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As a deaf child, if Alan Davison ever used sign language in the classroom, he could expect to be caned for it.

The school regime discouraged even profoundly deaf children from using their hands to speak and youngsters were not encouraged to have any real job aspirations, before British Sign Language (BSL) became more widely accepted from the 1970s.

LEARNING: Nicola Nunn (centre) is Uclan Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies, with students Bettina Sutton (left) and Muriel Atkinson

LEARNING: Nicola Nunn (centre) is Uclan Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies, with students Bettina Sutton (left) and Muriel Atkinson

It was only when Alan was in his 40s that he felt he could access the opportunities he had never had as a child, and he now runs his own business, Sign Right, providing BSL tuition. He says things have changed a great deal since he was a boy, with BSL now a flourishing language he teaches to students at all levels.

“My educational experience was difficult,” Alan recalls. “If we were caught signing in class, we would have our hands caned and tied behind our backs.

“Children were forced to vocalise and if they refused, teachers would put soap in their mouths to force them to open them as well as hit them on the head with a snooker ball.

“All the people who I attended school with left without any qualifications and therefore could only access low-paid, unskilled jobs.

“I returned to education when I was about 40, as I could finally access education and felt confident to do so through the interpreters and communication support workers provided by the university.

“People’s attitudes have changed towards BSL. However, we still need to promote the use of sign language and access to deaf awareness training and I believe that this should start in school from an early age.”

Figures from charity SignHealth show Preston is now one of the places you are most likely to see BSL in action. More than 140 people have listed BSL as their first language - the third highest proportion of signers anywhere in the country. It’s a complex and ever-evolving language, with regional variations on some signs much in the way English has regional dialects.

Philippa Merricks of charity Deafway, based at Brockholes Brow, believes general awareness of deaf and hearing-impaired people’s needs is improving, but there are still some barriers to be broken down.

She says: “People are more aware (of BSL) now but are still a bit naive.

“People still don’t know what deaf culture means or are maybe frightened to approach a deaf person when they are signing.

“A lot of deaf kids are now in mainstream schools and people are learning to sign for so many reasons. In Lancashire, there is a really good provision of interpreters.

“Our local pharmacy has one and BSL is part of the service. It makes a huge difference to people going there. It’s less stressful if they don’t have to write everything down when they are ill.

“However, if you want to go to the cinema, there are only subtitled films twice a week in the middle of the day - deaf people do work so you can’t always see a film you want to.”

Dr Martin Atherton is a course leader for BSL and deaf studies at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, one of only two universities to offer degree courses in the subject.

Most of their students are not deaf but want to be interpreters or work with deaf people in educational settings.

He describes the deaf community in Preston as “vibrant” and says younger people with hearing problems are keen to take part in the same activities as those who can hear. A weekly meet-up at the Guild pub on Fylde Road sees dozens of signers get together for drinks and signed chats.

Martin says: “They used to go into deaf clubs away from the hearing world.

“Now you will get younger deaf people in pubs, clubs and cinemas where they never used to go.

“There is a very vibrant deaf community. You will see people all over the place signing all the time.

“You don’t get people staring like they used to; they know what sign language is now. It’s been a positive consequence and helps to raise awareness.”

With Deafway drawing up plans to expand into a new £13m building, that awareness should continue to grow. The charity already promotes deaf heritage and culture through activities including signed theatre performances, social clubs and comedy nights, but the new centre would allow it to offer many more cultural opportunities.

Deafway has also organised an exhibition at the Museum of Lancashire in Preston from February 26 to May 12, celebrating the county’s deaf community.

Philippa says: “It is a good opportunity for deaf people to show how proud they are of Lancashire.”