University of Edinburgh
Newsletter No 9: March 2000

Deaf Studies

by Mary Brennan

In May 1999, the SSC ran a one day seminar entitled Deaf Studies in the Curriculum. The aim was to explore the possibilities of developing Deaf Studies as a subject within Scottish schools. Presentations were given by John Hay and myself. John is well-known for his explorations of Deaf History and is himself now lecturing in a Deaf Studies programme within the University of Wolverhampton. I too have worked within a similar context at the Deaf Studies Research Unit at the University of Durham. I have found it rather surprising that while both Deaf Studies and Sign Language Studies have now emerged as subject areas at Higher Education and Further Education level, they have a limited role within school curricula. Both John and I share the view that Deaf Studies can and should have a place within Scottish schools, from the beginning of primary, right through to the end of secondary. We suggest that Deaf Studies can:

  • provide Deaf children and young people with a positive sense of individual and group identity;
  • enable Deaf pupils to become aware of historical and social influences on the lives of Deaf people;
  • encourage Deaf pupils to become aware of the different types of linguistic expression, including signed language and spoken language;
  • help young Deaf people to prepare themselves for the realities of post-school life;
  • help Deaf young people to develop their own perspectives on political and policy issues which directly affect their lives.  


There is increasing evidence that at least some young, Deaf people have difficulties in coming to terms with their Deaf identity. At a time when we are increasingly aware of the value of diversity within our society, we may also find that the individual's sense of self is complex. Deaf people often see themselves as 'Deaf', ie, members of a Deaf community with its own language choices and culture, yet also as members of a wider community which is made up of hearing and Deaf people. Deaf people may be both 'Deaf' and 'Scottish' or 'Deaf' and 'Glaswegian' or 'Deaf', 'Glaswegian' and 'Jewish'. Identity is not something which is taught, but which can be nurtured and respected. Unfortunately it seems that some Deaf children have not always experienced a nurturing of their specifically Deaf identity. The members of the Deaf Ex-Mainstream Group (DEX) have written eloquently of the difficulties they experienced in early adulthood because of not knowing who they were:

Recent work by Sharon Ridgeway has shown that Deaf children are much more likely to have low levels of self-esteem than hearing children. She has also shown that more Deaf young people are likely to have mental health problems. While it is not claimed that in itself a Deaf Studies programme can solve all such problems, it is suggested that Deaf Studies can contribute positively to the self-worth of the individual.

One key part of any Deaf Studies would be an exploration of the role of Deaf people in history and the current involvement of Deaf people in many walks of life, including the arts, science, sport and politics. The work carried out by John Hay, Raymond Lee and other enthusiastic members of the British Deaf History Society demonstrates that there are many fascinating Deaf figures worthy of our attention. In the wider context, publications such as Movers and shakers (Carroll and Mather, 1997) and The history of Deaf people (Eriksson, 1998) show the major contributions that Deaf people have made to history. We probably all learned at school about the range of inventions of Thomas Edison, but how many of us realise that he was Deaf. Then there are those Deaf people who have made major contributions to the lives of Deaf people themselves: such as Laurent Clerc and Pierre Desloges. Deaf pupils can learn not only about such famous Deaf people, but they can carry out local projects to discover more about Deaf people's experiences within their own areas. What was it like for Deaf people during the Second World War? How were Deaf people educated 80 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago? How have the ordinary lives of Deaf people changed?

The nature and role of sign languages throughout history can be a major part of Deaf Studies. It is indeed such a major area that it may be more appropriate to treat Sign Language Studies as a separate subject area, as it is in some Higher Education and Further Education institutions, both here and abroad. Again sign languages are increasingly studied at tertiary level. There is also evidence that as Deaf people become more knowledgeable about and interested in their own sign language, they become more interested in language generally, including spoken and written language. Throughout the world, there are now a number of sign linguists who are Deaf: it would be excellent to see an increasing number of Scottish Deaf people contributing to this important area of study.

A further aspect of Deaf Studies would involve preparation for the realities of life after school. Such preparation would include awareness of the role of BSL/English interpreters; the differing types of access support which they may wish to use; the role of other personnel such as lip-speakers and note-takers and awareness of and skill in using technical support. It would also involve being conversant with the financial, policy and political issues which may affect their lives.

Deaf young people also need opportunities to develop their own perspectives on political and policy issues which directly affect their lives. They need to be able to examine critically policies and processes which are developed both by Deaf organisations and those outside the 'Deaf World' in relation to Deaf people. They need to come to terms with the positive and negative elements of Deaf history. They need to be able to articulate their own perspective in different contexts, possibly in different languages (BSL and English) and in different formats. Rather than feeling themselves lost in a hearing world, we need to enable Deaf young people to create their own place in such a world with confidence.

Deaf Studies and the Curriculum

There are of course different ways in which Deaf Studies could be included within the school curriculum. The 5-14 Curriculum already allows a considerable degree of flexibility. Deaf Studies could be integrated within all of the main curriculum components, rather than being taught as a separate subject. However, there would be an advantage in making Deaf Studies a separate subject area that could be included explicitly within the curriculum. It would give recognition to the role of Deaf people throughout history and today. It would give focus to the unique aspects of Deaf life, including the importance of signed language. If Deaf Studies is valued, it is much more likely that Deaf pupils and Deaf young people will be valued for themselves.

The Deaf Studies Working Party

At the end of the one day course in 1999, the course participants were keen that the initiative should not simply stop. Instead it was agreed that a Working Party would be set up with the following aims:

  • To enable collaboration between professionals and members of the Deaf community in developing Deaf Studies as a subject;
  • To share information about existing Deaf Studies projects which are being undertaken within Scottish schools
  • To develop a structured Deaf Studies curriculum which would fit within the Scottish curriculum framework;
  • To develop exemplar Deaf Studies units and resources.
At the moment this is an ad hoc group. It has no specific funding, although members of the group have been active in trying to obtain support, for example to ensure that interpreting provision is available. Anyone who is interested is very welcome to attend the next open meeting of the group which will take place at 10.00am on Saturday, March 27th in Paterson's Land, Moray House Institute of Education, University of Edinburgh. If you are interested and wish to contribute to these developments, please come and join us.


Eriksson, P (1998) The history of Deaf people: A source book. Örebro: Daufr

Carroll, C and Mather, S M (1997) Movers and shakers: Deaf people who changed the World. San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press

Mary Brennan, Senior Lecturer in Deaf Education

Deaf education