Each month we invite an inspirational or outstanding deaf role model to share their story. From what they’ve learnt, to what they wish they’d have known and their best deaf tips.
Our role model this month is Alan Murray MBE. A well-known face in the deaf community, Alan has dedicated himself to empowering deaf people, fighting for their rights and breaking down barriers through his teaching and advocacy work.
1. Please tell us a little about yourself?
I am Deaf, from a hearing family who did not, at the time, know anything about deafness. My mother was telling me that, when I was born, she looked at me and noticed something was different but thought nothing of it. When I was 18 months old I had my hearing test which confirmed I was Deaf with Deaf genes. My parents always said, looking back, they knew subconsciously that I was Deaf the whole time.
This made us realise that there might have been Deaf members of my family 10 or 20 generations ago! However, in the present day, there are no other Deaf members in my family, only me. But I am proud to be culturally Deaf.
2. What is your deaf story?
From a very early age, two and a half years old, I went to an oral deaf school. So, I mixed with the other deaf children but we were not allowed to sign. My parents thought it would be best for me to have experience from Deaf parents who signed so that I would have the best of both worlds so I frequently visited signing Deaf families at most weekends and in the holidays. My father, who had the car, would drop me off with the Deaf family at weekends to learn about their culture and language from Deaf parents, and to get more connected with the Deaf community. Being with the Deaf families, I took in so much information from them – a very inclusive Deaf environment in their family which greatly benefited me from that. So, really, I have been signing all my life.
3. What was your experience of education as a deaf person?
When I left school, I did not have any GCE ‘O’ levels, this was before the merger of GCEs and CSEs. On leaving age, I was advised by the school’s career officer to aim for a manual career, but I was adamant that I did not want that. I found a place in a further education college in Brixton to study for the GCE ‘O’ levels. I stayed there for two years, in what was then labelled as the Hearing Impaired Unit. There were no interpreters/CSWs at that time but did have a weekly speech therapy for an hour. In the mainstream classes, the lecturers and hearing students provided notes of the lectures, then I would study at home. We also had an hour session in the Hearing Impaired Unit every week where a group of deaf and hard of hearing students chatted in sign language about current affairs and topical discussions.
I started my career in a law office and aimed to train as a solicitor, then switched my career to become an accountant. Because of these careers, I went to study for professional qualifications and later, when I changed my career for the third time to work in a college, I completed a degree level qualification in education management and inclusive education. I had interpreter support and note takers for these professional qualifications. I really benefited from the notetakers, compared to the approach of switching notes with my peers earlier on in my education. Without interpreters and note takers, I definitely would not have got my higher education qualifications.
4. You have been involved in over 23 charities. How would you encourage more deaf people to sit on boards of charities?
Is it 23? I never thought about counting them! You have to remember I have lived a long life and have been involved with charity boards for a long period of time, in particular, British Deaf Association for over 20 years. I would often have two or three appointments at the same time. Before that I was involved with Deaf Clubs committee and lately Chairs. I was also on board of British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust, Inclusion London, and UK Council on Deafness amongst the others. Presently, I am on deafPlus’ Board, a governor of Frank Barnes School and a co-vice chair of Met Police Disability Independent Advisory Group. I think charity work is a very rewarding experience and it allows me to pass on the skills I have to other people so they can benefit from them – skills around governance, management, policy and procedures. Being involved in charity boards, I feel valued with my voluntary charity commitment. I would encourage Deaf people to be more proactive to get involved because it is a great way to give back and share with the community what you have learned.
5. You have over 35 years’ experience as a teacher, assessor and verifier of BSL courses, and now teach on the Deaf Interpreter Development Programme. Why is it important that deaf people teach BSL?
I started to teach BSL when I was working as an accountant, because I felt I was a strong, highly skilled BSL user since I was very involved in Deaf community and Deaf charities, I felt it would be great to develop skills in teaching BSL. I attended both the City Lit BSL Teacher course and University of Durham BSL Teacher Training Course then started to teach BSL in the evenings.
I think it is important that native Deaf BSL users teach BSL, as our BSL builds in our culture of using facial expressions and everything that is cultural embodied within us. It is beneficial for hearing students to learn from Deaf native BSL teachers to learn BSL in a more natural manner. I would encourage Deaf people to train as BSL teachers. We need to get more teacher training courses out there for Deaf people to learn teaching techniques. Here is a lot of hidden potential out there, maybe Deaf people do not even realise themselves they have the skills. But through the course, they can learn the skills and reflect on their own life experiences and how that can add to their skills as a good BSL teacher. We have the BSL Act now, so sign language is becoming more recognised. Now is a good opportunity for Deaf people to have a career in teaching and assessing British Sign Language by starting with BSL linguistics training. The best body to approach is the Association of British Sign Language and Assessors to signpost teacher training courses and support.
6. As well as teaching new deaf interpreters, you are also registered as an RSLI/RSLT with NRCPD. Would you encourage more deaf people to become interpreters? Is there a need for more deaf interpreters?
Deaf interpreter is a new registration category, launched in 2022 by Signature, the awarding organisation. There is a huge potential for Deaf people who have grown up signing, to communicate with other Deaf people who need access, hence the pressing need for more Relay/Intralingual Interpreters.
Since the implementation of the BSL Act, there is a growing number of public information that is required to be translated into BSL. There is an opportunity for Deaf people to be trained as BSL Translators since we have seen a growing number of employing Deaf translators for broadcasting as in-vision translators in the last five years, more public information and health information being translated into BSL by Deaf people. It is notable that the British Deaf Association used all Relay/Intralingual Interpreters and Translators on the platform at their conference in March and will continue for all their conferences. So, I would say, if you see any training courses available to train in these areas, grab the opportunity!
7. Do you think more training needs to be done on hearing and deaf interpreters working together?
Absolutely. Co-working with hearing interpreters is vital and it must work both ways. Relay/Intralingual Interpreters cannot work on their own, they have to work with the English/BSL Interpreter working from English into BSL, then the Relay/ Intralingual Interpreter working from standard BSL into modified BSL, and vice versa. It is important for all interpreters to have training in this area, you cannot do it without training, and that is an ongoing process really. You need strategies to work in this way and allow yourselves plenty of time to work as a team. Often this type of work will involve teams of two English/BSL Interpreters and two Relay/Intralingual Interpreters. Interpreting in this way is a heavy processing job, so it is vital that you work together. How you manage that coworking is crucial to making these roles work successfully.
8. You lead many BSL tours of museums and galleries. Have you always had an interest in arts, culture, history, heritage and science?
In my childhood I was always very interested in science. I had my own laboratory when I was younger in a small shed in the back garden of my parents’ home. I loved to experiment and challenge things at home. We had the River Lea near where we lived so I used to catch things from the river and look at them under the microscope: insects, microbes. I was fascinated by how the water moves. I felt alive in the river.
I always loved history at school as well. I am an avid reader and always have been. I have got a “mini-library” of both mainstream and Deaf history books on the shelves around me in my study right now and in my sitting room. With history, it is really about what you learn from history and how you adapt that to make a better life, based on history. That is the key. And it is linked to culture. All communities have their own cultures and heritage. We have Deaf culture and heritage, our family culture and heritage, there are cultures everywhere. The challenge is in how we bring them together. In my childhood, I would visit the museums, art galleries. I was always very drawn to them and interested in them.
When I became a BSL teacher, I was asked if I would like to lead a tour and at the time, I was not so sure as I had a full-time career as an accountant. Later I was the Head of Additional Learning Support provision at a college, then I went on to be a CEO of a local disability charity. So, I always felt too busy to do BSL tours. But now that I am retired, well, to be honest, the word ‘retirement’ is not in my dictionary! I will keep going, and doing things, that is why the BSL tours became an appealing new career to me. They suit me because they are ad hoc, rather than regular, and I tend to do tours on subjects I am drawn to or have previous knowledge about, so that I can draw on my own experience as part of my tours. I want to pass on additional content from my own knowledge and share my passion and interest with my audience.
9. You have been part of many campaigns to improve access for deaf people and are a strong believer in the social model of disability. What would you like to see improve in the next five years?
I campaigned a lot when I was a Board member of the British Deaf Association. We got involved in campaigns which led to the government accepting sign language back on the 18th of March 2003. Since then, I have tended to be less involved or involved on a more ad hoc basis as I wanted to pass on the opportunity to others. I am rarely involved in campaigning now and if I am, it is in the background. I think those days are behind me now but there are plenty of other people willing to take the opportunity.
Now we have the BSL Act, it is my dream to see Deaf BSL users in Parliament. I would love to see a wider exposure of BSL and Deaf culture in Parliament. We have a few local councillors who are Deaf themselves but I would like to see Deaf BSL users as MPs. We can achieve that, however how long it will take.
British Deaf Association has been campaigning for BSL for since its foundation in 1890 and I think now, we see people from the mainstream community are really drawn to BSL. It is now a real opportunity to get Deaf people involved in politics, and be involved in decision making, at the highest level. The opportunity has not been there before but I think the skies are unlimited now for what Deaf people can achieve.
I think the social model of disability is useful in regards to physical disability – how we remove the barriers in society to make it more accessible. For us, Deaf people, I would say it is more about the language and cultural model – removing the communication barriers – to enrich our language culture as a Deaf community. Again, for us, Deaf people, it is not about physical access, it is more about language and cultural access.
10.How did it feel to receive your MBE for services to deaf people in 2011?
Well when I received the letter I thought, ‘What? Why?!’ I had already been awarded the British Deaf Association Medal of Honour and that was more valuable as it was recognition of services to the Deaf community from the Deaf community. I was so proud of that. Then I received an MBE, and yes, was happy, but to me I valued the BDA Medal of Honour more. However, it is useful if I am involved in any campaigns to have that tool in my armour to show that I have got clout!
11. You have credited the internet, and sign language being able to be seen worldwide, with helping to overcome the dark age for sign language that came after the 1880 Milan Conference. Do you still believe that the internet is a valuable resource for learning and sharing BSL?
I do not recall ever using those words about the internet! I do not believe those are my words! But I do believe the Internet is a valuable resource housing vast resources on British Deaf History Society and British Deaf Association showing the presence of Deaf people and the use of sign languages back to centuries ago starting with language provision in church services. Real landmark finds detailing our history and culture. These resources are valuable in supporting people to learn sign language.
12. Who inspires you and why?
There is a number of people who inspire me, particularly in the political arena. I won’t name anyone in particular in case that is perceived with particular political allegiance. It does not imply political allegiance as I have a clear boundary line but there are some people I admire strongly who are examples of strength, achieving things, and never giving up!
One such person from history is Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. After losing the battle against the English, he observed a spider making a web and when the web was destroyed, he noticed that the spider just started again and made the web again, and again, and never gave up. This inspired Robert to remain determined and keep going. That impresses me – that aspect of never giving up; when you decide to make a go for it, go for it! You might come across obstacles but try and get through those and do the best you can to your own abilities in this world.
I met Dot Miles a while back, that was before I taught BSL. She was a friend of a friend in my neighbourhood. She said Deaf people can do anything and I thought about that and I thought that is a good motto. When I worked in accountancy, I realised I wanted to become a BSL teacher, I get more involved in the Deaf community, local deaf clubs and things like that. But since then, I became more involved in the bigger associations and charities in the Deaf community
13. What ways do you think hearing people can be allies to the deaf community? Any DOs and DON’Ts?
You know, the world is a hearing place, so if we do not allow them to be allies with us, we will never achieve anything. We need to bridge the communication gap with hearing people and help them to understand our language and culture, educate them about the richness of BSL – it is our method of communication sign language. At the same time, we need to learn their language and culture.
Importantly, we have to work together. Hearing people have wider knowledge and information about the world, we need to learn from that in the same way they need to learn from us. That said, I would not want hearing people to take over our language, they should not be allowed to take the power from us, we would not accept that. Deaf people should be enabled to take control of things for ourselves.
At the moment, a large number of hearing people teach BSL. I do not think that is healthy. It should be Deaf people teaching our language – that provides employment opportunities for native BSL users in BSL teaching. Hearing people have many other opportunities – they can go on to become interpreters and CSWs. They should leave it to Deaf people to become BSL teachers, so that Deaf people can make the most of those opportunities. We have talent out there in the Deaf community, we need to take advantage of the skills people have in these areas and we need others to see us as equals and work together with us.
14. 3 top tips for deaf people?
My three top tips are:
Firstly, live life to its fullest capacity. Don’t give up on anything, just keep going until you achieve and succeed.
Secondly, never feel lonely. There are a lot of us and there are lots of ways that you can explore to engage with others – go to Deaf pubs, Deaf events, meet new people, meet new friends. This is really important because if you only have a small cluster of friends, when you become older and start to lose people, you won’t have a strong friendship base around you. You need a wide friendship base from early on.
Finally, I would encourage you travel – anywhere and everywhere. Get involved in all the events life has to offer – it’s rewarding. Life is short after all.
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