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Why it’s vital for Deaf children’s futures that British Sign Language becomes law

with Mike Hobday, Director of Policy & Campaigns, National Deaf Children’s Society

Title showing British Sign language spelled out in BSL
signing images: british-sign.co.uk

I learned the British Sign Language (BSL) alphabet as a child in the Brownies. Because of this, I was seated next to a Deaf girl in primary because no one else in the class knew anything about sign language, least of all the teacher. As far as I remember, she got no official support and, considering I couldn't do anything other than actually sign the alphabet, I wasn't much use to her either.

I'd like to think things have changed but, even though there is now statutory support in the form of Education, Health and Care Plans, having a hearing impairment is no guarantee you're going to get an EHCP and the right support without a fight, as our columnist Matt Keer, parent of two deaf young men, discovered:

And the most scandalous barrier of all, in my opinion, is the difficulty hearing parents of deaf children face in learning British Sign Language. There are very few free high-quality resources here. Most parents who take the BSL route have to fork out thousands of pounds of their own money for the privilege of learning how to communicate fluently and confidently with their own flesh and blood.

Matt Keer

But now, British Sign Language is (hopefully) on its way to having legal recognition as the BSL Bill last week passed its second reading in the House of Commons. Despite being formally recognised by the government in 2003, many deaf people are still unable to access essential information and services in BSL, which is their first language.

Mike Hobday, Executive Director of Policy and Campaigns at the National Deaf Children's Society has written more for us about why the BSL Bill is so important.

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A BSL law is badly needed to help Deaf children succeed by Mike Hobday, NDCS

British Sign Language (BSL) is the fourth most commonly used language in the UK today. As a hearing person starting to learn it to communicate better with colleagues and partners, I can attest to the richness of the language. Hand and finger position, movement and facial expressions all combine to create a vibrant language used by over 150,000 people across the UK.

DEspite this, it’s rarely taught in schools and we face a national shortage of interpreters. In addition, BSL is not always given the status, respect and recognition it needs, as shown by Boris Johnson’s ongoing failure to ensure an interpreter is present at Covid press conferences. On a more positive note, Rose Ayling-Ellis has been an incredible ambassador for sign language, proud of her deafness, celebrating her Deaf culture and promoting the language across the media. It really feels like positive change is coming.

Why it matters

I would argue that the failure to recognise, promote and facilitate British Sign Language is a major issue, long overdue to be remedied. It causes real problems for deaf children and young people and grave anxiety for their families. 

Just ask the many families who contact the National Deaf Children’s Society when they can’t find any options to learn sign language nearby. In extreme cases, we’ve heard from families discovering they will have to pay thousands of pounds to learn it as they try to support their child’s language and communication development. One mother of a four-year-old deaf child told us she couldn’t afford to pay to learn it, and yet she could see that not being able to communicate with her child was causing severe behavioural and mental health difficulties. This is clearly not acceptable.

Some deaf children are being supported in class by communication support workers with only very basic skills in sign language. Frustration often builds as they go home exhausted by another day struggling to communicate because the professional most closely supporting them only has access to a very limited vocabulary. It’s little wonder that the average deaf child falls behind at every stage of school and gains an entire grade less at GCSE.

And then there is the injustice faced by young people like Daniel Jillings who, despite years of campaigning, has been unable to get a GCSE in his first language, because no BSL GCSE yet exists. It’s on its way and his tireless campaigning will benefit future generations, but he’ll have missed out by then.

The BSL Bill campaign

After a long campaign led by the British Deaf Association, to which we and other charities gave our support, the House of Commons debated the British Sign Language Bill in its second reading on Friday the 28th of January. It was a big day for deaf people of all ages when it passed unopposed. 

If it becomes law, it will formally recognise British Sign Language in Great Britain and require the UK Government to issue guidance about its promotion and facilitation. But more broadly than that, it has set the language on its way to becoming recognised in law, meaning deaf people across the country could feel jubilant, valued and optimistic about the future.

A number of organisations representing D/deaf people have all worked together in a strong coalition to promote it and support Rosie Cooper MP, who introduced it. They too were delighted by this historic day and we’re grateful for their hard work and leadership.

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Rights for children and young people - more to be done

The British Sign Language Bill doesn’t create massive new rights. It doesn’t add to the Equality Act or the Children and Families Act, and it only applies to UK Government Departments - so it’s not the end of the fight. More work is needed to make sure that existing rights can be used to guarantee sign language users the support they need, when they need it. 

But the new law will be a deeply powerful symbol that D/deaf people and Deaf culture are recognised and valued. It will also follow similar legislation that has been passed in Scotland. Both provide important foundations to help promote and tackle real challenges that deaf children and young people face every day. It’s yet another step towards where we want to be.

Mike Hobday, Director of Policy & Campaigns, National Deaf Children’s Society

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