Byline: RUTH LING
British Sign Language - now officially recognised - is one of the ways deaf people 'talk' to each other, says Ruth Ling
HANDS up if you knew there are five official languages in Britain.
And full marks if you can name them all: English, Welsh, Gaelic, Scots and . . ?
The fifth is British Sign Language, which was officially recognised as a UK language by the Government only last month.
British Sign Language (BSL) is not an "invented" language, such as Esperanto, but evolved naturally among the deaf community to fulfil their needs to communicate, both with each other and with hearing friends and family. Similar sign languages exist in other countries, including 44 in Europe.
BSL is used by more than 70,000 deaf people in the UK.
One of these is Stephen Dering, 25, who was born deaf and learned it in his teens. He depends on an interpreter at work more than most BSL users because he has two jobs. He is fulltime London regional manager for the national charity deafPLUS, and in the evenings and weekends is an elected Lambeth councillor.
Out of 22,000 local authority members in the country, Dering is the only profoundly deaf one.
Dering relies on BSL interpreters to keep him up to speed in committee meetings and debates in the council chamber. In his day job, he uses sign language when managing staff who are themselves deaf or hard of hearing. "But I use an interpreter for all external meetings, conferences, seminars and most one-to-one meetings," he says.
"Interpreters are paid for by Access to Work, a funding programme that assists people with disabilities."
BSL interpreters are employed to "sign" in all
kinds of situations, from appointments with doctors and solicitors to television programmes and theatre performances. Professional interpreters specialise in one field, such as court cases, while generic interpreters help individuals in day-today situations.
Audrey Simmons is a generic interpreter, covering team meetings, one-to-one training sessions, tribunals and hospital work. Recently she even had to sign for a survey about public toilets at Euston station. Simmons, 36, of Catford, south London, has worked full time for five years for the Royal National Institute for Deaf and hardof-hearing people (RNID) which runs an agency for interpreters, taking bookings, assigning jobs and doing all the administration.
"It's very rewarding, providing a service for someone who may not have been able to communicate with, say, a doctor," she says. "They may have been dying to ask a question for ages, to get information for their peace of mind.
If I can help someone understand their condition, that feels really good."
Becoming an interpreter is not for the fainthearted. A trainee has to progress from the Level 1 introduction to signing to Level 4, a process that takes seven to 10 years and costs about [pounds sterling]6,000 in tuition and exam fees.
Simmons was a receptionist when she first worked with a deaf person and became interested in working with the deaf community. …