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May 14, 2004

Deaf Talkabout: Spelling out the signs of the times we live in

From: Belfast Telegraph (subscription), UK - May 14, 2004

By Bob McCullough
14 May 2004

"IS it easier to fingerspell the 26 letters of the alphabet or to sign 5,000 words?" Dr Paddy Ladd from Bristol University posed the question during celebrations in the Park Avenue Hotel for the fifth anniversary of Deaf Senior Citizens.

Paddy looked back to the development of sign language in France during the early 19th century and the way it facilitated communication and opened up education to deaf people around the world.

He believes that deaf schooling was irretrievably damaged in the 1880s by the decision to ban sign language at the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Milan. By a large majority, the congress had voted that the method of oral teaching was far superior to that of using signs and that it should be the preferred method in all schools for the deaf.

Historians like Paddy say that the decision was a terrible mistake and it has taken years to restore sign language to its rightful place in deaf education.

Among the older generation, finger spelling was the norm up to about 50 years ago and Paddy reminded us about the great concentration required to hold a conversation in those days.

He spoke about the explosion of new signs over recent years and the way deaf people have become citizens of the world and able to converse easily with fellow deaf in almost any language.

Clark Denmark is a colleague of Paddy and a man respected everywhere for his integrity and the dignity and esteem he has brought to sign language. He has been seen on TV chatting with Princess Diana and teaching her to spell her name and sign a few words of greeting at a deaf conference. He told us he loved coming to Northern Ireland as the air was so much like his native Scotland.

He remarked on the changes since his last visit here - the evident confidence and comparative prosperity of older deaf folk and the way we have learned to adapt to new technology and modern methods of communication. Pointing to one of our young folk, he said with a laugh she would never understand TV without remote control and the difficulties we had in tuning the aerial!

Clark feels that young deaf people have much to learn from the older generation and he urged the DSC leaders to interview and video as many as possible so that this important slice of deaf history with all its difficulties and trials is not forgotten.

But he also warned that something precious is being lost when we see more and more young deaf going to university while skilled workmen such as joiners and other handymen, who used to be such a feature of the deaf society, are fast declining.

The weekend celebrations ended on a happy note with a united service on Sunday morning for all our main churches in Belfast.

BDA Chief Executive Jeff McWhinney spoke on the danger of detraction, from the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10, and we had choruses and prayers from members of CFC, the Kinghan Church, St Joseph's and the Ulster Institute.

Stephen McWhinney and his team from DSC are to be congratulated on a memorable and joyful weekend.

• NB The deaf drama and fun night to be held in St Joseph's tomorrow night has been cancelled, but the club is still open from 7 to 10.30pm.

© 2004 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd