Why I learn’t BSL, and why you should learn the basics too

I’ve always been interested in the complexities of sign language. It started when my sisters were born and we would watch Mr Tumble on the TV. I started picking up Makaton without really noticing. But then I met a little girl called Polly. Polly was an special needs child I volunteered to mentor playing tennis. We didn’t necessarily play a lot of tennis, but we did some excercise, had fun and mum got an hour to have a cup of tea. Polly was non verbal, and it took me a while to realise that she was signing basic words to me. So I signed the ‘hello song’ from Mr Tumble.

The smile on her face at that fact we could share something and connect in that way was the best feeling. It made me determined to learn a few more signs. That night ii went home and learn a few basic signs; my name, tennis, bathroom and a few more. It grew from there, next it was a few lyrics from her favourite songs that if she completed activities we could sign / sign together. I left polly when I moved from school to university and was still interested in learning more signs. So I kept learning.

Slowly as I drifted towards medicine and began working as a first aid practitioner, slowly the signs began to drift towards healthcare and how to deal with lost children. I never through i would use it but every now and then I would learn a new sign or sign to myself for an hour so that I kept the skills up.

One day at work a staff member brought a crying child into the medical centre. She was crying and clearly upset but she wasn’t responding to any questions asked to her. I then realised that she was deaf, when someone asked her something from the other side of the room and she didn’t respond. So I asked the girl her name, and if she was lost. Next thing you know we had a name and age and where she last saw her family.

This week was deaf awareness week.

1 in 6 people are deaf or hard of hearing

I never realised the number of people was so high, even though my dad has issues hearing in one ear. So since we have been quarantined I have been brushing up on my British Sign Language (BSL). I’ve had more time to practise and am in the middle of recertifying so I can check I have everything I need too communicate to someone more than just the basics.

A lot of people know how to finger spell or a few basic words. But what a lot of people don’t know is that BSL doesn’t follow the normal sentence structure and as such people often sign in a way that is hard to understand. On keep switching dominant hands, which makes it really tricky.

BSL also has accents, with different areas of the country signing some words/numbers in different ways. I really think as a country that prides itself on diversity that we should all make an effort to learn at least the basics of BSL with its syntax and all so that we can communicate or offer comfort to everyone when they need it. I also think this is especially important in healthcare. People often come in distressed and being able to communicate with people in a way they can understand is important and something i hope over time i will be able to do with more and more people.

Speaking to others is something we take for granted, but imagine not being able to hear the voices of your loved ones

This week is deaf awareness week and i challenge you all to try to learn these three things about BSL:

Pick a dominant hand and stick to it

alot of people switch hands when signing, pick your dominant hand and try to make sure you only learn those. Some great videos will put a braclet on their dominant hand so you can tell.

Learn the fingerspelling alphabet

A little can go a long way. It also means you can learn your name. Mine is:

Learn to say “my name is ______. What’s your name?”

In BSL you would phrase it “Name my _____. Name your what’s?” Something as small as saying this and doing it in the correct syntax would really make anyone feel comfortable and less anxious.

*Polly’s name has been changed to keep people anonymous

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