Sign me, find me – the quest to break down barriers

Personal Communication Assistant Michelle Lynn (left) holds a signing conversation with Tutor and Assessor Janice Crossland-Jones.
Personal Communication Assistant Michelle Lynn (left) holds a signing conversation with Tutor and Assessor Janice Crossland-Jones.

How the deaf business executive has come to rely on her Communications PA.

Communication goes well beyond the spoken word. It’s in the small but telling giveaways of body language, the evasion or anguish or sudden warmth one can read in someone’s eyes.

I’m face to face with two women.

One’s doing the talking, but both are doing the communicating.

Michelle Lynn is personal communication assistant to Janice Crossland, management director of British Sign Language Fylde Coast.

Janice, who is profoundly deaf, admits she doesn’t do small talk.

She says deaf people can be “blunt” to the point of apparent rudeness for those of us who take small pleasantries of passing exchanges for granted.

And this is why we’re here. In this pleasant airy suite of offices on Church Street above an estate agency where Janice, smart, stylish, attractive, smiling and every inch the executive is telling me how she fought back from crushing lack of confidence to reach this point. Her own business.

She couldn’t do it without Michelle who she bonded with so immediately on a BSL course she snapped her up as her own personal communication assistant.

Today there are BSL courses, free and available to the rest of us.

Signing is crucial for socialising at Deafpool, the annual gathering for BSL users in Blackpool. It runs from August 31 to September 2 and attracts visitors from across the country and further afield.

Janice adds: “They are fine within the group but when they go back to hotels or restaurants or pubs it’s another matter. Some hotels have BSL but it’s rare. They find it hard to communicate when they go out.”

One of the greatest frustrations, says Janice, is overcoming the deaf-not-daft barrier.

“People look at me as if I’m stupid because I cannot hear them.”

Then there are those who think a lifetime’s profound deafness can be overcome by speaking VERY LOUDLY indeed. It’s a miracle Janice keeps her cool most days.

She was born deaf, but coped until she had an accident on a hire bike in Greece.

She had been a BSL teacher for 18 years, and was teaching at Manchester University, as a module leader, and BSL tutor as well, ahead of the crash. But the knockback undermined much of what she had achieved.

“I was an extrovert, I had confidence, really outgoing, but when I had the crash my mind collapsed.

“I broke my arm, I had injuries all over. But as I couldn’t use my arm I couldn’t sign properly. BSL is my first language, so I couldn’t use it properly so lost my means of communication. My then partner helped me and I had a group of friends who helped too.

“But I came home and I couldn’t return to work, cancelled my students, couldn’t find a replacement so quit.

“I started thinking of what I could do to get out of this mindset. I had moved with my partner to Cleveleys.

“I was going through counselling and knew I needed to get back on track, get my confidence back. I was still depressed, low, but coming back.

“I asked the council if I could have a classroom for BSL. They offered a community centre in Cleveleys and people came – and that’s how I met Michelle.

“Six months later I decided to go for it – and people, friends who are deaf, family, my now ex-partner, helped me choose the name, Fylde Coast BSL centre.

“The people who came were doctors, police, solicitors, professional people and mostly teachers at school.

“It was a seriously intended course from the start. It has to be serious at the basics and build it up to NVQ level six.

“I started my business in 2006. We are the only centre around that has first foundation, then level one, level two, NVQ certificate level three and six, all under the awarding body’s certificate.”

It’s believed around 15 per cent of the population are deaf or hard of hearing or have some hearing impairment. Michelle puts the figure at closer to 13m.

“And only the minority use BSL,” she adds. “When you say deaf you have deaf with a big D like Janice, born deaf, proud to be deaf, proud to use sign language as their first language. Then there’s deaf with a little D, those who become deaf after an accident or illness, lost their hearing and perhaps start to learn sign language but they tend to be in both the hearing and the deaf world. Then you’ve got hard of hearing, older people who have become deaf, who want to stay in the hearing world and don’t want to learn sign.”

Janice adds: “My confidence has gone up and my business is getting more successful. I’m branching out into Yorkshire and Birmingham. But every day is hard work. I need a PCA because my first language isn’t English it’s BSL, which has its own structure, so Michelle helps me with translating English, meetings, networking – she is always with me.

“I am very strict, very straight, I say what I think. I don’t think Michelle always tells people what I’ve said. She can be bossy sometimes!” Michelle adds: “Native deaf people are very direct to the point of being very blunt.”

Janice hopes to offer an interpreter agency, and deaf awareness to organisations in Blackpool. She won teacher of the year for the North West in the overseeing Signature awards three years ago.

The centre offers free tuition of basic signs. “A lot of deaf people on the Fylde coast are quite isolated. We now have a charity and want to organise a day to Liverpool so deaf people and non-deaf people can mix.”

Current students include a firemen from Manchester. “After he booked the first session he attended a car crash involving a young girl who signed. It brought the importance home.”

Training is free. “We have professionals who come in for training but we want to reach the wider community. We’re teaching at a local school, one child and one adult, and at nurseries. One school wanted to learn sign for a song they were performing – Heal the World.”

Janice concludes: “Communication problems make us embarrassed and we start panicking.

“Some people think I’m rude but I can’t hear them. I tell them I am deaf and they don’t understand how I talk. Or they talk back in exaggerated baby talk or very loud.

“My hope is to make people more aware of communication access issues for deaf people. Schools teach Spanish, French, German - but not BSL. Yet deaf people are born here, it is important to communicate with them. Teaching BSL at schools should be a priority.”

For information on free courses call (01253) 628130 or Michelle on 07403393346. Fylde coast BSL is on the 1st floor, 235 Church Street, Blackpool FY1 3PB, or email info@fyldecoastbslcentre.co.uk, website www.fyldecoastbslcentre.co.uk