Sign of success

Terry Riley was the first Deaf Editor of the BBC’s flagship See Hear programme. In September, the University recognised his outstanding contribution to broadcasting for Deaf and hard of hearing viewers and for promoting British Sign Language (BSL) to a wider audience by awarding him an honorary degree.

Terry has been an advocate for British Sign Language for over 40 years.

Born into a Deaf family, both his parents were Deaf and sign language users. He has a wealth of experience in Deaf Television, having started in 1987 as a researcher on See Hear, a community programme for Deaf and hard of hearing viewers, and working his way up to become Editor in 2002.

He was instrumental in setting up the European Deaf TV and Video network, which now encompasses over 20 countries including the USA, Japan, Greece and Australia.

Terry is now the Chief Executive of the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust. He has been associated with the British Deaf Association (BDA) for many years and received its highest honour, the BDA Medal of Honour, for his work in promoting and empowering Deaf people.

How did you feel about receiving the honorary award?

To be honest I didn’t actually believe it when I first got the letter, then once it sank in I realised what a great honour it was to be recognised in such a way.

It was unbelievable, very few Deaf people are given such a rare and distinguished award.

In your acceptance speech, you spoke about language and BSL in particular. Why is language so important to you?

Language defines who we are.

Language and culture are the key to one’s identity.

Without language we cannot be equal. Without language we cannot be involved in society as equals. Without language we cannot participate in democracy and without knowledge we cannot be considered equals.

How do you think education for Deaf people has changed since you were at school?

When I was at school, further education and University was Utopia, it was there but not for Deaf people.

Now we are seeing Deaf students in all levels of Deaf education from FE to university degrees, becoming not only BAs and MAs but PhDs too.

This is why universities have a greater role to play in enabling Deaf students to take their rightful place in university education.

Why did you choose a career in the media?

This was a natural progression from my small political campaigning, at local regional and national levels, and I was aware that to get noticed the best way was the media.It is so powerful and has a very subtle way of influencing the viewer without the hard pitch.

Also the media is a fantastic communication medium for deaf people.

What do you enjoy about your current role or find most rewarding?

I am now seeing the fruits of over 23 years being nurtured with the new ethos of the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust.

In ensuring that Deaf people take their rightful place in not only being seen on screen but behind the camera.

The new Zoom project is giving Deaf talent the opportunity they thought they would never have had.

And they are winning awards. I am now leaving a legacy.

What is your greatest professional achievement?

I think it has to be the honorary degree from the University of Wolverhampton, as this was the culmination of my career at the BBC, and it’s a very rare and humbling award.

The University of Wolverhampton offers a range of Deaf Studies and Interpreting courses.

Why do you think it is important for both Deaf and hearing people to study these subjects?

For many Deaf people who are born into a hearing family their Deaf heritage is almost unknown, to learn about one’s history, culture and languages gives us a unique identity.

And for many this is the first time they really know who and what they are.

As I said before, language and education are so important and it’s only by having good qualified interpreters that we can participate in all levels of society.

 For interpreters it is such a challenging job and the language is developing every day – it’s a living language. I strongly believe no other language can compare with the visual nature and complexity of British Sign Language.

If you were to go to university now, what subject would you like to study?

Deaf history as I feel this is so important to our heritage; it’s so unknown and the books and films are being lost forever.

What advice would you offer to students and graduates following in your footsteps?

Knuckle down, be dedicated, and have fun.

You will get knockbacks but keep getting up with a smile.

Who do you admire?

Nelson Mandela, who for so many years was incarcerated in prison yet when released did not seek vengeance or revenge but spoke of all as one nation, all as equal.

I often use his quote: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language that goes to his heart.”

This is why I work in television. There is no greater medium to show the beauty of sign language than television.