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'Deaf by God' tried in Old Bailey records
Date:5/5/2008

Deaf people on trial were granted the right to an interpreter as early as 1725, according to Old Bailey records examined by UCL (University College London) scientists. The use of family and friends to interpret court proceedings later switched to deaf teachers and eventually written testimony, which may have disadvantaged the less educated deaf and dumb at the very time that British Sign Language was emerging.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Sign Language Studies, charts the history of signing and interpreting in court proceedings pulled from Old Bailey records online. UCL researchers examined 30 trials in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where the defendant or a key witness was deaf or dumb.

Although officially the term sign language interpreter was coined in the late twentieth century, from the 1700s family, friends, missionaries, teachers, and later social workers undertook this role in court. The first record of a court interpreter appears in 1771 in the case of James Saytuss, otherwise known as Dumb O Jemmy, who was tried and convicted of stealing, amongst other things, two silver candlesticks and a pair of womens shoes. A person whose name is not given, but with whom James had formerly lived as a servant, was sworn interpreter and used signs to explain the proceedings to James.

In the early nineteenth century a shift occurred from the use of people with personal knowledge of the deaf person, to the use of teachers in deaf schools. The first school for deaf children in Britain was established in Edinburgh in 1760. It later moved to Hackney in London, where it became the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in 1792.

The creation of such schools gave deaf children their first opportunity to come together, enabling them to fully develop a sign language and create their own community.

At the same time deaf people began to present their evidence in written form, presumably a reflection of
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Contact: Jenny Gimpel
44-077-475-65056
University College London
Source:Eurekalert

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