Why We All Need To Sign

David Griffith explains how we would all, including Blind People, benefit from Sign Language.

Many people do not realise how specialist adaptive technology has ended up transforming all of our lives. Electronic messaging was initially developed to facilitate deaf people to communicate by telephone. So no deaf people, no Texting, no Twitter or Facebook. Likewise the use of scanners to transform paper into electronic documents has its roots in the Reading Machines developed for Blind People. No Blind People –no paperless office. Similarly the first portable electronic note takers, diary and calendar devices were developed for us. Sighted people thought they were rather cool. Arguably no blind people, no Smartphones iPhones and all of the various personal electronic organisers which are now so ubiquitous.

Some may argue that these technologies would have eventually emerged. Yet their earlier adoption was undoubtedly fired by the imaginative potential to transfer adaptive technologies from the niche into the wider mainstream. I believe that this principle should apply to adaptive skills as much as technology.

The attention that the Oscar winning short film, “The Silent child” has garnered prompted me to recall a hobby horse of mine. The film reminds us how deaf children can face traumatising isolation without Sign Language. The film points out that 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who may not have sign language, and that 78% attend schools without any sign language support. The Film calls for specialist support to redress the consequent loneliness and disadvantage deaf children face.

Whilst the film has a laudable message it does not go far enough. We have only scratched the possibilities of sign language. I am convinced that every child, not just deaf children, should learn it within the national Curriculum. As a by-product, we would no longer push deaf people to the margins, but this fails to grasp the wider potential. Some examples may illustrate.

Scenario 1– Noisy.

You have a need to talk to somebody but you are in a noisy environment. This may be a noisy tube train, or you may be in a busy Restaurant, Bar, or Sports or Music event. No matter how you shout your partner is struggling to hear you.

Alternatively you are working in a deafening workshop/building site / transit point with noise levels from machinery so loud that ear baffling earphones are required.

How much simpler would it be for you to smoothly communicate by Sign Language? This should not be a bizarre concept as we already do it. We all, including Blind People resort to signing. We may cup a hand to our ear to indicate difficulty with hearing; others may mime drinking with a questioning look across a noisy bar to ascertain if somebody wants a drink. Nearly everybody will either nod or shake their head to answer questions. The problem is that we are limited to virtual Baby talk with no sophistication. How much safer and effective would we be if we could talk as adults rather than virtual toddlers?

Scenario 2 Quiet.

In this scenario you need to talk to somebody but sound is unwelcome. Perhaps you are parents of a new born child who has just gone to sleep and you are anxious not to wake them. Perhaps you are in a quiet designated train carriage but you have an urgent message to convey to a companion perhaps you are researching some material in a silent library about which you need to have a quick consultation. Perhaps you are attending a lecture/speech about which you want to discuss a point with a colleague without disrupting the presentation. Perhaps all you need is to clarify a point before you make a question / intervention.

We, again, already use an extremely limited set of signs to assist here. Even a Blind parent may place a finger to their lips to signify to their child that they should keep quiet. We should have a wider set of tools.

Scenario 3 – Distance

You are some distance from a person you need to talk to but they remain in plain sight. Perhaps you can see your child on a beach about to get into trouble but do not want to shout across the beach. Again basic signs are already deployed. For example,

You may beckon your child to return so you are not required to bellow. How much more efficient though if you could simply transmit your message at distance, perhaps a simple instruction not to go too far into the water?

Scenario 4. – Discretion.

Sign language can provide discrete messaging. This may be a quick but essential sign to indicate an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction to a friend. More seriously signing may support security efforts to protect public safety in a counter terrorism environment. Covert behaviour is often not just justifiable but normal, whether this is to organise a surprise for a birthday party or at the other extreme support the apprehension of a criminal. Again basic signs are often deployed in these circumstances. Yet how much more useful would it be not just to point in a certain direction but discretely instruct somebody to “wait around the corner”?

Scenario 5 h- Technological Adaptation

With gesturing capabilities widely available the potential for exploitation with technology would explode. Rather than having to type or dictate gesturing would be a quick and efficient way of controlling devices and writing material. Arguably the accuracy of recognition could be far higher than that achieved with dictation. Gestures are already utilised for both gaming and Virtual Reality technology and the adaptation of this into a smooth way of interacting with our devices is well within our current capabilities. You could be in a noisy, rattling and cramped railway train but still be able to smoothly gesture your email, text messages or submission for your latest work project.

These are just a few possibilities which leap to my restricted imagination with limited insight into sign language. I am sure that many more fruitful utilities would emerge.

So finally should Blind People be interested in an adaptation that, without vision they cannot fully access? Even if we cannot receive sign language there is no reason why we should not send it. As we have seen nearly all Blind People use basic signs to communicate anyway. We should be better at this. An analogy is the way that Deaf people try to talk, even if they cannot hear. Likewise, for blind people, one way nonverbal communication is better than refusing all non-verbal communications.

There are undeniably learning challenges which inhibit a Person without sight. Learning signs by feel is more complicated. However this would not necessarily inhibit all, or even the majority of Blind People.

Blindness is overwhelmingly age related. Only a small minority of us are blind from birth. If Sign language was taught whilst we had vision in School, most of us would grow up with and retain this skill. Discrete finger spelling as opposed to sighted feedback would remain an alternative option. Other wider possibilities would be available to us. I would love the ability to gesture to my iPhone whilst in a cab and compose copy material on the move.

So here is to universal sign language taught to all children as part of the National Curriculum. It is a skill ready out there, with the potential to enrich our lives. We need only to grasp its potential.

David Griffith


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