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Celebrating 25 years of British Sign Language & Deaf Studies at UCLan

The School of Humanities and Social Sciences was recently pleased to support the 25th anniversary celebrations of its British Sign Language and Deaf Studies course. On Saturday 29 September 2018, a celebratory conference was held at UCLan to mark those unique BA and PgDip programmes, the only one of its type in the UK.

The successful day was attended by almost 130 people, including many current and alumni students, current and previous academics, and many others who have contributed to the programme over the past 25 years.

BSL 25th Anniversary

Academic Lead, Dr Lynne Barnes, opened the conference by warmly welcoming all attendees and introducing pro vice-chancellor, Professor Andrew Ireland. Professor Ireland went on to describe the uniqueness of the BSL and Deaf Studies programme’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and congratulated the course team on 25 years of teaching and research. He then noted that the course has continued to grow in numbers and has seen approximately 50 academics come and go throughout its duration, and has sustained its delivery of courses, including Foundation, Bachelor, Master and Doctoral degrees. The professor also commented on the high success rate of graduates achieving employment, and continuing to keep in touch with one another. It was very pleasing to see so many alumni who have moved into professional occupations, or further academic research, returning to UCLan to help celebrate the subject and its continued success.

The audience was inspired by three interesting keynote speeches during the day; the first being presented by Dr Lilian Lawson OBE, who travelled from Scotland to be at the celebrations and has been involved in the field of BSL & Deaf Studies since its inception in the late 1970s. Alongside academic research, Dr Lawson has been persistent in campaigning for access to sign language for deaf people including improved mental health services. This has resulted in being awarded two honorary doctoral degrees; the most recent being for her involvement in the political campaign for legal recognition of British Sign Language which resulted in the BSL Bill (Scotland). Dr Lawson presented an interesting account of deaf history, the 50-year long history of sign language research, and concluded with motivating comments about the positive future of BSL and Deaf Studies in the UK.

The second keynote speaker, Peter Llewellyn-Jones, gave a fascinating talk about deaf people having had access to information mainly through social workers in the past, and the move to professional sign language interpreting services that are now the mainstay for access to information. Mr Llewellyn-Jones presented an interesting discussion about the assessment of British Sign Language and interpreting skills. The need for interpreter training programmes for deaf people to be delivered in BSL was emphasised and this keynote speech concluded that the training and assessment of sign language interpreters needs radical change in order to progress.

Clark Denmark, a long-standing academic and teacher of BSL and interpreter training, gave the final keynote speech. Mr Denmark reviewed the work of prominent deaf academics across the country and motivated the attendees with his discussion of the political challenges that face the field, including recent advances in medical technologies and genetics research. During this presentation Mr Denmark congratulated the two founders of the BSL and Deaf Studies Course; Dr Lynne Barnes and Mr Mark Heaton, who stood to an enthusiastic applause. Mr Denmark also commented on the on-going international collaborations that the BSL and Deaf Studies team have developed, including its continual collaborative work with UCLan’s Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS), headed by Professor Ulrike Zeshan. The BSL and Deaf Studies team has sustained its collaborative work with the iSLanDS team, and with many other partners, through its series of successful European and wider international projects over the years.

In-between the keynote speeches, delegated were able to attend two of six workshops that were presented by some current academics from the team and some alumni. The workshops included discussion of the presenters’ postgraduate research studies, the employment of sign language users, the teaching of deaf students, and the relationships among deaf and hearing BSL users in the workplace. A further unique aspect of this celebratory event was the collection of recordings of 84 alumni and other supporters of BSL and Deaf Studies at UCLan, who each produced, in BSL, a clip of their memories or congratulations. Special thanks was given to Kibra Taye, a local deaf alumni volunteer, who had collated and edited all of the clips, which were played on a continual loop through several television screens around the building throughout the day.

The celebratory conference was also enriched by the work of the BSL/English interpreting team, made up of five interpreters, four of whom are also UCLan alumni of this subject. Many international guests, some of whom are currently postgraduate researchers at UCLan, commented on the vivacity with which the team interpreted. This included excellent intonation in English and BSL executed with superb facial expression and body movement. The international make-up of the attendees included guests from China, Uganda and India, and the celebrations were also enhanced by the presence of the UK’s notable Dr Paddy Ladd. Dr Ladd was introduced to the delegation by Clark Denmark, and many students were delighted and inspired by his attendance. One of the attendees had become deaf at the age of fifteen, and this traumatic experience had been helped when she read Dr Ladd’s scholarly publication based on the positive aspects of being deaf. This attendee was thrilled by Dr Ladd’s presence at the conference, and Dr Ladd was deeply moved to hear that the publication had such a profound influence on an individual.

The celebrations continued into the evening, where a special thanks was given to Dr Martin Atherton, who has recently retired from the BSL and Deaf Studies team. Dr Atherton was the original coordinator of the 25th anniversary event before his timely retirement, which was enhanced by the fact that the organising of this special celebratory event was his final conference coordination activity; a truly appropriate way to end a successful academic career at UCLan. The BSL and Deaf Studies programme continues to value its current students, academics and alumni, and continues to grow from strength to strength with dedication of the course team, as well as the support of the University’s Senior Management Team. With continued support, the team will endeavour to develop its project activity work alongside its teaching and research remit. In Lilian Lawson’s recorded testimony to UCLan, she suggests that reaching out to schools where deaf children are in attendance is an aspect of future work that she would like to see at UCLan. This is because deaf children need to be educated with the expectation that higher education is an option for them, and this can be facilitated at an inclusive institution such as UCLan. Having celebrated BSL’s 20th and 25th anniversaries at UCLan, many delegates left the celebration event in the hope that the course will continue to thrive and will be celebrating its 30th year of teaching and research in five years’ time.

03 October 2018