Working with British Sign Language in the Arts
Performer Alim Jayda explains how 'The Guide to Good Practice with BSL in the Arts' can help make working practices within the industry more inclusive for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.
By Alim Jayda
It came to our attention that there was a gap in the knowledge of those that wished to implement BSL into their projects and processes and that was when this guide was created
After two years of hard work and development, July 2020, saw the launch of the Guide to working with BSL in the Arts, in collaboration with Equity and Deafinitely Theatre. The purpose of its creation was to address the lack of knowledge people have when working with British Sign Language (BSL), and reduce the onus on deaf actors and people that sign, that all too often, fall into the role of an educator to their peers and those in the industry.
Representation of BSL in the Arts
In 2018, I wrote a few tweets complaining about the poor representation of British Sign Language in the industry. Not only were hearing actors playing deaf characters, but I was seeing, time and time again, hearing actors with basic or minimal levels of Sign Language being cast in roles where the hearing character clearly required a higher level of it. Further to this, I had actually seen actors with zero knowledge of BSL, attempting to learn it in a short rehearsal period, which is always a recipe for disaster.
Poor representation of a language, especially on our stages and screens, has the ability to cause damage. Not only does it add to the trope that it is a language that can be learnt overnight, but it also reduces and demeans the language itself. Sign Language is a minority language and its users have been oppressed for centuries with many deaf people being physically punished for using their hands to communicate as recently as the late 1970s. Many now, have an oral-based system imposed on them and they are forced to speak rather than communicate with a beautifully rich language that has created a community that I myself grew up in.
Born to two profoundly deaf parents, sign language has always been a part of my life. My first word was in BSL, I predominantly think in BSL and I mostly dream in BSL. Growing up as a hearing person in a deaf world and having only been diagnosed with hearing loss more recently, I have become a natural campaigner for the language as I’ve seen the damage poor representation causes first-hand.
When I was younger, my mother, whilst watching a hearing actor signing incoherently on-screen, signed: “my language take”. It took me years to truly understand what she meant but on reflection, I wonder whether she was referring to what we now consider cultural appropriation? A privileged person - a hearing person in this case - taking something from an oppressed minority, to help progress themselves further.
What's the purpose of a hearing person trying to represent a language when the people it’s intending to represent cannot even access or understand it themselves? And why do productions and programmes insist on having the language in their projects when it’s so poorly represented? Is this tokenism or just for show? As a comparison, imagine a production casting a Spanish person with little or no ability to speak English. They schedule a short rehearsal period where they are schooled in basic English and then expect an audience to accept them as an English native and representative of their community.
Where Do We Go from Here?
After my tweets, I was asked to write an opinion piece for The Stage and a constructive conversation commenced with Spotlight to introduce BSL Levels on their platform. This means that anyone who wants to add BSL as a language on their profile would have to specify their level of attainment, either in qualification or the equivalent. Casting offices and production companies etc. can then work alongside Deaf BSL Monitors (who assess and vet ability in the audition room) to successfully seek out those who are genuinely proficient, instead of those that are still at a basic level, winging it, or just using it to get ahead. It’s always safer to have someone fluent that can lower their signing ability for a character, rather than someone who just doesn’t have the language acquisition or dexterity to even be able to play.
It soon came to our attention that there was a gap in the knowledge of those that wished to implement BSL into their projects and processes and that's when this guide was created.
Sign Language should be respected in the same way other languages are and deaf people’s contributions should be embedded into the beginning of the creative process.
Guide to Working with BSL
Working alongside Equity, Equity’s Deaf and Disabled Members Committee (DDMC), Deafinitely Theatre, and various deaf contributors, we created a guide that will hopefully be an informative document for guidance and signposting.
- How to find deaf actors
- Making breakdowns accessible
- Various levels of deafness
- Sign Language Levels
- BSL Monitors/Consultants
- A list of useful resources of companies and experts.
Sign language should be respected in the same way other languages are and deaf people’s contributions should be embedded into the beginning of the creative process. Good representation within the arts, whether that be in TV, Film, or Theatre is so important because it really can influence political and cultural change, and I like to think that most of us within the arts, truly do want to build a better and more inclusive future.
By using deaf translators, monitors, and those who have a proficient understanding of the language, you immediately transition your performances into eloquent pieces of art that represent communities boldly rather than tick-box exercises that have little or no thought behind the community it, in turn, damages.
I don’t think the industry intends to behave this way; it's just ill-informed and is hungry to be educated. I believe that it's full of wonderful, well-intentioned, kind, creative people that feel very strongly about making a change towards better representation and I truly hope this guide will contribute towards this.
It's not a finalised guide and should be treated as a living document that evolves and changes with our industry. It's not intended to be the authority or final word but instead, a starting point and signposting tool. If you have any feedback for development, you're welcome to contact Equity’s DDMC.
Alim Jayda is an Actor and Sign Language Interpreter. Credits include: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Universal), Kismet Diner (Ridley Scott Films), Eastenders (BBC), The Boy in the Dress (The Royal Shakespeare Company), A Midsummer Night's Dream (The Globe Theatre and Deafinitely Theatre), Tommy (Ramps on the Moon) and various commercials including Apple, Smirnoff and Pizza Hut.
Headshot credit: Ric Bacon.
Hero image credit: byakkaya