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Regarding Deaf Executive Staff

This is a copy of an email from Jonathan Isaac to the Chair of BSMHD regarding deaf people in positions of authority. It sums up everything very well indeed.


I’m sure that you and the Board will have given this plenty of thought before you created the person spec for the job. For what they are worth, my thoughts are:

In order of importance

1. Deaf knowledge
2. Organisational skills
3. Sign Language fluency
4. Mental Health knowledge

The Deaf knowledge is by far the most important one. There are plenty of people around with organisational skills and plenty with mental health knowledge. There are a fair few with both. And one or the other (or both) can be picked up reasonably quickly because the organisational skills and mental health knowledge needed for BSMHD are the same as in any mental health organisation – its mainstream stuff. It’s the Deaf aspect that makes BSMHD so different. Hearing people coming in to CEO positions in the Deaf sector do not have a good record. Some go on to do great things in the sector but many of them just don’t get it and either move on quickly or stick around doing damage (I can give you examples of all three). It would also be very dangerous to assume that it will be OK for the Board to contribute the Deaf knowledge, that kind of arrangement undermines the CEO and is usually a recipe for disaster.

I am restricting myself to talking about CEO roles but I’m sure you can see parallels with any job in the mental health and deafness sector. It will be so much more successful to bring a Deaf person up to speed in organisational skills and mental health knowledge than it will be to hope that someone new to Deaf will ‘get it’. BSMHD should also be promoting the training of Deaf people to do the job rather than thinking that the other way round is easier. It may be in the short term, but we will never move on and get to where we want to be if we don’t make that effort at the beginning to invest in the existing Deaf resources.

I have put Sign Language fluency below Organisational Skills because it is an inconvenience not to have it but sufficient communication skills can be learnt over time. However, it will make their job a damn sight easier if they do have sign language fluency from the start.

It certainly isn’t a case of just sticking any old deaf person in the job and assuming they will be the right person ‘because they are deaf’. There are deaf people that see themselves as being disabled and will never understand the cultural and linguistic aspects of being Deaf. And there are culturally Deaf people who cannot see beyond their own personal experiences (as there are in any walk of life). You are looking for a special type of Deaf person but they do exist and it will be worth taking the time to get it right rather than looking for a quick fix.

When I first came in to the Deaf sector in the mid 90s it was around the time of the Gallaudet protests, Jeff McWinney had become the first Deaf CEO of the BDA and there was the RNID/Doug Alker battle. Hearing people leading Deaf organisations was a big issue, and those hearing leaders would justify their positions by saying that their organisation wasn’t quite ready for a Deaf leader yet but that they were training up their Deaf staff and were confident that their successor would be Deaf. We won’t be needed soon, we used to say (and I was one of them). But we have failed, and we should be ashamed. Looking back over those 15 years far too many of the hearing leaders are still in post or have been replaced by more hearing leaders (often by people with no interest in the cultural stuff at all). In so many aspects real change has happened, there are so many more professionals who happen to be Deaf, but CEOs of organisations in the Deaf sector is the last nut to crack. There are no more now than there were then.

And what has become of all those Deaf staff we promised to train up to be the next generation of leaders and we appointed to be our ‘deputy’ Chief Executives? Well, we chose many of them because they were what we called ‘oral Deaf’. They were ‘easier’ for us to work with. But most of them were not culturally Deaf, did not have the passion for it and could easily work outside the sector and so they left. For those that were culturally Deaf the frustration of constantly being told they weren’t quite ready by the hearing cuckoos reluctant to leave the nest became too great and they took their skills elsewhere.

There are many parts of BSMHD’s activities where the Deaf stuff can be picked up by someone with the right attitude. The need for interpreters at events etc are all quite straight forward and in those things it is possible for the Board and others to guide and support.

Where it is crucial to get it right and where the Deaf sector gets it so wrong is in the public representation and influencing of policy arena. Deaf equality issues can only be addressed successfully if they are promoted by a culturally Deaf person. It being a Deaf person meeting the Minister means that 90% of the message is achieved before you start. Don’t fall into the trap of sending along the ‘token Deaf rep’, the ones who for the last 20 years have made a profession out of being Deaf (The ‘user rep’). It needs to be a Deaf person in a position of authority who can talk to them at their level. One who can say on the spot “Yes, my organisation can do that”. One who can talk in terms of ‘what we want’ not ‘what they want’ when talking about the Deaf Community. It’s all far too cosy at the moment. Hearing ‘experts’ on Deaf equality (usually middle aged, middle class, white, male) (and that includes me) fit in very well when meeting the (usually middle aged, middle class, white, male) Government officials. It’s difficult to tell which is which. And the temptation to accept the invitation to contribute to the ‘disability agenda’ is too often too great to resist. Much better to meet the Minister for Disabled People than to meet no Minister at all. But that is so damaging to the cause. We will only see real progress in achieving Deaf equality when Deaf is truly recognised to be a cultural, linguistic issue and not a disability issue. In the disability context all Deaf people are thought of as ‘users’. If we suggest that they should consult Deaf people they say “Of course, we are very good at consulting with users”. And we say “No, you must talk to Deaf people about this because the solutions lie within the Deaf community” and it is seen in the context of a self-help group.

Still, I’ll keep it brief. There you are. That’s what I think.



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