BSL version here.
A Bristol University Centre that has been a beacon and an inspiration to Deaf people all over the world is facing savage staffing cuts which, experts say, would make it ineffective – and with it we may lose one of Britain’s proudest claims to worldwide academic leadership.
For more than thirty years, the Centre for Deaf Studies (CDS) has blazed a trail for others to follow in the fields of Sign Language Studies, Deaf Studies and interpreter training. It has a list of firsts for which most universities, let alone small departments, would give their eye teeth:
- First funded research on sign language in the UK
- First use of the term Deaf Studies, now widely used all over the world
- First textbook on British Sign Language – still in use
- First full-time training programme for sign language interpreters
- First BSc & MSc in Deaf Studies
- First Professorship in Deaf Studies
- First Deaf person to head an Academic Centre in Europe
- First full-time University training programme for Deaf people taught in sign language
In all, the Centre has chalked up nearly thirty firsts in thirty years – a return on (very modest) investment almost unequalled in the
increasingly bang-for-your-buck world of higher education.
But now, the CDS is threatened with cutbacks affecting 75% of staff. According to everyone who works there, this will make it almost impossible to continue teaching beyond the next couple of years. And students who have already embarked on courses such as the world-famous BSc in Deaf Studies may receive an increasingly inadequate tuition service, because staff will be so overstretched.
“This is a breach of trust – in fact a breach of contract – with those of us who came here in good faith because of the Centre’s reputation”, said one student. “I came here to learn from the best Deaf and hearing staff and go on to become a sign language interpreter. Now they’re planning to get rid of most of them.”
On Monday 10 May, the University Senate took the first step towards implementing the cuts. The decision now passes to a meeting of the University Council on Friday 14 May. The University has to make cuts of £15m per annum to its budget. The actual savings by removing the Deaf Studies undergraduate programme (staff costs minus the student fee income) is not much more than £100k per annum – hardly enough to consider putting this programme at risk and flying in the face of the University’s own Diversity and Public Engagement aims.
It is widely felt that the CDS has been targeted because it is seen in some quarters as a vulnerable minority interest. “Other departments who don’t want to bear the brunt themselves may just sit on their hands, hoping they might escape the worst if the CDS takes the biggest hit”, said one supporter.
If so, this would be seen in many quarters as not only cowardly, but against the law. Under the Disability Discrimination Act, all public bodies have a Disability Equality Duty to carry out a disability equality impact assessment of the community of any measures they take. There is strong evidence that Bristol University has hardly begun this process and is potentially acting contrary to the Code of Practice.
In fact, where so many Deaf people are concerned, far from rushing decisions through Senate at short notice, there is a requirement to allow extra consultation time because of the difficulties of communication. Ironically, the CDS has done more than almost anywhere over the years to improve communication and access for Deaf people.
But if the authorities acted at short notice, they must have been taken aback at the speed with which the campaign to Save Deaf Studies took off, once word leaked out. Within four days a petition started by a third-year undergraduate has gathered nearly two-and-a-half-thousand signatures from Deaf people and universities all over the world.
The CDS has always been a pioneer on a global scale. In 1996 it ran the first UK deaf-led project based in Africa – in Northern Uganda – funded by Oxfam and Action on Disability and Development. It has also pioneered Europe-wide initiatives. In April this year it launched a multi-million euro project in conjunction with police and fire services to give deaf people direct access to 999 services through videophones. Now all the effort that the team at CDS have put in over the decades is being repaid with an international outcry against the University’s cuts plan.
Academics from as far afield as Australia, Finland, Germany, Canada and the United States have leapt to the defence of the beleaguered CDS, with comments on the petition website and letters directed to the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Eric Thomas.
Two Assistant Professors from Utah Valley University in the USA wrote:
“.targeting programs such as Centre for Deaf Studies for budgetary cuts. stems from inability of majority culture to recognize and understand the significant contributions studies of minority cultures have towards the academic discipline of Humanities. those programs should be celebrated and promoted, rather than cut. Please reconsider before you implement such a disastrous plan – disastrous to greater understanding of humanity, disastrous to promotion of equity of humans worldwide – and disastrous harm to Deaf people everywhere.”
More comments from all over Britain and around the world can be found here on our website and the petition, at Save BSc Deaf Studies Campaign Petition.
Thirty years ago a beacon for the promotion of Deaf Studies was lit in Bristol. Now the campaign to save it is spreading like wildfire round the world.
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