The expressive, bold and visual language

Becki Lilley’s first language is BSL, and she is thrilled by its increasing popularity and the ever-greater representation of Deaf people in the media.
Canon Camera

Written by Becki Lilley

Marketing Communications Co-ordinator, Canon UK

Marketing and Communications Co-Ordinator, Becki Lilley joined Canon UK on a student placement eight months ago and immediately made a big impression on her team for her creativity, great ideas and enthusiasm. Growing up as the child of Deaf parents, Becki loves the power, grace, beauty and expression of her own visual first language, BSL. But she also is keenly aware of how easy it is to take communication for granted and is thrilled to see sign language beginning to be adopted more generally and that Deaf people and users of BSL are being represented in popular culture.

Growing up with Deaf parents has given me access to a beautiful culture and a visual form of communication that is expressive and bold. My parents were both born profoundly Deaf and grew up during a time when sign language wasn’t permitted to be used in Deaf schools. Instead, Deaf children were forced to learn to speak and lip read, with the belief that this would help them to fit into the ‘hearing world’. In reality, this was an act of oppression. Although teachers restricted it, my mum always tells me that she and her friends would still use sign language to communicate while they were in their dorm rooms, as it was their opportunity to be themselves and feel understood.

There are 11 million people in the UK who are Deaf or hard of hearing, but just 151,000 British Sign Language users. BSL is my first language, and it’s granted me access to a whole other world, the ‘Deaf world’. As CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults), my sister and I have grown up communicating with our parents and their friends, using sign language. We’ve witnessed the daily struggles that they and all Deaf people face in a society that is full of barriers.

A woman from the chin down, the camera focuses on her hands, which are engaged in sign language. The hands and hair of the person she is communicating with are blurred and slightly out of the image, but their hands are also signing.

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are more than 70 million deaf people worldwide, using over 300 different sign languages.

Sign language in the spotlight

Recently, however, the news and social media have been shining a light on sign language and deafness. This year, the infamous half-time show at the Superbowl had a deaf female interpreter for the first time and her performance almost upstaged that of Rihanna herself. Videos showing Justina Miles performing Rihanna’s lyrics using sign language whilst dancing enthusiastically were quickly shared across the internet, and then went completely viral. The comment sections were filled with praise and viewers saying she “stole the show”, “I love this performance. Rihanna is even better with ASL” (American Sign Language) and “Is there a type of Grammy award category for sign language interpreter?”.

It’s great to see the awareness for sign language being elevated in the media but it does make me wonder, why are people so fascinated suddenly when it’s been here all along? In the past sign language was suppressed, but today Deaf people are more confident to showcase their culture and beautiful language boldly. Justina’s performance was a perfect example because it had a global audience who were amazed and surprised to see her, but also excited to watch her. She helped to change the way that Deaf people are viewed, simply by being herself.

Another significant example in the media was when the actor Rose Ayling-Ellis took part in the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing competition in 2021. As the first ever deaf contestant, Rose’s appearance on the show positioned her as an inspirational figure for members of the Deaf community and their families. Despite only being able to hear parts of the music, Rose was able to keep in time with the songs by counting beats as she moved across the dance floor. She and her dance partner, Giovanni Pernice, went on to be the overall winners and the live televised final drew an extraordinary 11 million viewers. This was an incredible moment for the Deaf community as Rose had become an idol for millions, both Deaf and hearing, throughout her journey on ‘Strictly’ (as we call it in the UK).

“Like any language, learning a few simple basics such as “please”, “thank you” and “good morning” can go a long way. Even the smallest steps at sign language are truly appreciated.”

In the days and weeks that followed, analysis of Google search data found that UK searches for ‘sign language’ increased by 488% during Rose’s time on the show. Searches for ‘learn sign language’ also rose by a staggering 1,011%, between 5pm and 8pm, while Strictly was on air. Meanwhile, ‘BSL’ also saw a 221% increase in searches. The interest in learning sign language appeared to have boomed and BSL teachers were reporting waiting lists for their courses. Rose has made a huge impact in raising awareness and breaking down the misconceptions around deafness and she did it in such a beautiful way, through music and dance.

Clear communication – for everyone

Like any language, learning a few simple basics such as “please”, “thank you” and “good morning” can go a long way. Even the smallest steps at sign language are truly appreciated. It’s also important to keep eye contact, speak clearly and don’t shy away or give up if you are asked to repeat yourself or if you need whoever you are signing with to repeat themselves. You can find some excellent resources to learn the basics on the Commanding Hands YouTube Channel. I particularly like these videos of basic conversational questions and answers and signing greetings and manners in BSL.

Fluency in sign language has been more of a benefit than you might ever imagine, and it’s truly influenced who I am today and my career journey. Bearing witness to the struggles that come with inaccessible communication has been central to my desire to work in comms. When you have a message to share, it’s more than just words – delivery is everything. It’s about the way you connect with another person or people through gestures, eye contact, even just the expression on your face. I am able to bring this understanding of what true communication clarity looks like to work with me because all of these things are natural in my world, and it’s so valuable when I am advising key stakeholders in bringing their words to life.

Learn more about British Sign Language at the National Deaf Children’s Society website and take a look at the British Deaf Association (BDA), a deaf-lead charity that campaigns and advocates for deaf people who use BSL.

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