Break a silent world with sign language – message from ‘The Silent Child’

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She stole the show at the Oscars – little Maisy Sly, profoundly deaf, who played Libby in the film The Silent Child.  

The film won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short.  Just 20 minutes long, it carries a powerful message.

Libby is trapped in a silent world.  Her hearing parents employ a specialist, Joanne, to help prepare her for school.    Joanne teaches Libby British Sign Language (BSL) but Mum isn’t convinced.  She wants Libby to be able to speak.

The film’s just been shown on BBC and is still available on iPlayer.    I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the end.  Rather I’ll highlight the film’s message – sign language is a powerful medium for unlocking a silent world.  And it should be more widely used in education.

BSL isn’t just a tool for deaf children, SEN Magazine points out.  It can potentially benefit all children from ‘pre-verbal babyhood’ and beyond.   The opportunity to learn BSL, therefore, should be offered to all children. 

In March 2017, the National Deaf Children’s Society surveyed* 2000 young people in the UK, both deaf and hearing, about attitudes to BSL.  It found:

  • 97% thought BSL should be taught in schools.
  • 92% thought BSL should be offered as a GCSE or equivalent.
  • 83% said they would be interested in studying BSL to GCSE level or equivalent.

But with a financial crisis hitting schools, how likely is it that funding will be available?  In March, TES reported that support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) were at risk because the Department for Education had rejected requests from local authorities wanting to boost high-needs funding with money taken from their main schools grant.  

The National Education Union (NEU) claimed 4,050 SEND pupils didn’t have a school place in 2017- up from 1,710 in 2016. Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, told the Independent:

Local authorities are being placed in an impossible position. They have a legal duty to plan high quality education for every child with SEND, but cuts have taken away the resources they need to educate children with complex needs.’

In such a situation, how far can BSL be promoted?

Perhaps the answer is in not viewing BSL solely through the prism of special needs.  Rather BSL should have the status given to other languages.  Oliver Kamm, writing in The Times (31 March 2018 behind paywall) says BSL isn’t just a ‘system of mime and gestures’.  It’s a language in its own right with all the complexities, nuances and expressiveness of other languages. 

And BSL is a language which, if used more universally, would not just open the silent world of those who are deaf but give an additional way of communicating to those who can hear.

*Results downloadable here.  

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