Deaf/deaf Awareness – Your name what?

Article by Tarnya Brink 24.02.16


As an HR practitioner I have interacted with many people with various disabilities, but it was my son at the age of 14 who asked to learn British Sign Language (BSL). Having brought my children up to respect the ability of people with disabilities, it made me proud that someone so young recognised the benefit of learning BSL.We learnt together 5 years ago, and although I am not the most competent signer, the one thing that really stuck with me was that most people don’t have much knowledge of Deaf/deaf awareness and that by learning to sign the alphabet a world of communication opens.

So, as I have been doing at various 4 Networking meetings, I would like to share a few of the things I learnt.

Deaf vs deaf

Deaf with a capital ‘D’ refers to someone who has no hearing whilst deaf with a small ‘d’ refers to someone with partial hearing.


Learning BSL is like learning any other foreign language – don’t underestimate how hard it is. After 18 months of 3 hours one evening a week, my son and I achieved Level 2 – which is conversational signing.

The structure of the language is different, so for example, in English we say ‘What is your name?’ in BSL you sign ‘Your name what?’. It is important to recognise that for a person whose first language is BSL, English is a second language. BSL does not use all of the words in the English dictionary – it is a more abbreviated language so words like ‘is, it, am’ don’t exist.

Like any other person whose second language is English, it is not uncommon for written English to require significant development because the grammatical structure is quite different.

There are regional differences in BSL, so some words can be signed in a number of different ways.

Facial Expressions and Lip Reading

When we watch interpreters on TV, or watch people signing to each other, we notice the use of what a non-signer may think of as ‘over-exaggerated’. This is an integral part of communication for the Deaf/deaf community. As fascinating as it is to watch people signing, remember that if they are having a private conversation, you are effectively eves-dropping.

Not all Deaf/deaf people sign, some rely solely on lip reading, and reading facial expressions.  

We all use facial and hand gestures when they speak – this is an extension of that. By using expressions together with signs, it portrays emotions which are easy to read.

A couple of interesting things I learnt about lip-reading which are actually obvious when they are pointed out – if you have a very thick long mustache, it is very hard to read your lips because they are covered with hair. If you shout (which serves absolutely no purpose!) your lips shape differently or if you mumble, you are not forming your lips in a way that people can read. Speak normally and clearly as you would to a hearing person, not in an exaggerated manner.

Using Interpreters

In order to be an interpreter you need to have a Level 6 (degree equivalent) qualification in signing and interpretation. With a Level 2 I can follow very little of what is signed on TV and would definitely not be able to interpret a discussion. I can, however, interact with people who use BSL and can always rely on using the alphabet when I get stuck.

If you have a meeting with a Deaf person and a BSL interpreter, you will need to allow at least twice as much time for the meeting. Think about when you go on holiday to a foreign country and you need to explain to someone what you want, they in turn need to translate it, get an answer and translate it back. It takes a lot longer than asking and receiving an answer.

Remember that your meeting is with the Deaf person and they should be your primary audience, not the interpreter, but obviously you need to seat the interpreter so that they have a clear view of the person they are signing with. The interpreter is the tool who removes the barrier to communication.

Interpretation is tiring – you will often see two interpreters playing tag in a meeting or a presentation – with an average of 20 minute slots each, so if you are hiring an interpreter, bear in mind how long your meeting is going to be and whether you need more than one person.

If you are chairing a meeting with a Deaf/deaf person present (with or without an interpreter) it is important to control the meeting, so that only one person speaks at a time and the pace of the meeting allows for interpretation. If there is no interpreter present, make sure the Deaf/deaf person has a pen and paper, so that they have a way of participating fully in the meeting. If you buddy this person with a hearing person next to them so that they can ask the questions on their behalf, then they will not be excluded from participating.

Learning to sign the Alphabet

I learnt to sign the Alphabet at Girl Guides when I was a child – I have never forgotten it, and I strongly believe that every child (and adult) should learn the alphabet. Imagine that you are in a car accident and the first person to arrive on the scene is Deaf – you would be able to communicate with them.

There are some great on-line tools to show you how to sign the alphabet and free sheets you can download onto mobile phones, and print.

My challenge to you is to go on-line – learn to spell your name, get your family to learn to spell their names, and then put the alphabet on the fridge and learn the alphabet. It is fun, rewarding, and great to use in noisy place too! 

Tarnya Brink

Area Director


T 0333 005 0066

M 07986 544 694