On Sunday, myself, my husband and a friend of ours (who brought it to our attention) went to a screening of ‘Power in Our Hands’ at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley. It explores the wealth of film footage in the BDA (British Deaf Association) archives, and the history of UK deaf culture, language, and the deaf community.
In the words of the BDA:
‘Power in our Hands’ is a compilation of historical archive footage of the Deaf community. The idea for the film began in 2004 when, in an exciting twist of fate, a group of builders accidently stumbled across the long-lost film from the BDA, dating back to the 1930s.
The forgotten footage has now been compiled into a documentary (lasting 70 minutes) with its narrative being the recognition of British Sign Language (BSL) and Deaf rights. Unlike the Civil Rights movements of other minority groups, this isn’t a topic that is well-known in the hearing community and the footage gives a fascinating insight into what the Deaf community has had to go through in their struggle for equality.’
It’s important to note that I didn’t grow up within the deaf community, but more on the outskirts, with deaf friends, going to events occasionally. My sister and I developed our spoken and written language in our early years (losing more hearing as we became older). I’m not sure if this means we are post-lingually deaf, because we were probably deaf from birth, though it wasn’t discovered until I was 6 and my sister was 2. I’m a late-comer to learning BSL, and whilst I appreciate it as a language and the culture surrounding it, and the history, my first language is English. I consider BSL my second, still learning, language. Learning level 2 gave me a sense of pride, not easily explained – perhaps because I was taught by a strong deaf woman, who instilled a sense of confidence and awareness of what it means to be part of deaf culture and history.
I have a strange relationship with deaf culture and BSL. On one hand, it’s a personal relationship – I translate things into BSL frequently in my head, and have dreamt in BSL before. I have performed on stage with Chickenshed theatre being part of translating performances into SSE (Sign Supported English) and BSL. I love sign-singing, translating lyrics. Yet I think that I’m one of many who sit somewhere in the middle between deaf culture and hearing culture. My family and husband are hearing, and I appreciate things about the hearing world that deaf people in the past didn’t have access to, such as films and the wealth of information we find on the internet.
I am privileged in that I have had a good education, supported by notetakers, transcriptions, and subtitles, but also still disabled by barriers that only come when you go out into the hearing world – the audi0-centric world we live in. Certain things are not accessible, and sometimes downright discouraging, depending on the situation and context. Attitudes have improved, but not everyone is aware of how to communicate with deaf people – it’s always best to ask a deaf person how they prefer to communicate. Every deaf person has their own preferences and stories. I don’t presume that my story is the same as every deaf person I meet, though some of our issues and barriers are the same. Access and communication are the major issues for me.
My first impressions of the film were positive – it was interesting to see old footage of deaf people meeting each other as early as the 1930s. It was a time when hearing missionaries and children of deaf adults (CODAs) were the leaders of the deaf community, the people that deaf people went to for information and instruction. It became obvious that this wasn’t a good situation, and that deaf people needed to take their own initiative and find ways to become the leaders of their own lives.
The appearance of Leslie Edwards, a deaf missionary, encouraged deaf people to seek information, learn new things, and become more active in their communities. The footage paints a picture of both how difficult things were for deaf people, who were treated badly by hearing people, and how they came together and had a fantastic time at social events. They weren’t encouraged to use BSL – in fact in most deaf schools BSL was banned until quite recently – and they were afraid to use BSL in public for fear of being persecuted (it was quite common for stones to be thrown at them and to be mocked).
It was also interesting to see the consensus that the history of the deaf community and BSL needed to be preserved and recorded on video, because seeing as sign language is visual and spatial, and involves movement in space, it wouldn’t carry through on other formats, such as photography. This encouraged a tradition of video, right from the 1930s to the present day. The rediscovery of this wealth of footage is amazing, because it is an unique archive – documenting how a community became mobilised towards awareness of their rights, and campaigning for them.
Seeing the history of how campaigning for BSL to be recognised as a language grew from the ground roots helped to put the campaigns of today into context. It made me more aware of how passionate people are about full recognition of their language and culture. Campaigning is a long process, and it is about committing to it for the long term, with small gains and setbacks. There were some things that made me uncomfortable, but I had to question why it made me feel that way. For example, the militancy of the campaign to recognise BSL fully.
If I draw parallels between the feminist movement and the deaf community, there are some striking similarities, in that, for example, men were excluded from having a voice in the 50s, 60s, and 70s because it was time for women to lead for themselves and speak about the ways they felt oppressed by patriarchy. The same happened in the deaf community – the control that was exerted over the community by hearing people meant that the feeling was that hearing people needed to take a step back and let deaf people express themselves. In context, that makes sense, and I understand it. It is always better for deaf people to express themselves fully, and to have their own opinions.
Perhaps the discomfort comes from the invisible, and sometimes unacknowledged degrees of privilege. Am I more privileged that my language is the language that hearing people speak? It is more complicated than that, but yes, my discomfort comes from a place where I can see how difficult it can be for people within the deaf community to be heard and understood. I can speak and be understood. But at the same time, that doesn’t discount the barriers that I face. This is the complicated dance of privilege we all have.
I didn’t feel that the film needed to show the breadth and scope of all the different ways it is possible to be deaf, because this was a film narrowing its focus to BSL and the fight for recognition of language and culture. Although I would love to watch a film where deaf identity was opened up to a wider interpretation – encompassing people like myself, and people with cochlear implants, and people who have become deaf later in life – this isn’t an exploration of current deaf identity. It was an inspiring look at history and archives, definitely worth watching if you want to know the history and struggle of the deaf community in the UK.
*This isn’t the only film exploring deaf and hard of hearing issues in the UK – just search The Limping Chicken’s archives for reviews and mentions of other films and documentaries.