Language & Communication8th January 2015

Association of British Sign Language Teachers and Assessors

ABSLTA’s 25th anniversary saw calls for a revival of a professional focus.

by Sarah Lawrence

Travelling to London with a group of BSL teachers on a Saturday in November, this was no ordinary weekend, it was the weekend when we expected thousands of visitors from all over the world to come to London for remembrance Sunday.

We decided to visit the Tower of London poppies the day before remembrance Sunday, any yet it still felt so special being there. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people standing to take pictures and video and we were doing the same, as we thought about all the people who were killed all those years ago and how young they were.

Jumping into the modern day as we walked away, we stopped at the Costa café nearby that overlooks the Tower. We were lucky to get a seat inside in the comforting warmth. It wasn’t raining but it wasn’t a nice day either, a typical dank November day really.

We arrived at St John’s Deaf Community Centre in North London where a significant number of the BSL teachers from all over the UK were due to attend an ABSLTA (Association of British Sign Language Teachers & Assessors) event, to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

On arrival, there were some committee members registering us and signposting us to things like coffee and toilets, as well as giving us a programme of the day etc. We all went separately to grab some coffee and chat to catch up with others we hadn’t seen for a long time. It was so lovely to catch up with people you had not seen for ages.

The day started with Emma Illiffe welcoming everyone who had come along to celebrate the history of ABSLTA. She said to me “It is great to see so many here today to reflect what ABSLTA have achieved over the last 25 years and I am delighted to see that people have travelled all the way from Scotland, Wales and the North of England to this event. We hope to continue and keep ABSLTA going strong in future.”

It was lovely to see the founders of ABSLTA, Charles Herd and Melinda Napier telling stories about how it all started even before any of the modern day technologies came out. Charles said there was a time when he and Melinda travelled somewhere up North (both are Londoners). For any Londoners to travel outside the City was a big deal back then. To make it fair for everyone, they decided to travel North instead of prioritising getting a full house. The numbers were much lower than they would’ve had in London. On one occasion their car broke down on the way home and it was very difficult to get hold of both Melinda’s husband and Charles’ wife who were also both Deaf. To think this was less than 20 years ago and that it was almost impossible to get hold of anyone. I admire the work they did to support other BSL teachers in those days.

Jeff Brattan-Wilson presented, ‘The Present and Future of BSL Teaching”, explaining the importance of working as a team. Linda Day presented about the use of technology. Teaching and learning BSL has changed over the years and the use of technology has brought in lots of benefits as well as some cons of course.

I chatted with other BSL teachers and it dawned on me that the majority of the teachers who were there were Londoners with very few from outside London. It does make me wonder if travelling into London was an issue or whether people no longer want to travel as much as they used to.  It might be because of technology with BSL teachers thinking they can get everything they want from the web.

A similar thing happened when I went to Manchester in May 2014. There were around the same number of BSL teachers from all over UK and very few Londoners went there, something Charles pointed out earlier. Again, in June I went all the way to Newcastle for a BSL interpreter’s conference and there were around the same number of attendees, most of whom were northerners. It would be interesting to see what motivates people to attend as location certainly seems to put some people off.

The majority of those who attend are local people, committee members or keynote speakers. My question is – Do Deaf people really care? Do they really care about their own language? Do they really care about the future of Deaf children’s education? Are most of these people self-opinionated? Do they just want a platform to get their ‘voice’ across?

A committee member, Ashley Clifford is a young Deaf BSL teacher who set up a new Facebook group for all Deaf BSL teachers to share information and experiences. How different things have become since the days when Charles and Melinda started ABSLTA. Today’s teachers have a huge advantage. They are able to use things like the Facebook group, which only BSL teachers and assessors can use, to discuss issues relating to sign language or resources.

Penny Beschizza asked what BSL teachers want to see in the future and what ABSLTA can do to help. There were lots of suggestions and shared ideas. We hope to see more of this and she was delighted to see young Ashley had made a start by using Facebook, giving everyone a platform to have their say.

After all, being a BSL teacher can be a very lonely job because, whilst qualified BSL teachers learned BSL, they are not often given the opportunity to learn BSL linguistics to explore and analyse their use of language, thereby ensuring we deliver BSL correctly in classrooms. Due to education discouraging the use of BSL there is very little opportunity for the majority of Deaf people to learn the BSL linguistics or rules.

A perfect example - I met a 9 year old deaf boy recently who did not know how to fingerspell his own name properly. He was taught fingerspelling that linked with his speech using ‘N’ on his nose instead of ‘N’ on his palm. This is so insulting for me to see and for a 9 year old boy who doesn’t know any different. This does question the way our education system works for these deaf children. Surely, if this boy didn’t finger spell his name properly, someone would have corrected him. The same applies with his relatively poor speech as my hearing colleague did not understand a word he said. Without correction to his finger spelling and falling well behind with speech and acquisition of English, what chance has he got in life. The lack of knowledge and support for BSL throughout education is imposing life-limiting outcomes on all deaf people.

BSL teachers are often called the ‘BSL police’ as a result, because many of us spend a lot of time helping Deaf youngsters to use BSL correctly. Sadly, it seems there are only a handful of qualified Deaf BSL teachers who are passionate about their language and have a desire to preserve it.

BSL teachers are hoping to get more training and support to help raise the standard of BSL teaching as well as preserving the language by supporting those involved in assessing, interpreting, and providing communication support to ensure the use of BSL is of a high standard.

There was time for high tea and networking, something that most attendees appreciated. We had a huge 25 year anniversary cake, champagne (some were non alcoholic), and a lovely spread (buffet) supplied by St John’s Deaf Community Centre. To round off a good day for me, I met a very young and lively Deaf BSL teacher who will be writing an article to share his experience as the youngest Deaf BSL teacher in UK. Keep an eye out for his article in coming weeks.

Brief history of ABSLTA

BSLThe Association of British Sign Language Tutors (ABSLT) was formed in April 1989 to meet the needs of professionals involved in the teaching of BSL. An open meeting was arranged by the BDA’s Education Officer, Liz Scott-Gibson with BSL tutors to set up and develop as an organisation. Later, Assessor were added to the title when the BSL curriculum changed in the mid 2000’s.

ABSLTA’s 25th year saw a revival of a professional focus, for example the use of IT has allowed ABSLTAs to set up a FB page, a great opportunity for social networking, which enables promotion and sharing of professional peer support, BSL teaching and Assessing news, as well as regular reporting of important updates such as curriculum changes.

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Language & Communication

8th January 2015