Achievements Of Deaf Pupils In Scotland

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Selected Published Obituaries

Deaf Worlds 2005 vol.21:2

by Graham Turner, Chair of Interpreting & Translation Studies at Heriot Watt University and Editor of Deaf Worlds

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Dr. Mary Brennan: born 14th June 1944, died 23rd June 2005.

Dr. Mary Brennan, the internationally renowned sign linguist, has died from cancer after a long illness, aged 61. She was one of the linguists whose work, from the 1970s onwards, led to the definition of language being extended to incorporate the sign languages of deaf people. The linguistic recognition of sign languages enabled Deaf people to redefine how they view themselves, and how they wish to be viewed by members of the wider (hearing) society: not as "impaired" people but as members of a linguistic minority.

Mary Brennan trained in English, philosophy and linguistics. At Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh, Mary established the 'Edinburgh BSL Project' to carry out research into the grammar of British Sign Language. In a seminal paper published in 1975 entitled "Can Deaf Children Acquire Language", Mary challenged the assumptions that underpinned the exclusive use of spoken languages in deaf education. It was also in this paper that Mary proposed for the first time that the terms 'British Sign Language' and 'BSL' be used to describe British Deaf people's use of sign.

In 1987, she moved to Durham University and became Co-Director of the University's Deaf Studies Research Unit (DSRU). Working with Deaf and hearing colleagues, she established the first taught MA courses in Britain in the Teaching of Sign Languages, Sign Linguistics, BSL/English Interpreting and Deaf Studies. The courses were taught in English and BSL, and were open to Deaf and hearing students. During the 1980s and 1990s, Mary carried out both theoretical and applied research in the field of sign linguistics, making an important contribution to advancing our understanding in this area.

In 1998, Mary returned to Edinburgh to direct the University of Edinburgh's postgraduate training programme for teachers of deaf children and was appointed Reader in Deaf Studies in the Faculty of Education in 2002. At Edinburgh she established and contributed to a number of applied research projects in the fields of education and sign linguistics. The issue of access for deaf children and adults was a theme that ran through all of Mary's work. This concern was reflected in one of her last projects, a study of deaf students' access to higher education carried out for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

Mary Brennan's research and teaching were characterised by the pursuit of excellence. This was, in Mary's view, essential if the new subjects of Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies were to be accepted within academic institutions. All of Mary's research projects and teaching programmes involved Deaf people: it was inconceivable to her that such work could be undertaken without the direct participation and contribution of Deaf people. She believed Deaf people had contributions to make that only they could make, but she also believed that hearing people could contribute to advancing our knowledge of sign languages, and enabling Deaf children and adults to realise their potential in our society. Mary was the recipient of a number of awards during her career. The most recent was in 2004 when she was awarded the British Deaf Association's Medal of Honour in recognition of the importance of her work to the Deaf community.

Mary Brennan was a most unassuming person who never sought the limelight. The tributes paid to her since her death - from every corner of the globe, from Deaf and hearing people who knew her in many different guises, but always as an inspiration - made reference to her outstanding personal qualities: to her integrity, compassion, generosity, commitment to justice and gentle sense of humour. As a member of this journal's original Editorial Board, Mary Brennan continued to support colleagues throughout the field, both with her inimitable and spiritedly rigorous approach to academic critique and debate, and through her writing which remained consistently lucid, insightful and searching. Mary will be sadly missed around the world.

GHT (with thanks to David Brien).

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Talk Magazine no.206 - September/October 2005

by Frances Dolan of the West Scotland Deaf Children's Society and Marian Grimes of the Achievements of Deaf Pupils in Scotland Project

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It was with great sadness that the West Scotland Deaf Children’s Society learned of Mary’s death on 23 June. In her capacity as Reader in Deaf Studies at the Department of Education Studies, Edinburgh University, she had worked closely over the years with NDCS Scotland and Scottish deaf children’s societies (DCSs).

Mary was a highly respected academic – particularly in the fields of linguistics and education. She obtained a first class honours in English language and philosophy, an MA in English language and general linguistics, and a PhD in sign linguistics. She worked at the Universities of Cologne, Durham and Edinburgh, and Moray House College of Education.

Mary was known as “the mother of British Sign Language” (BSL); it was she who first proposed the term in 1975, and she who played such a key role in demonstrating that it is a full, independent language. It is thanks to Mary and others like her, that the UK government eventually formalised its status in 2003.

One of the effects was to open the way for a new, empowering mindset that saw BSL users regarding themselves as a minority linguistic group, rather than disabled people. In his eulogy at Mary’s funeral, former colleague David Brien said: “Her work made a major contribution to enabling deaf people to change how they define themselves and how they wish to be viewed by members of the wider society: not as ‘impaired’ people, but as members of a linguistic minority.”

Last year, Mary received the British Deaf Association’s Medal of Honour from politician Winnie Ewing, in recognition of the importance of her work nationally and internationally. At the ceremony, Rachel Bastiker said in her citation: “Without her work in linguistics, our language would not have been officially recognised by the UK government … we would not have gained full access to our language. Her innovative exploration of our language has enabled us to have tools to challenge and gain the rightful access to society that deaf people deserve.”

Mary was passionate about equality of educational provision for deaf children. She referred to all children as “little linguists”, and believed strongly that the main barrier to equality for deaf children was access to language. Writing in one journal1, she stated: “We know that deaf children have the same capacity of language as other children: hearing loss does not negate that capacity. Yet the typical experience of deaf children in this country is that their language will be delayed.”

In the same article, she expressed her frustration that the potential for a sign bilingual approach to maximise deaf children’s linguistic capacity is not fully tapped: “How often – be honest – have you heard – or even used – the expression, ‘This deaf child does not need BSL’; ‘This deaf child can manage without signing’; ‘Your child will be able to cope without signing’? Do we ever use these expressions about other languages? … Despite all we know about the richness and complexity of sign languages, BSL is frequently seen as a last resort.”

Father Peter McDonough, himself deaf, wrote a homily for Mary’s funeral. He captured well the way in which she respected other views in her pursuit of a more just and equitable world: “One of the images of Mary that I have in my mind is her calm and strong sense of justice. She calmly set out teaching and enabling us all to work together to break down the communication barrier. She gave us the tool of the power of knowledge. She listened to each and every one and instilled in each the belief that we all have the worthy vocation in making a fairer world.”

This was reflected in her teaching and research. She ensured that students attending the postgraduate courses for teachers of deaf children had access to practionners and advocates of exclusively oral approaches to the education of deaf education, as well as other approaches. In the Achievements of Deaf Pupils in Scotland (ADPS) project she worked tirelessly to ensure that the educational progress and achievements of deaf children were recorded accurately and in detail, and that everyone could share the data.

She always respected the views of parents; she listened to what they had to say and involved them in many areas of her work. She believed that the knowledge gained from projects such as ADPS should be made accessible and shared with parents and deaf people as well as with professionals and academics. She believed this to be essential for achieving real progress in the education of deaf children. She was anxious to include a quote on the project website from parent, Lorna Humphreys, that encapsulates this vision: “We need the knowledge gained from the information collated (by ADPS) to help both parents and professionals help our children towards having more control over their chosen destiny.”

Mary was a remarkable woman who touched the lives of many, sometimes without them even knowing it. She will be remembered for the academic excellence, integrity, honesty and sense of justice, which characterised her work. She will be greatly missed by those who knew her, who will also remember her compassion, her generosity and her sense of humour.

Dr Mary Brennan died from cancer on 23 June 2005, aged 61.

1. Brennan, M. (1999) Challenging Linguistic Exclusion in Deaf Education. Deaf Worlds, Deaf People, Community and Society, 15 (1) pp2-10

NDCS uses the term ‘deaf’ to refer to all types of hearing loss

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Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education
vol.11:1 Winter 2006

by David Brien, formerly Director of the
Deaf Studies Research Unit, University of Durham

pdf Obituary: Mary Brennan

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