British Sign Language Celebrations in 2019: A Community Engagement Story

British Sign Language Celebrations in 2019

British Sign Language (BSL) is the first or preferred language of thousands of British deaf people and is increasingly being learnt by hearing people who have an interest in the language.

BSL has been around for hundreds of years but has been discouraged from use for many years by medical and educational professionals who worry that it might deter deaf people from learning to speak. In fact, there is no evidence that using BSL is detrimental to the acquisition of speech at all. After a five-year campaign, BSL was recognised by the British government as an official language on 18th March 2003.

The aim of this case study project was to bring together members of the deaf community, students and academics from BSL & Deaf Studies courses, and any other interested parties together. The intention was to celebrate BSL during the month of March to reflect the official recognition 16 years ago.

On Thursday 21st March 2019, the participants gathered at UCLan’s Greenbank Building for the BSL Celebrations evening. A remarkable 97 people turned up and this included a large number of people from the local community and some from much further afield, and a good number of UCLan staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and alumni. The evening began with the compere, Nicola Nunn, introducing UCLan’s BSL & Deaf Studies team and welcoming the participants. The performances began with a deaf person from the local community, Judith Funnel, signing a lovely anecdote about her experiences as a young deaf girl, and Rose Priestly, an alumni student who is now a sign language interpreter, entertaining the audience with a signed joke.

The performances continued with 3 alumni students presenting signed performances: Wayne Sharples and John Stewart (who both now work for the local organisation, Lancashire Deaf Services) thrilled the audience with visual renditions in BSL. The next performance was from another alumni student Ricci Collins, who went on to work for UCLan as a project officer before leaving to work in Manchester, and has now returned 10 years later to work here at UCLan as a lecturer in BSL & Deaf Studies. Ricci entertained us with an incredible, culturally adapted folk story, Jack and the Handstalk! The audience was next delighted that a current 2nd year student, Stella Mingay, was brave enough to sign a narrative story in BSL about a caterpillar, and she has since been given the BSL nick-name ‘caterpillar’!!

The highlight of the evening came next, with the high profile Deaf comedian - John Smith - providing a 45-minute comedy show that involved a high level of audience interaction and non-stop laughter! John was born and bred in Nottingham and is very well-known among Deaf circles as a Deaf Comedian, entertaining in Deaf clubs and theatres countrywide. His stand-up talent and ability to adapt has taken him from his BSL-based comedy to presenting performances in International Sign far and wide across Europe.John had already attended an afternoon workshop at UCLan and had already enlightened current students as to how visual BSL humour can be. This continued during the evening performance, and John delighted us with his hilarious sketches based on Deaf culture and the differences between deaf and hearing people’s lived experiences.  

Wayne Sharples

Community member and former UCLan student: Wayne Sharples

John Stewart

Community member and former UCLan student: John Stewart (BSL poetry) 

The evening ended with a traditional trip to the Guild Pub for continued discussions of Deaf culture and laughter all around. The evening was thoroughly enjoyed by all and sign language and Deaf culture was rightfully at the heart of the whole event.

The BSL Celebrations event was a massively successful evening of fun and laughter. Alongside the comedy, the support for BSL as a language and for the need for raising awareness of Deaf culture and deaf people’s rights was always apparent. The event was a boost for the local deaf community and for our students, who returned to their studies with much more confidence and much more understanding of what it means to be deaf in 21st century UK. Students who are training at UCLan to eventually become sign language interpreters were particularly delighted with all that the evening taught them through this valuable first-hand experience.

In sum, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with a serious note of appreciation of diversity and the need for more equality for minority groups in society.

The event organisers would like to thank Dr Andrew Churchill (Head of School) and Dr Lynne Barnes (Academic Lead) for supporting this event and enabling it to happen. The positive feedback has already demonstrated that this was a successful and worth-while event.

Thanks to Philip Howarth (from UCLan’s iSLanDS team) and Luigi Lerose and Ricci Collins (BSL & Deaf Studies lecturers) for support on the door with tickets and enquiries. Thanks also to John Stewart (from Lancashire Deaf Service) and Junhui Yang (BSL & Deaf Studies lecturer) who provided the essential technical support, and to Nina Gerard for creating the poster for advertising purposes.

A massive gratitude to all the performers, particularly to John Smith, who supported the event at short notice and has always shown utmost passion towards recognition of BSL and the Deaf community.

Judith Funnell

Community member: Judith Funnell (Story about Deaf Children)

Rose Priestley

UCLan postgraduate student: Rose Priestley

And a final thank you to all who came to support our evening and to support our beautiful language.

A week after this event, we were saddened to hear that one of the British Deaf community’s most valued Deaf performers, Jerry Hannifin, had passed away after a period of ill-health.

Jerry was a role-model for John Smith and for many aspiring deaf performers, and he has created BSL performance materials for many years that are still a crucial part of our course resources today.

Jerry’s contribution to Deaf arts and performance through his visual poetry and story-telling, and to the endless campaign for access to sign language for deaf people, remains his legacy and he will long be remembered by all.

Stella Mingay

UCLan student: Stella Mingay (Story – The Hungry Caterpillar)

Ricci Collins

Lecturer and former UCLan student: Ricci Collins (Story – Jack and the Handstalk)

John Smith

Deaf Comedian: John Smith


17 June 2019