Edward Richards

British Sign Language (BSL), Language or Luxury?

An insight into the personal experience of BSL user Ed Richards

Written by Ed Richards

Imagine yourself as a native English speaker with no knowledge of other languages, sitting in front of a television watching the news, seeing images of an incident being shown, the newsreader speaking in French and the subtitles are in French. You can see the images of the events but with no explanation of what’s happening or why. If anything this causes more questions rather than answers for a Deaf viewer.

This is the same for Deaf people whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL), like myself, especially in this current COVID-19 climate where a BSL Interpreter has not been provided during the Government Daily Briefings/Updates. Deaf people are struggling to communicate, when admitted to hospital, due to all the staff members having to wear protective gear. BSL users need to see facial expressions including lip patterns, masks make it near impossible to communicate.

Whenever I am outside of my home, shopping, socialising or sightseeing, it has its challenges because so many things are happening that fly over my head. There is a misconception of what “Deaf” means, people think if we wear a hearing aid, we can hear, wrong! Let me tell you what it means, it is just a word to describe what the person can/can’t hear. I’ll give you my example, I am classified as profoundly deaf which has a threshold in excess of 95 decibels (dB), which measures the noise levels the human ear is sensitive to and the frequencies and levels of sound. The safe limit for any sound is 80dB and the only sounds I can supposedly “hear” is a very tight frequency range, the one that makes a high shrill sound which rattles the brain! The rest of the sound is obsolete. This is my version of being “Deaf”.

With this in mind, put me in a room full of people chatting away, perhaps a meeting or a social event. As I enter the space, sounds fly over my head, I struggle to lipread people talking, everyone has different accents, lip patterns and facial expressions — some are blank, some are expressive. I am marooned on an island in this room. This is where BSL comes to life for me because I can express what I want to say in my own language using my hands, face and body without being restricted by others.

When I am in a room full of people using BSL, I am able to follow what others are saying and decide if I want to get involved in that conversation and contribute, or move to a different one with someone else. This is why, with Inclusive Fruit, I’m overseeing the translation of CardMedic into multiple sign languages — making healthcare accessible for deaf medical patients around the world.

From personal experience, whilst a patient in hospital, when medical staff needed to inform me of the procedure, the interpreter was not permitted in the operating theatre. This meant I was unable to understand what was happening. If the staff had access to CardMedic, I would have had real time BSL videos to help me through the procedure.

So, is BSL a language or a luxury? For me, it’s language.

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