Today is International Day of Sign Languages. There are an estimated 72 million deaf people around the world, using roughly 300 different sign languages. While accessibility is improving for those with hearing impairments, the issue remains badly underrepresented. Learning a sign language is a hugely rewarding string to add to your bow and allows you to make a connection with a group of people that are still marginalised in society.
But on top of that, learning British Sign Language (BSL) or one of the other hundreds of varieties can lead to all sorts of job opportunities that you may never have considered.
There are over 20,000 children in the UK using BSL, and many more who require some kind of special education. Knowing sign language is invaluable for anybody choosing to go into this difficult, but hugely rewarding field.
Nobody would claim that this is an easy job, and special education teaching can be among the most challenging roles in education. But whether you are working with very young children, university students, or even adults this is a role that can truly affect people’s lives. Those with disabilities often become marginalised through lack of opportunities later in life, but also because their education has traditionally been carried out in a ‘different’ way. The progress of special education teaching over the last few decades has been enormous, but there is still a long way to go. Using sign language to educate and provide further opportunities in somebody’s life is something that students are likely to remember well after your paths have diverged.
Today we have more people learning sign language than ever before. While we are certainly moving forwards, the percentage of family and friends around a deaf child who choose to learn sign language sadly remains low - thought to be around 10%. But that is a number slowly rising.
In the UK, the number of people using BSL as their preferred language is thought to be around 87,000, while the number of total users is roughly 151,000, not including BSL professionals, such as on this list, unless they use it at home. Sign language courses can now be found in universities, workplaces or even simply private of group classes, and are quickly gaining popularity.
Part of increasing accessibility for those who need sign language is to widen the number of those learning, whether they are deaf, have a hearing impairment or just want to learn BSL so they can communicate with others. This is one industry where the demand is currently outstripping the supply. Lots of people want to learn sign language, but the numbers of teachers remain low.
Have you noticed how often you use a sign language interpreter on television these days? Society is quite rightly moving in a direction where more and more everyday events, broadcast, speeches and much more are accessible to all.
But this job covers so much more than what you see on TV occasionally. From courtrooms to museums, from theatres to government agencies, the need for sign language interpreters has never been bigger. These positions are often on a freelance, or part-time basis, which means it’s possible to cast a wide net and include many different kinds of industries.
And what's more, this is a field that isn’t exactly crowded. According to National Registers of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People, in 2015, there were 908 registered sign language interpreters, 234 trainee sign language interpreters and just 11 registered sign language translators across the whole of the UK.
Health care is a field that has numerous individual positions where knowing sign languages is hugely beneficial, if not absolutely vital. Whether you are working in a busy casualty ward in a hospital, a private pathology clinic or social services, people with sign language abilities are in high demand.
Speech-language pathologists work specifically with communication problems surrounding swallowing. They work closely with those patients of all age ranges who cannot speak or who have speech or language impairments. Unsurprisingly this a position that takes some time to work up to and often requires a masters, and sometimes a doctoral degree.
An audiologist is another key profession that often uses sign language. They work to diagnose, prevent, and treat balance and hearing loss problems, often either through procedures or equipment such as hearing aids. With our ageing population, this is seen as a niche sector that is going to need a huge increase in trained audiologists in the coming future.
For far too long many aspects of our world were simply not open to those with disabilities. How can you have a tour around a beautiful city if you can’t hear the tour guide? How can you take part in a cooking class if you don’t understand the teacher?
Thankfully things are changing, albeit slowly. Today we have more tours, classes and opportunities for those with hearing impairments than we ever have. There are holidays and tours aimed specifically at those who need to use sign language, and there is a booming need for those who can use it and have a love of travel and tourism.
Whether you want to work on a cruise ship, as a tour guide around your local city or leading walking tours in the mountains, there are now possibilities to combine all of these with a knowledge of sign language.