Getting to know you: Mark McMillan, Scottish Parliament British Sign Language officer
Holyrood's BSL policy officer talks about how growing up profoundly deaf motivates him to make politics more deaf accessible
What is your earliest memory?
I think my earliest memory is possibly running around on my family’s farm. I have five sisters, so we’d all be running around. There were always plenty of people and animals to play with when I was wee.
What were you like at school?
It was a small mainstream school that I went to and there were maybe about 15 of us. There was me and another deaf girl in the class. Looking back, I was probably a bit shy. But my teacher of the deaf, she made sure that all my hearing peers learnt British Sign Language, so they could actually communicate with both of us in our first language, so that helped us tremendously.
What was it like communicating with BSL in class?
I grew up in a hearing family, but I was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf aged two. So, my family learned to sign at that point. So, at home I could communicate really well with the family. When I went to school, the school brought in a Teacher of the Deaf and she could sign well so it was essentially like us having a normal class. Me and my deaf peer were actually just included in the same way as everybody else, but we would just watch the Teacher of the Deaf, rather than the mainstream teacher. However, going to secondary school – that was a completely different story.
None of the new people in my class knew any sign language. It was a real shock to the system. I endured school for a couple of years, but I felt quite isolated because there weren’t enough opportunities to mix with peers due to those significant communication barriers, so at that point, I moved on to a deaf school.
That was great. I achieved so much better there both academically and socially because I felt fully included again and I was able to sign to peers in my first language of BSL.
When did you first realise you wanted to use BSL to help other people communicate, not just for yourself?
Probably when I went to university, because going to uni, again meant I was being included in a hearing world where very few people, if any, used sign language.
So, I decided, ‘ah right, I would like to try for a job where I can actually empower deaf people, give them a sense of accessibility, maybe I could present as a role model in that respect.’
I decided to go to a deaf school to work as a residential care worker there, supporting deaf children to help them develop their deaf identities and to develop their BSL skills.
If I looked at my job history, all of the roles I’ve held have been very much focused on promoting BSL.
Have you always had an interest in politics?
Yes, I would say that I am quite a politically enthusiastic person. And one area that has particularly struck me in this parliament is in relation to the BSL (Scotland) Act which received royal assent in October 2015. That’s when I first thought, ‘ah that’s right’, coming into parliament, seeing the bill going through its various stages and all the MSPs voting unanimously to pass the bill – I found that really inspiring.
At that point I thought, ‘gosh, I’d really like to work here in the future’.
Who would be your dream dinner guest?
Am I allowed two? The perfect dinner group, for me, would be Nyle DiMarco [pictured above] – he’s a deaf person, and is actually a famous model, but an activist as well. He does a lot of advocacy work for the deaf community in terms of deaf rights, use of sign language. And the other one would be Marlee Matlin. She’s a deaf actress, and she actually won an Oscar for the film Children of a Lesser God. She’s the only deaf actor to ever win an Academy Award. I feel the three of us would have a rare old time – plenty to talk about together.
What is your greatest fear?
Obviously, I’m all about advocating for BSL and promoting it and for deaf people like me to be able to achieve their goals. I suppose for people like me, in the general world, we’re still very far behind in terms of accessibility, even compared with other countries. I feel that sign language is quite far behind in a lot of countries and my concern would be that stays the status quo. That’s something I’m fearful of.
What’s something you wish people would understand about the experiences of deaf people?
A big thing for me would be to include BSL more in the school curriculum on a nationwide basis, so that the younger people would grow up with an awareness of deaf people using BSL and we’d all be more deaf aware.
A lot of hearing people, I think, can be quite scared when they meet a deaf person for the first time. They’re quite anxious, saying, ‘what do I say, can we even communicate?’ They tend to do a runner. For the next generation to have a sense of confidence, it would help them to know finger spelling and signs – that sort of thing can go a very long way.
If you could go back in time, when/where would you go?
I would like to go back to the Milan Conference, in 1880. That’s when a committee got together and made the decision that sign language had to be banned in all deaf schools. A lot of deaf people really suffered as a consequence of that congress. People were, as a result, educated by the oral approach. Children really struggled to communicate – they actually had to sit on their hands and learn via lip-reading. If I could go back in time, I’d like to go back and ensure that the Milan Conference didn’t happen.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve always believed: what you don’t ask, you don’t get. In life it’s important to be reasonably assertive.
As a journalist, I guess I agree with that mantra. What skill, beside BSL, do you think people should have?
What’s the last book you’ve read?
A cookbook, to be honest! I love cooking. The last book I was looking at was Veg by Jamie Oliver. I’m vegetarian, so I like to conjure up new ideas.
Salt and vinegar or salt and sauce
Salt and vinegar
Cats or dogs
Pub or wine bar
Early bird or night owl
Full English or continental
Doesn't matter - as long as it's vegetarian!
Coffee or tea
Fame or fortune
Book or film
Night in or night out
Couch or gym