Sign language isn’t just for swear words – End the Awkward

Liam is a student, writer, blogger and has his own radio show. He also happens to be deaf. For End the Awkward, Liam writes about awkward moments, misconceptions and how to communicate with a deaf person without avoiding them or making them feel uncomfortable.

I’m not a comedian, yet there seems to be something I do which makes people laugh on a night out. Except I’m not laughing and everything’s suddenly turned a little bit awkward. It’s a tumbleweed moment, and I don’t know what’s so funny.

I’ve misheard something. All it takes is for me to confuse two similar sounding words and everyone around me either laughs or feels uncomfortable. It’s particularly easy for this to happen in a pub or restaurant, where background noise is a constant problem. As soon as I realise that I’ve misheard and ask for clarification, the conversation has moved on and I’m told it ‘doesn’t matter’. It’s frustrating, but I try to shrug it off.

For the rest of the night, people avoid conversations with me in case there’s another mishap, so I’m left trying to understand people talking around me. It’s particularly hard in a bar when there’s a lot of noise and a group of men in the corner getting way too invested in a game of football.

Communication is key to ending the awkward

Most hearing people don’t know how to communicate with deaf people, and that’s where the awkwardness lies. Poor deaf awareness has led to misunderstandings and a sense of mystery surrounding the deaf community.

Something I still find uncomfortable is asking someone to repeat themselves. Sure, as someone who struggles to hear now and then, you’d be right to think that I’m allowed to say ‘pardon’ every once in a while. Yet, as I ask them to say what they’ve said again, I fear that they’ll do something which isn’t helpful – be it shouting, exaggerating lip movements or getting frustrated.

In the end, I’ve resorted to asking someone to repeat themselves around two or three times. After that, I just nod, smile and agree. It saves the hassle, but it becomes a problem when you then find out that they were complaining about something you shouldn’t have agreed with. Oops.

Liam wearing radio headset, smiling at the camera

Sign language has so much to offer people

In 2014, I was on the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Youth Advisory Board. At the first meeting, I met a few young people who use British Sign Language. However, as I didn’t know any BSL at the time, I was forced to write on scraps on paper, or use mobile phones to talk to them.

It worked, but not knowing basic BSL made me feel a little embarrassed. So, in-between the next three meetings, I tried to learn sign language wherever and whenever I can. The end result was that I could finally communicate with my friends on the youth board in BSL. Now, I’m more involved in the deaf community and a few misconceptions I had have since been debunked.

As someone who is keen to teach others, I’ve had a lot of friends ask me to show them some BSL. The only problem is that they want to know swear words and not useful phrases which will help break down the communication barrier.

How to End the Awkward

I’m not saying that every hearing person has to take BSL lessons. Next time you meet a deaf person, just say hello and ask how they like to communicate. If they happen to know BSL, ask if they can teach you a few words or phrases. If not, there is one workaround which I am encouraging my friends and other people to do.

Written English is the best way for deaf and hearing people to communicate together. If a hearing person cannot understand BSL, and a deaf person is struggling to understand what they’re saying, then taking out a phone and going to the notepad app can really help. It may feel awkward for the hearing person having to type out their response instead of saying it, but the alternative is far more awkward and confusing.

Eventually, hearing people will get to understand the lives of deaf people, ending the misconceptions, ending the mockery and ending the awkward.

You can read the rest of our End the Awkward blogs, or get involved in the campaign by submitting your awkward story.

Why Emma thinks laughter is the best way to End the Awkward

Emma Satyamurti is an employment lawyer and litigator, and a partner at law firm Leigh Day. She believes that humour can be a great tool in changing attitudes and talks about the way we’ve used a lighter angle with our latest End the Awkward ad.

Feeling awkward makes people do the strangest things. My own back-catalogue as an unwilling awkward-ee includes:

  • being offered money
  • being ignored
  • being singled out;
  • being chuckled at for no reason;
  • being asked if I am ok when I am not doing anything that could suggest otherwise (unless being out of bed counts);
  • being talked about as if I am not there (along the lines of “isn’t she super?”)
  • being laughed at (admittedly mostly by children, and not very often).

These are by no means unusual experiences for disabled people, and there are many other variations on this theme. As part of its End the Awkward campaign, Scope has made some fantastic videos of disabled people talking about people’s responses to meeting them, which are as hilarious as they are poignant.

I don’t want to be too hard on awkwardness

I don’t want to be too hard on awkwardness though. It is very definitely not the same thing as hostility, or arrogance, or bigotry or the other horrible things that many disabled people are subjected to, though there may of course sometimes be an overlap.

Ironically, while being on the receiving end of awkwardness can be very uncomfortable, my sense is that awkwardness (and its close relative, anxiety) often arises from impulses which, properly channelled, are benign and indeed positively good: kindness, concern, worry about causing offence, protectiveness, sympathy and so on.

The End the Awkward campaign navigates this skillfully. In its light-touch and witty exploration of the issue, it conveys not so much a finger-pointing rebuke at misguided non-disabled folk, but a gently mocking send-up which cuts awkwardness down to size and shows how unnecessary it is.

Shared laughter is like shared food – it can bring people together and dissolve defences, at least temporarily.  In the likely event that the ad makes us laugh (it’s very funny), I think we are all laughing at the same thing whether disabled or not.

What the ad makes fun of is the ridiculous panic of some of the non-disabled employees when a new and diminutive colleague is brought round to be introduced. It is this which the slapstick style of the film emphasises. We are encouraged to laugh not at the people themselves, but at what they do.

While disabled viewers may enjoy seeing a familiar scenario blown up into full-scale farce, non-disabled people may recognise a caricature of their own confusion in the office-workers diving for cover under their desks. But I would bet that any viewer will enjoy the comedy and cringe for the dapper new-joiner faced with such a woeful welcome.

It’s a fine line to be sure, and this is, I think, what makes the ad so clever. It packs a real punch but aimed at the issue, not at the inadequacy and vulnerability any of us can feel in an unfamiliar social situation. Awkwardness, embarrassment, ignorance, confusion; these are all states that thrive on silence. By bringing them loudly out into the open – diffusing, and at the same time defusing, them with humour – End the Awkward makes these things easier to recognise, talk about and change.

You can read the rest of our End the Awkward blogs, or get involved in the campaign by submitting your awkward story.

Halving the disability employment gap – a plan for the future

Ahead of Conservative Party Conference this week, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Damian Green announced the Government is to stop Work Capability Reassessments for people with long term conditions.

This will be welcome news for some disabled people and it’s a step in the right direction that the Assessment needs reforming. However, we believe this needs to be part of a wider package of improvement from the Government if it is going to achieve the bold ambition of halving the disability employment gap by 2020.

The Government has announced it will be publishing a green paper shortly on how it will enable more disabled people and those with long term conditions to get and stay in work.

Our hopes for the Government’s green paper

We think this must present a coherent and achievable plan, which needs to work across the different areas of work, and address the barriers and disadvantages disabled people face getting in and staying work.

Ahead of Damian Green’s speech to the Conservative Conference today, we’ve set out five areas we believe the green paper should cover if we’re to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, enabled those who can work find a job that suits them and, ensure that when disabled people are in work they are able to thrive:

  • Reporting progress towards halving the disability employment gap
  • Best practice for employer
  • Reforming the Work Capability Assessment
  • Specialist employment support
  • Improving and innovating support for working disabled people

We believe that a detailed reporting system, breaking down employment rates by area and impairment will help make sure that barriers to employment are identified. This will also support the Government to understand what is working.

We hope that the green paper also looks the important role businesses play and encourage employers to create modern flexible workplaces where all staff are supported to achieve their potential. 85 per cent of disabled people do not think employers’ attitudes have changed over the last four years.

Whilst some employers are leading the way on disability employment, there are over 5.4m businesses in the UK who we need to spur to take action, and need the support to do it.

Supporting disabled people into work

We also believe the Government should go further on the Work Capability Assessment and start a conversation with disabled people on the wholesale reform of the fitness-for-work test.

Disabled people are pushing hard to get jobs, but still face many barriers to find work and thrive in employment which aren’t included. The test should be the first step to identifying those barriers so the right support can be put in place to help people get back to work.

Access to specialist employment should also be widened and offered on a flexible and voluntary basis. Work Choice, a specialist support programme for disabled people which is voluntary, has delivered much better results for disabled people than the mandatory Work Programme.

Finally, we believe there needs to be reform to in-work support. Fluctuations in a physical or mental health condition can mean extended periods of time away or on sick leave, and too often this leads to people having to stop working completely. The green paper should set out innovative and improved support for working disabled people and, vital in work support schemes such as Access to Work should be promoted more widely.

Over the coming months Scope will be speaking to Government and parliamentarians of all parties about the changes we think are needed to halve the employment gap, improve employer attitudes and make sure disabled people have the same employment opportunities are everyone else.

Read the rest of our blogs on halving the disability employment gap and read our response to Damian Green’s speech.