I said it at the time, and I’m happy to repeat it decades on: I don’t think Margaret had a learning disability. But she came to the Day Centre, because she didn’t talk. She couldn’t read or write, although she could count by holding up fingers and making tally-marks. And she was totally deaf.
By then in her late forties or early fifties, she lived with her widowed mother in a ‘wee place west the country’, but took the public bus, on her own, every weekday morning from the family steading to the bus station in town, where she was met by a member of the Day Centre staff and escorted up the road. This was not because she was incapable of navigating (you couldn’t deviate one iota from the usual route without Margaret pulling you up), but because it was not thought safe to let her cross busy junctions alone, as she couldn’t hear traffic approaching from behind. Woe betide the designated staff member who was late of a morning to meet her. Margaret would greet them with much finger-wagging and pointing at her watch, and on arrival at the Centre would clype on them without compunction, repeating the scold-and-point routine before holding up a number of fingers to indicate how many minutes she had been kept waiting. She would not be satisfied until the miscreant’s tardiness had been noted.
At the Centre, everyone knew that Margaret was phenomenally observant, frequently drawing staff members’ attention to things she considered of importance by repeating precise, stylised hand-movements. She had a wicked sense of humour, and would quietly point out to everyone but the victim if someone had sat in something sticky or was heading for a pratfall. She was also very good at interpreting people’s moods from their body-language, pulling a face the minute they walked through the door to indicate that someone was out of sorts, or clapping when she perceived they were happy.
One morning when I was on escort duty, the bus was late. As Margaret descended the steps, I pretended to scold her, wagging my finger and pointing at my watch, holding up ten fingers. Margaret laughed and made a disclaiming gesture, then pointed at the bus, waving an admonitory finger at the driver. I pulled a pretend-sceptical face, and she hauled me over to the bus, still alternately pointing at the driver, and waving her hands about. The driver looked at us, one eyebrow raised.
“I was telling Margaret off for being late”, I said, feeling a little foolish, “but I think she’s saying it’s the bus’s fault”.
The driver looked at Margaret and shook his head. “Ma bus?”, he said pulling a mock-indignant face at her, shaking his head and indicating the vehicle.
Margaret’s hand-waving intensified.
“Aye, ye tell the lassie,” said the driver, imitating the hand-waving and nodding. “It was a’ they sheep in the road held us up. Yes.”
I gazed at him. “You understand what she means by those gestures.” I said.
“Oh aye,” said the driver. “Ah’ve kent Margaret fer years, an’ her an’ her mither hae their ain sign-language. Ah’ve picked up a bittie – no’ much, ken, just enough tae hae a wee chat aboot the weather or that. An’ ye like a joke, don’t ye, hen?” he added to Margaret, directing a different movement towards her. Margaret beamed at him and clapped her hands.
The walk up to the Centre that day was done at top speed, and not just because of the late bus. As soon as I could, I buttonholed the manageress. “Did you know Margaret and her mother have a private sign-language?” I said. “Do you think we could ask her mother to clue us in a bit? Quite apart from making it easier for us if we could explain things in advance to Margaret, I’m damn’ sure it would make life pleasanter for her – you know how anxious she gets when she doesn’t understand what’s going on.”
The manageress sat down at her desk and picked up the phone. After a fairly brief conversation, she replaced the receiver, and her face was grim. “It gets better,” she said, teeth gritted in a sarcastic rictus. “According to her mother, Margaret was also taught formal sign-language about ten years ago, but since nobody’s bothered to train any of the new staff in it these last seven years, she doesn’t use it any more. God, that poor woman. I’d lay you money she’s been trying to tell us all sorts, and we’ve not had a clue. She must think we’re a proper bunch of ninnies.” She paused, and then her eyes narrowed and her jaw set. “I’m going to talk to the supervisor.”
The story that came out at the next staff-meeting with the supervisor was not an uplifting one. Born into a hill-farming family during the Second World War, and profoundly deaf since birth or babyhood, Margaret’s failure to learn to speak had allegedly been viewed as a family shame. “Teuchters!” said the supervisor, with a sort of complacent contempt. “Didn’t want to be seen oot wi’ the dumbie – she was never let put her foot over the farm gate ’til she was past seven.”
“So she didn’t go to school? She didn’t learn BSL?”
“Och, no – her feyther kept her home on a Section 22.” (S.22 was the provision in the 1945 Education Act that allowed for education ‘by other means’ than at school). “Social services didn’t have much to do wi’ Margaret until he retired from farming.”
“So what about this sign language that her mother says she learned a few years back?”
The supervisor’s mouth settled into a disapproving, downturned line. “Aye, that was a notion from someone in the Speech Therapy department. It wasn’t proper sign language, though. Margaret’s never learned proper signing.”
The manageress, to her eternal credit, did not give up. The following day, she called Margaret’s named social worker, who came out to visit the Centre, carrying a bulging wallet file. We asked about the sign language. The social worker shuffled the papers. “Noo, she didn’t learn BSL… she would have had to go to a residential school and her family were against her being admitted to what they thought of as an asylum… er… felt strongly she would be safer and better cared for at home, rather than among strangers… Ah, speech therapy, let’s see… hmm, Makaton, it says.” She smiled brightly. “I’ll arrange for the Makaton specialist to contact you.”
The Makaton specialist was a woman in her thirties, who sat down facing Margaret and began talking to her, simultaneously making gestures similar to Margaret’s own. Margaret responded animatedly and emphatically. After ten minutes or so, the Makaton specialist said, “She’s very fluent. Nice flow, excellent consonance between her signing and her facial expressions. You say she hasn’t used this with staff for years? Wow. She has an a-ma-zingly good recall of sign vocabulary.” She sighed. “The thing is…. Makaton is a copyrighted sign-language. It’s a modified version of Signed English – simplified BSL signs in spoken-English word order, but you’re not supposed to use it unless you’ve been properly trained in it. And you’re not supposed to teach it to other people unless you’re an accredited Makaton trainer. I’ve done the user training, but I’d be infringing their copyright if I taught it to you. And the user-training courses are quite expensive.”
I looked at the manageress. We both knew fine well, as did the Makaton specialist, that there was no money for training apart from the already-allocated YT budget. I took a deep breath. “Look, I’m a linguist. That’s what I did my degree in. I understand about language structures. All I need is a cheat sheet for the signs, and I can teach myself. What on earth is the point of Margaret having been taught a language that nobody else here knows? She needs us to be able to understand her.”
The Makaton specialist looked doubtful, frowned, seemed to reach a decision. “I am not really supposed to pass these on to you,” she said. “But if they happened to fall out of my file…” – she pulled at a stapled sheaf of photocopied papers, which slithered on to the sofa – “I couldn’t be held responsible for what you might do with them. Just don’t let anybody from the Social see them. And if they do, you didn’t get them from me.” She closed her file, shook hands with Margaret, and left.
The sheets were covered with a series of simple line drawings, somewhat reminiscent of the illustrations in the Good News Bible: stylised figures – mostly torsos – with blank ovals for faces unless a particular feature was needed to illustrate the sign. In that case just the required feature – isolated eyes, or mouth, or nose – was shown on the drawing.
I began to flip through them, but Margaret took them from me, searching the pages. She pointed to a drawing, and began acting it out, moving her fists back and forth alternately at waist level. I looked at the sheet. Under the drawing, it said, Bus. I nodded, repeating the sign. Bus. Margaret riffled through the papers, then began making the fluttery waves near her head that I had seen the bus driver copying. Ah, I thought. I bet I know… and yes, there was the blank-faced figure depicting the gesture, labelled Sheep. I began to giggle, wagging my finger and pointing at my watch. Margaret’s face cracked into a huge grin. With a flourish, and perfect punchline timing, she stuck up both hands, palms inward, fingers stiff. Ten.
Oh yes, I thought, mentally doffing an imaginary cap to the bus driver. Margaret likes a joke.