‘In Our Hands’ traces the changes and growth of the Deaf Community in the UK from the early 1900s to the present day. The documentary looks less at what it means to be deaf and instead looks more at how social groups and movements have supported the community over the decades. The documentary is comprised of a collection of interviews interspersed with footage uncovered from the British Deaf Association (BDA) archives.
The documentary traces the development of the BDA and the Deaf community in the UK from a close but disperse set of individuals who meet occasionally for sporting events through the them becoming a very structured and politicized group in the early 2000s. It looks at how the community has flourished and their pride and sense of identity has grown of the years, as well as their struggle their journey away from reliance on hearing individuals into becoming a self-governing association.
A key change in the community is their sense of self-pride, spurred by a boost in confidence and belief in their own identity and abilities. The documentary suggests that in the early part of the century deaf individuals were often poorly educated and were often reliant on hearing ‘missionaries’ for jobs and for instructions in their day to day lives. They were reluctant to sign in public for feel of ridicule and instead their social lives revolved around local Deaf clubs and associations. These clubs arranged sporting events around the country and it’s clear that the competitors and their communities prided themselves on achieving high levels of competence in their chosen sport. These events served as a meeting place for people to socialise, broaden their networks and provided a platform for political ideas to spread and grow.
The documentary then goes on to show how various key individuals within the BDA started to help shift the mindset of the community by helping to showcase the achievements of individuals in the workplace, providing more educational support and by encouraging people to start believing that they are worthy of such rights and opportunities. These changes started a shift away away from the community relying-upon and accepting the instructions and beliefs of the hearing community and instead a focus on inspiring deaf individuals to move into leadership positions. This happened gradually with the first step being the existing ‘missionaries’ being replaced by leaders who were Children of Deaf Adults (CoFA) into BDA leadership positions (they were considered to understand the community better than external missionaries). This then led the way for deaf leadership.
Along the way the BDA encouraged film as a key medium by which groups and individuals could document their culture and language – something not possible in written form or via photographs. The BDA also championed and supported researching into signing and were part of the discovery that it is in fact a language which they then christened British Sign Language (BSL) and have been campaigning ever since for it to be recognized as an official language. The documentary challenged the audience to think about the importance of community support and the importance of having an understanding of the communities culture and history, and that this support and teaching come from within the Deaf community rather than an external reliance on the hearing.
Something that wasn’t touched upon within the documentary was the evolution of BSL itself, however the fact that it has evolved quite significantly within the last century was very apparent from the footage itself. The earliest footage suggested a very heavy reliance on finger spelling. Perhaps this may be because other signs weren’t as established, or perhaps because individuals had signs that they used among their own friends/family but which weren’t standardized across the whole community and hence spelling was the back-up. I do not know. As the footage rolled forward in years it was notable to see the proportion of spelling vs. gesturing changes significantly suggesting both a more standardized and comprehensive language system.
The documentary is educational, inspirational and stands with integrity: there is no spoken language during the show except for some of the old footage which had an original spoken translation accompanying it. I’d certainly recommend this documentary for anyone interested in Sign Language, Deaf Culture and also to anyone who’s interested in seeing social-change in action.
DISCLAIMER: The author of the above article is a volunteer with ExtraOrdinary Horizons. All opinions expressed herein are thus the personal views of contributing individual authors. They are not indicative of any endorsement, political or otherwise, or lack thereof, either on the part of the organisation.