A sign of the times

Frustrated by the lack of understanding about British Sign Language, (BSL) amongst the hearing population, 17-year-old deaf student, Christian Owen set out to make BSL more accessible to a greater number of people by producing the first ever BSL manual.

Christian’s inspiration

Like the 50,000 to 70,000 other BSL users in the UK, for Christian, English is not his first language. BSL has its own grammatical structure and syntax and it is not related to spoken English, so trying to communicate through written English can be a real problem.

Christian had completed his Bronze and Silver Awards at Broadgreen International School, which offers a dedicated support service for deaf pupils. Returning to Broadgreen to undertake the Gold Level of the Award, Christian was reminded of the many challenges he’d previously faced. On his Bronze Award expedition, Christian was the only deaf participant in his group and found it very difficult to communicate efficiently with the other members of his team. It was this experience that motivated Christian to develop his simple, accessible BSL manual and the concept has proved to be an immediate success.

Previously people wishing to learn BSL outside formal lessons had to rely on the BSL dictionary, a valuable resource but recognised as complicated and, for someone new to BSL, very daunting. Christian’s innovation of providing a straightforward self help alternative has gone from strength-to-strength and is already breaking down many of the communication barriers between the hearing and non-hearing communities.

As well as producing the manual, Christian also facilitated after school BSL tuition to fellow students. With an average of 20 students in each class, they were soon extended to teachers and support staff. His pupils included the school’s canteen staff who were tired of guessing what pupils wanted to eat through ineffective pointing and gestures. Another of Christian’s students, Hannah Webber, was so impressed by the difference it made that she continued with her signing and now works part-time for the police as a BSL translator.

Looking to the future

Christian would like to see copies of his manual made available to all public institutions especially doctors, nurses, police officers and air stewards. Inspired by its success, Christian is hoping to use his Gold Award programme to extend the manual to contain more sections of basic BSL and also include an introductory section on Deaf Awareness.

Said Christian, “I am thrilled that my manual has been so successful and I am keen to see it expand. I would also like to see deaf awareness receive a higher profile. Deaf people have a unique way of communicating, which is very visual and interactive”. 

Phil Seddon, Christian’s Award leader, concludes, “The way he’s grown in confidence and maturity since doing his Award has been great to see.”