We're a Mother-Son Team Fighting for the Rights of Deaf Children in Britain. This Is Our Story.
Daniel, 13, wants the British education system to recognise his language, British Sign Language.
By Daniel and Ann Jillings
My name is Daniel, I’m 13 years old, and I live in Suffolk with my family. I was born without cochleae (the main hearing organ inside the ear) and so I have no hearing; yet being Deaf is part of me.
I’m proud of my Deaf culture and my language, British Sign Language (BSL). Sometimes it’s hard to feel included as a Deaf person, especially if you use BSL, as most people don’t know any sign language.
BSL is not widely taught as a subject in schools, despite it being a recognised British language, and there is no option to study it as a GCSE, even for Deaf children who use it as a first language. So I set out to change that — with a bit of help from my mum.
I’m Ann, Daniel’s mum, and like many campaigners, I would describe myself as an "accidental campaigner" — it was simply a gut reaction to challenge things that felt wrong.
After learning Daniel was Deaf, we became immersed in a whole new culture and language and were privileged to be embraced into the local Deaf community.
However, this opened our eyes to a world of frustration and poor accessibility, a world where Deaf people experience exclusion in almost every area of everyday life, from simple pleasures like going to the cinema to much bigger access issues within health care, employment, and full participation in society.
The National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) has been a vital source of information and support, but its research into the educational attainment of Deaf children revealed shocking statistics which have barely improved over the years.
Recent statistics show that, even though deafness is not a learning disability, Deaf children are still achieving a whole GCSE grade behind their hearing peers.
This is where mother instinct kicks in. I vowed that Daniel would not be robbed of his future, and my determination to advocate for him naturally evolved into campaigning for Deaf children locally and nationally.
I am passionate that all Deaf children get the support they need to succeed. The role of the teacher of the Deaf is essential to that, alongside provision of equipment and current technology, ensuring BSL users have full access to the curriculum in fluent BSL, Deaf role models, support from specialist social workers, speech and language therapy, and providing support and information to parents.
Yet, all of these are under threat as local authorities nationwide are cutting services for Deaf children with a potentially devastating impact on their progress.
I am one of many parent campaigners working with the NDCS campaigns network seeking to protect these vital services for Deaf children by challenging local decision-makers and taking part in national campaigns to influence government policy. For example: presenting a 39,000-signature petition to the government, calling for the protection of services for Deaf children and to address the nationwide shortage of specialist teachers of the Deaf.
Over the past 18 months, I have supported Daniel’s campaigning for a British Sign Language GCSE, and it was the success of his legal challenge to the government that thrust him into the spotlight last summer.
Our journey started with us eagerly following the “Right to Sign” campaign initiated by the youth advisory board of the National Deaf Children’s Society, and Daniel was keen to get involved.
Our local MP, Peter Aldous, has been incredibly supportive of our campaign work on Deaf issues. He invited Daniel to meet the Minister for School Standards, the Rt. Hon. Nick Gibb MP, at Westminster in March 2018 — where Daniel passionately explained how Deaf children felt excluded by the lack of a BSL GCSE.
While the government later accepted the need for this, they maintained that there would be no new GCSEs during this term of Parliament, effectively ruling out the development of a BSL GCSE until 2022 at the earliest.
We sought legal advice from Irwin Mitchell solicitors regarding the potential for judicial review of this position under equality law. Daniel was keen that we challenged the government’s delay, neither of us realising how much public support this would attract as we started crowdfunding to cover the initial legal costs.
We used the Crowd Justice platform, and quickly exceeded our initial fundraising target. We were overwhelmed by the support and generosity of our backers, most of whom were complete strangers but shared our passion for BSL to be taught on equal terms as other languages.
Thanks to this incredible support, our legal team was able to submit a pre-action protocol letter to the Department of Education in July 2018.
As we waited for the government response, the enormity of what we were doing hit home and we braced ourselves for the challenge ahead but were encouraged by the many messages of support.
In July 2018, we got the amazing news from our solicitor that Daniel had succeeded in changing government policy — as an exception to their policy, they would now consider the introduction of a BSL GCSE, if a qualification could be developed that meets the required standard.
This outcome meant that Daniel had an incredibly busy summer holiday, doing multiple interviews for news and TV — something he took in his stride, recognising that this publicity would create an expectation for government to deliver the GCSE.
The GCSE development work is underway, and the Department of Education is currently working with specialists to develop subject content. Unfortunately this will take time.
This highlights the biggest challenge for campaigners: creating change both locally and nationally is a slow, gradual process and requires incredible reserves of perseverance.
I was told a quote that has always stuck in my mind: "Water cuts through rock, not through its power but its persistence," and so it is vital to keep up our campaigning until the GCSE becomes a reality.
Despite the hard work, there have been many positives: incredible support from the National Deaf Children’s Society and our MP; the privilege of visiting Parliament; and allies who have gone out of their way to express their support, to name but a few.
Daniel has become empowered by his campaign journey and I hope that encourages other young people to become agents of change.
One moment I will treasure is the feeling of immense pride as Daniel signed to a group of MPs at Portcullis House this summer: "BSL is my language, my culture, and my identity."
Daniel still has his eye firmly on the goal: "The BSL GCSE is about more than me getting a qualification. It will show that BSL is as important as other languages and more schools may teach BSL as a language option for both Deaf and hearing children. This will make it easier for Deaf children like me to make friends and feel fully included in school life."
I get the feeling that the GCSE is just the start of Daniel’s campaign story. He is already realising that this is just part of a bigger picture, that we need legislation to protect the rights of those who use BSL as their first language.
Daniel says: “I would like to see a BSL Act, the same as Scotland. Why can’t we have the same here in England?”
Watch this space!