As many children return to school this week, Google recently celebrated Britain’s first school for the deaf, through a ‘Google Doodle’ of signing the letters of ‘Google’ in the British Sign Language (BSL) alphabet.
The first school for deaf children in Britain was opened by Thomas Braidwood. After accepting his first deaf pupil in 1760, Braidwood devoted his life to teaching the deaf. He established the school in Edinburgh, and by 1780 had 20 pupils.
Did you know?
News articles about the Google Doodle claimed that how Braidwood communicated with his pupils laid the groundwork for what BSL is today, but this is not the case.
The earliest recorded instance of language among Deaf people through Sign Language occurs in the Talmud, and references to Sign Language are also found in the Bible and in Greek and Roman writings.
The first record of Sign Language in the UK can be found in the Parish book of St Martins’, Leicester, which includes a wedding conducted partly in Sign Language on 5th February 1576.
For more information, visit the British Deaf Association website.
So, what is BSL? British Sign Language is a visual language which uses gestures, facial expression and body language. It is the preferred language for deaf people in the UK. Like spoken English when pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar differs from one area to another, different forms of BSL exist around the UK. BSL is not, however, identical to British English. Like all languages, BSL evolves and new signs are created for new inventions, hobbies, etc.
Braidwood’s first pupil Charles Shirreff, went on to become a painter, despite being described as ‘one of the most desperate of human calamities’ (18th century writer Samuel Johnson)!
It would be pleasant to think that the days of discriminating against people who were deaf/hard of hearing were long gone.
Now, however, deaf/hard of hearing people still experience ignorance and judgement from the hearing. When one considers that BSL has still not received legal status, and people within the deaf community are still facing exclusion, being denied human rights and mocked, it’s clear that hearing people in society still have a long way to go.
Looking forward, hearing people can begin to contribute to making this progress by, simply, educating themselves about the deaf community. As a starting point, you can check out this video (which includes some swearing) on things that deaf people are most likely fed up of being told. You can also check out local courses that teach British Sign Language.
Please note: This article was initially written for www.goonchorley.org but has been amended and republished with the writer’s permission.