My mother, Sheila Webster (formerly Watson, nee Keil), who has died of cancer aged 76 on 13th March 2017, taught British Sign Language (BSL), helping non-English-speaking parents of various ethnic backgrounds to sign with their children. These parents could then sign to adults who had spoken English as a first language and BSL as a second language, and also make themselves understood by other deaf signing parents.
She visited families where a parent, usually the mother, could not speak English, taking everyday objects into the home and showing the sign for each, which the parent copied. She did the same with clothing. To express emotions, she would sign “like”, for example, and show the sign with a smile; similarly, for “don’t like”, she gave the sign with a frown.
Numbers and time were also taught, by matching the sign with the numeral on the clock, and indicating where the hands would be for “half past”, “quarter past” for instance, and showing the signs to match them.
Born with some hearing to deaf parents Ron Keil, a tailor, and his wife, Ethel (nee Myer), in west London, Sheila grew up with three deaf siblings, learning BSL from birth. She attended a mainstream primary school with a unit for hearing impaired children, and then, when her hearing diminished and she became profoundly deaf, Oak Lodge school in Wandsworth, south London.
In 1985 Sheila was one of the first deaf native BSL users to complete a new British Sign Language Training Agency course at Durham University, where she qualified to train the teachers of BSL. Her outgoing personality and strong sense of humour made her a popular teacher. In Bedfordshire and Luton, from the mid-80s to early 90s Sheila was recruited to assist teaching deaf children of all ages and help hearing parents of deaf children to learn effective communication with their deaf babies and youngsters.
At 19 she married Ron Watson, whom she met at events for deaf people in Lewisham, south London; he made chinaware for Royal Doulton in nearby Lambeth. Setting up home in Lee, east London, and Lewisham, first they had me, a hearing child, and then my sister, Yolanda, who is deaf. We later lived in Eynesbury, St Neots, at home using sign language, lipreading and speechreading, which involves facial movements too.
Ron and Sheila divorced in 1980 and Sheila married Mike Webster, whom she met at deaf club events. They moved to Bedford and had a son, Daniel, who also has a hearing impairment.
After 2000, my mother went into happy retirement and moved to Canvey Island, Essex, enjoying the company of her family and friends, and outings and travel organised by the deaf community to countries including Sweden, Germany and Australia.
Sheila is survived by Mike, Yolanda, Daniel and me, and by five grandchildren.
Obituary written by: Jeffrey Watson – Eldest son of Sheila Webster.
Article also appeared in The Guardian – see website.