The BBC programme Question Time came to Belfast last week and, for the first in the history of the prestigious current affairs show, deaf people and their interpreters were invited to join the audience. We were made very welcome.
The initiative was organised by the local branch of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. By 6pm last Thursday (four and a half hours before the event was to be broadcast) five of us had joined the queue waiting to pass security at the door of the Blackstaff studio on Great Victoria Street.
Deaf awareness is very good in all BBC offices and we were quietly ushered to seats at the back for a cup of tea and to fill in the cards from which the final six to eight questions are put to the panel. The cards notified us that the panel that night would be Peter Hain MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; Lord Trimble, former First Minister for Northern Ireland; Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein; Mark Durkan, leader of the SDLP; and Jeffrey Donaldson, defence spokesman for the DUP.
David Dimbleby himself called in for a few minutes at 6.45 to welcome the guests and give us a brief outline of how the programme would unroll. Then all 125 guests, with our little group and interpreters at the front, were led along a passage to the banked seating and bright lights of the place of action.
Our seats were on the third row from the front and, as he waited for the rest of the audience to file in, the director David Coleman came over for a chat. "Do deaf people have accents?" he asked. We were surprised and intrigued that he asked such a question because only those with some knowledge of the deaf community would understand what it involves. "Yes, " was the laughing reply. "I'm SSE (sign supported English), he's ISL (Irish sign language) and she's BSL (British sign language)."
Many hearing folk mistakenly assume that sign language is the same the world over. It's not but, while the signs used in the British Isles follow much the same pattern, there are small variations between the signs we use here and those used in London or Scotland. It's about the same as saying the speech of a man from Yorkshire may not be understood by a man in London. " If we were caught on camera," David seemed to be implying, "would our signs be understood by the wider deaf community?"
None of our written questions came up for discussion so only glimpses of us with our interpreters could be seen in the final transmission but we all agreed it was wonderful to be there. We watched the panel discussing everything from water charges to a request for Great Britain to make a formal apology for the 100 years of involvement in the savagery of slavery.
As one of our party remarked, it would be wonderful if all these top people could co-operate like this in government.
After the filming, when most people had gone home and I was waiting at the front door for a lift, David Coleman came up to me and said he was sorry none of our deaf group had got the opportunity to ask a question. "We reach out to a national audience and so the questions have to be of national interest," he explained.
While concurring with this, I told the director that I was still convinced my question about integrated education was of paramount importance in Northern Ireland - and possibly in other trouble-torn countries too. Deaf children have always attended integrated schools and the resultant harmony is a wonderful model to the hearing world.
I asked the director if he could organise a special edition of Question Time with deaf people on the panel. He said I had given him food for thought.