Arthur Verney obituary

November 18, 2013   Obituary

Faces Archive | Source

The Guardian | Original Link

Deaf and disabled people's rights campaigner who promoted the cause of British Sign Language

by David Brien
Great Britian —In 1980, Arthur Verney, who has died aged 70 from complications after surgery, became general secretary of the British Deaf Association (BDA). At that time it was a predominantly social and welfare charity run mostly by hearing people. Arthur was in large part responsible for transforming it into a modern campaigning organisation led by deaf people, and went on to champion the rights of deaf and disabled people across Europe.

When Arthur arrived at the BDA, there was a feeling among members that it needed to change, and in 1983 John ("Jock") Young was elected its first deaf chairman. In the years that followed, deaf people only were elected to the executive council, and deaf people were appointed to senior positions.

Research in the 1970s had shown that sign languages were individual languages in their own right. British Sign Language (BSL), for example, differs from English in its grammatical structure. This recognition provided deaf people with the chance to redefine how they viewed themselves. It gave rise to the concept of a positive deaf identity: as members of a linguistic minority rather than a disabled group.

This perspective remains the premise on which the BDA's work is based. Arthur set about trying both to address the difficulties that deaf people experience and to raise their profile. The BDA had been at the forefront of the campaign to introduce disability anti-discrimination legislation and with the publication of its manifesto in 1983 drew attention to the similarities with the campaigns to promote Welsh and Scottish Gaelic.

Adept at articulating deaf people's aspirations, Arthur set about finding new sources of funding. Campaigns were launched to improve deaf children's education, to enable deaf people to adopt children and to improve access to television and telephones.

He also helped to establish a training course at Durham University to enable deaf people to train as BSL tutors. It was the first to be taught in BSL by deaf university staff and led to the establishment of many BSL courses for hearing people. Recognising the importance of publicity, in 1982 Arthur established a national annual event that later became known as British Sign Language Week.

Arthur was born in Birmingham to deaf parents, Gwen and Jack Verney. Although not deaf himself, his first language was BSL. This experience and his own disability through spina bifida were to define his career.

After leaving Moseley grammar school, Arthur trained as a welfare officer, obtaining the Deaf Welfare Examination Board qualification. He studied to become a social worker at Liverpool Polytechnic (1964-66), and then worked on Merseyside and in Nottinghamshire.

While in Liverpool he met Ann Hilder, and in 1968 they married. She shared his vision and commitment, and was later involved in the development of a training programme for deaf people to become youth workers and in the Deaf Women's Health Project.

In 1970, Arthur became the first director of the post-qualifying course in social work with deaf people at the North London Polytechnic (now part of London Metropolitan University). Social work with deaf people was, at that time, the only profession to require its members to know BSL. In 1975 he took up a position at the Welsh Office as a social work services officer.

While at the BDA, and together with Young, Arthur worked to establish a European union of deaf associations. It was launched in 1985, and is now known as the European Union of the Deaf (EUD). In 1988 the organisation won recognition for sign languages of the European Community's member states. After he left the BDA in 1989, Arthur became the EUD's executive officer, based in Brussels.

In 1992, he returned to the UK and became European regional officer of Disabled People's International, continuing his work to raise the profile of disabled people in Europe. He organised a one-off Disabled People's parliament in Brussels and ran workshops across Europe. He retired from the DPI in 2002 because of ill health, but continued to contribute to the Campaign for Independent Living, in London.

Those who worked with Arthur found him passionate and visionary. He could at sometimes be impatient and demanding, especially when frustrated by what he regarded as excessive bureaucracy. But he always avoided the limelight and declined to accept or be nominated for awards.

Arthur and Ann divorced in 1990. He is survived by his daughter, Jenny, his granddaughters, Isobel and Flora, and his sister, Ann.

• Arthur Verney, deaf and disabled people's rights campaigner, born 16 April 1943; died 24 September 2013.