The seed from which a mighty oak doth grow

[This was originally written for the Tribal Village website in 2007.]

History of a group for British Sign Language learners

The seed that gave me, Maureen Doyle (63), the inspiration to want to learn sign language was planted when I was a child.

The seed was planted in 1954 although I did not know it then. I was only 10 years old at school in Liverpool. The school headmaster told the inspirational story of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, (There is now a film about her called The Miracle Worker.). I was a weak child and suffered with lung infections, chest complaints and developed allergies and asthma so there were many, many times that I could not speak and it took all my time and effort just trying to breathe. The doctor did not give my mother much hope of me or my twin living past the age of 21 years (my twin sister is still alive too). However I did survive, married young, had 3 children and after the birth of my 3rd child in 1972 we all moved to Southport — that’s between Liverpool and Preston in the North West of England — and then on my 25th wedding anniversary… divorced.

The seed lay dormant for many years. I went to college and gained many courses: counselling, psychology, sociology. I also did voluntary work for the Sefton Women’s Advisory Network in Bootle for a number of years where I introduced the basics of therapies and remedies based on my own use of them. My daughters had developed the same yearning to learn sign language but we could never find a course.

The seed awakes one day
Eleven years ago my eldest daughter finally found a course for us in Hutton near Preston (my youngest daughter had found a course when she moved down south to take up her first teaching job — when she moved to a different area for her second teaching job she found and later passed Level 2).

The seed is fed and watered when we began level 1
We quickly realised that unless we got some help we would not pass our exam. We arranged an editorial in our local newspaper, the Southport Visiter, requesting help and that’s how we met our mentor Mr P.M.

We had practice sessions at home. Mr P.M. enabled us to become deaf aware, built up our confidence and invited us to Southport’s Centre for the Deaf. He encouraged our little group every week until the exams. We… PASSED.

Despite Mr P.M. being taken ill we progressed on to Level 2 in Ormskirk and started a new practice group at our local McDonalds. Every week we would practise for 4 hours assisted by Mr G. (deaf). We attended Southport and Liverpool’s Deaf Centres every week and it was 6 years ago that my eldest daughter started Deaf Studies degree at Preston University.

The seed is repotted
People started to ask me to show them the manual alphabet and a few signs. (nine years ago). At first I started with a few eager people at my home, then I was given the use of a meeting room at my church.

Five years ago: the seed received sunshine and a sapling began to GROW
I won a Millennium ‘Help the Aged’ CAMA award for a one year project which gave me the opportunity to show what a difference one person can make: name of the project – Practice Makes Perfect.

At the time I was 58 years old and living on incapacity benefit, so without being provided with a new laptop computer and the monetary award to fund the community project, I would not have been able to put my ideas into action.


  • Raise awareness to the need for all of us no matter what age or ability to learn and practice finger-spelling, British Sign Language and the deaf/blind alphabet. This has been extended to include awareness to lip reading, lip speaking, cued speech, Sutton sign writing, Braille & Makaton — in fact anything that helps communication.
  • Introduce and develop in a fun and informal way the basic skills of sign language, including finger spelling for deaf and deaf/blind people, signed supported English and British Sign Language.
  • Encourage and enable sign language practice between hearing, deaf, hard of hearing and deaf/blind people by providing safe venues for learning and practice.
  • Encourage enrolment on to CACDP courses for British Sign Language level 1. (We became accredited in September 2006 for CACDP levels 1 & 2).

Communication skills are needed by members of the emergency services, health services, all service providers and the general PUBLIC. Having communication skills would meet the criteria of ‘reasonable adjustments’ by the Disability Discrimination Act (at that time of my project the law had not been implemented).

The sapling gathers strength and keeps growing
The work began and I realised that I had found my niche, the purpose for which I was born.

As well as starting two classes a week, networking with community groups, learning to use the computer, learning and keeping the accounts, and coping with my long term health condition, I was also encouraged to start a course with the WEA for an accreditation certificate that was linked with the CAMA award. This too I accepted and although, starting the project and working for an accreditation at the same time. It was much harder than I thought — it felt like I was doing a degree at university. However I persevered and gained high credits.

Achievements: there were many; my input enabled Graydex to make their finger spelling CD in 2002. I was selected from thousands of award winners to have a FULL page photo in the ‘Help the Aged’ annual report. I presented two taster sessions at Millennium Award winners Events 2003 Nominated for a ‘Local Hero’ award. In May 2004 I was granted a lifetime membership (23788) of the Millennium Awards Fellowship and made a ‘Star Person’ on the Millennium Award website. I even started my own website with the help of Wanadoo club site. I am very proud of my WEA Accreditation Certificate (shown on our website).

The project year ended
Stress, ill health and my home being broken into whilst I was in bed gave me cause to consider giving up — but the sapling was too strong to deny and I was determined to continue forever.

The sapling 2002 to 2003 became a tree with firm roots.
Practice Makes Perfect – not for profit voluntary group – July 28th 2003.
With help and guidance from Sefton Community Voluntary Service we became a ‘not for profit’ group. A committee was elected, the constitution drawn up and we became affiliated to them. All our committee members and volunteers are UNPAID.

Constitution / The purposes of the Association are:

  • To introduce the concept of sign language and finger-spelling to all people irrespective of ethnological background.
  • To reduce frustration and isolation.
  • To improve general communication skills.
  • To raise awareness to D/deaf/hearing Awareness. Deaf/blind awareness.
  • Provide informal opportunities for the learning and practice of sign language and other communication skills.

Running costs are met with weekly donations from members and weekly raffles.

We received a Community Chest ‘fast track’ award of £500 during the first year 2003. The application was supported by the Millennium Awards Accounts.

Funding applications need authenticated accounts. Not having funds prevented us from getting our accounts authenticated. So we have learnt to be self sufficient. Every little helps.

On the Vista website I designed some fridge magnets, when they were FREE and we only paid for the slow delivery. We also have key rings and badges for sale now. Asda saved the day twice a year with awareness days and a bag filling day. Then I started presenting talks, training days, etc. All fees and donations received are used for the running costs of the group.

New website – April 2004 – webmaster/host: Tony Wright (deaf).
Tony also hosts the website for Birkdale School for the deaf (now closed).

Another interesting story: I received an Unltd Award to make a video. We made the video ourselves with plans to sell it to raise funds but we could not edit it. However, last year I met a professional in video/DVD recording. The result was we made our DVD, Live Workshop of Sign Language, which was launched this year.

Seeds have been scattered near and far and are growing into seedlings (many people helped).
I have many heart warming stories about individuals and families but it is not really possible to estimate the numbers that have become interested because of my work and our group.

Raised awareness: PROBABLY 15,000 or MORE at stores, Diversity Events, Networking events, whilst on courses, at ball room dancing, at church, at tai chi supporting and fund raising events for other groups and charities etc..

So the tree now has many branches which are spreading into many areas personally met at my talks, training days, workshops and schools taster sessions: probably well over 1,000.

Weekly practice sessions, members past and present, since I started: 300 regulars at the moment : average 15 to 25 per week.

Original Wanadoo website March 03: 5,000 (recently ceased)
New website: numbers from April 2004 over 6,500 hits

Over the past 5 years we have cultivated massive change in the community. Our latest achievement September 2006 we became an accredited centre for CACDP courses.

Competition locally for students is of our own making as we encouraged King George V to start BSL courses years ago and two years ago Southport College started level 1 for the first time; the tutor then was my eldest daughter.

Practice Makes Perfect now have BSL levels 1 & 2 running at present. Level 1 is a rolling programme.

This year we intend to campaign to raise awareness to the need for deaf/blind alphabet as well as the manual alphabet. There is a great need for communication skills within the emergency, nursing and caring services as well as in the business and voluntary sectors.

Our goals for the future
Our own centre with a library for training, learning, information and various communication skills.

My belief is that communication skills and sign language will become an integral part of children’s education and will eventually be included in the school curriculum.

Then we won’t be able to see the wood for the trees…

Maureen Doyle
February 2007