

That child may already be using BSL if they attend a deaf school or a mainstream school with a deaf unit, but given that over 90% of deaf children are born to hearing families and attend mainstream schools, exposure to the language is likely to be limited. Even those who attend schools with deaf units may not be getting positive exposure to it in a way that might help develop their overall communication and languages skills.

This is where the BDA’s Sign Language in the Home (SLITH) programme can help. It’s part of a three-year lottery funded project entitled Deaf Roots & Pride which is aimed at children and young people aged between 8 and 20 who are transitioning from primary to secondary education or from secondary school to third level, employment or other environments.

One of the main strands of the project is a programme where deaf mentors are paired with children and become role models, and it’s usually through this that families are made aware of the opportunity to have family tutoring in BSL.

SLITH co-ordinator Colette McMahon says teaching sign language in the home is not a new concept but was never particularly high on the list of priorities for organisations including the BDA, but the Deaf Roots & Pride project changed all that.

Frustration in the home

“It was basically after the mentors began meeting the children that they realised that a lot of the issues seemed to stem from a lack of communication with parents, siblings, extended family, grandparents etc,” said McMahon. “We began to realise how isolated they were from the communication within the family and how frustrated they were.

“They would come home from school, and the problems would be the same. The mentors provide an opportunity to meet deaf adults, deaf role models, and they can talk about what it’s like at home and say things like ‘my parents don’t sign, they don’t understand me’, ‘my
siblings tease me or leave me out’, ‘I’ve no social life’ or ‘I don’t have anyone to talk to’. So that’s when we try and sit down and discuss the issues with the families.”

SLITH was developed as a pilot project with the principal aim of improving communication for the deaf child with their parents, brothers and sisters and wider family.

john family with collate mcmahon

Unexpected demand

“It started quite small but the feedback from the families was that communication had improved, and then word spread to other families and they said ‘oh we want that, too’

The BDA office started to get so many queries that we only began to realise just how many families required it, and the demand has continued to increase and so now there is a big
gap to fill.”

McMahon notes that organisations like the National Deaf Children’s Society offers signing classes for families but that they are in a group format as opposed to working with the family in their own home.

The project started quite small but the feedback from the families was that communication had improved and then word spread to other families who said they wanted tutoring too

“For our young people, the SLITH service is all about helping their entire family to learn and so everybody is learning together and there’s proper communication together at every opportunity, as well as the chance to ask questions.”

To date 18 families have taken advantage of the SLITH programme in the Northern Ireland region and the Belfast office has managed to secure further funding for the programme from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL). All the BSL tutors are professionally trained and qualified.

The beauty of sign language is that it’s a language to which deaf people have unfettered access and so therefore becomes a great leveller in terms of communication within a family.

So far the John family from Belfast have been receiving lessons in their home from McMahon for just a few months, but they clearly enjoy it. Sitting on the sofa between her parents Vinod and Anu, eight-year-old Angel is initially a little shy in our company, but once McMahon starts their lesson she is soon at ease, displaying curiosity, enthusiasm and humour in equal measure, while the rest of the family are also keen to join in. Particularly her little brother!

A boost in confidence

angel john signingAngel, who is experiencing gradually progressive deafness and struggles with her hearing aids, attends a school with a deaf unit. But between the sign language tutoring and regular visits from her mentor, her parents report that her confidence has improved in leaps and bounds.

Her mother Anu says that Angel didn’t initially take to sign language, either at school or elsewhere, but when her hearing deteriorated further, she began to show more interest.

“When we started learning as a family she really liked it, and it’s really helping now at bedtimes, for instance, either going to bed or in getting up.

“Sometimes when we’re travelling in the car it’s very hard to talk to Angel with the background noise, but with sign language it’s very useful,” adds her father Vinod.

We thought she would be able to hear better with hearing aids; we never thought she’d need to learn sign language. Now it’s really important because it’s helping her to communicate

Like a lot of parents, Anu and Vinod had not considered sign language seriously in the past until they got in contact with the BDA.

“When she was diagnosed as deaf we thought she would be able to hear better with hearing aids; we never thought she’d need to learn sign language. Now it’s really important because it’s helping her to communicate and get the key words.”

But now that they have started down the road, they also appreciate that they have a lot to learn.

“It’s a big step for us to learn sign language; it’s not that easy,” said Anu. “We’ve definitely noticed that when we go to any of the deaf association events, many of them sign and we feel a bit lost.” But they can see that knowing some sign makes Angel feel more at home and to mingle more with the other deaf children and are hoping that she will get opportunities to mix with them during the summer.

Toni George, who runs the mentoring programme and also acts as Angel’s mentor, says that when a child is diagnosed as deaf, audiologists would rarely encourage the families to learn sign language. “Normally the information and advice doesn’t include sign language, but if the audiologists did encourage families to learn sign language, maybe it would be a different story.”

At the moment, families are limited to a course of 10 weeks duration, but if they need more, that can be considered.

Deaf Roots and Pride co-ordinator Sue Barry adds that there has also been some demand for SLITH among families with deaf children younger than eight, but that is also catered for too.

Barry also recently sent out a questionnaire amongst the participating families and received a “lot of very, very positive feedback”. She was pleased in particular with a comment from one family where the father, who works as a doctor both in Scotland as well as in Belfast, was able to use the sign language he had learned with some of his patients. “So it has benefits not just within the home, but in professional settings too,” she said.

Support a family to learn BSL

Inspired by the powerful results emerging from Sign Language in the Home in Northern Ireland, the BDA wants to roll it out on a national basis following the expansion of Deaf Roots & Pride which has now been set up around the UK. 

Family Signs costs £1,500 per family and we would like to include 125 families in the scheme over the next year to coincide with our 125 anniversary celebrations. We are interested in hearing from sponsors who would be interested in supporting a family to learn BSL. We would also like to hear from families who would be interested in taking up tuition. 

Interested sponsors/families can get in touch with the BDA at: 


Phone: 020 7697 4140